Book Review: A Different View of African-American Quilters
As a folklorist, one involved in documentation, and a collector of African-American quilts, Roland Freeman gains credibility for his authority to carry out his near-national survey (38 states and Washington, DC) in Part One, and for his own personal story from the age of three in 1940 with his first vivid childhood memory of quilts and their central place in his life to 1992, when he made the decision "to transform [his] work into a national study."
The focus and approach to the "work" through valuing and reporting the words of the quilters speaking about their connections to quilting, their personal family histories and African-American heritage, and their beliefs had already been established and well begun in the 1970s when he was a field research photographer in folklore for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies working in Mississippi. Part One ends with "A Summary of Fifty Years of Study of Quilting By African Americans."
Perhaps some will find it inappropriate for me to find fault
with Freeman, but I do wish that he had come forward in 1981 with
his first catalogue for his exhibition Something to
Keep You Warm to add his considerable voice to
those who have objected to the stereotypical view of African-
American quilting as promulgated by the Thompson, Leon, Vlach,
and Wahlman camp. Even his text for the catalogues for his second
exhibition More Than Just Something to Keep You Warm
[1989-1992] focuses on the "strip" quilt, "the
specialness of African-American quilters and their
improvisational and applique quilts" and "the
continuities between African-American quilts and West African
textiles." Freeman states in The Summary of this volume that
by that time [the 1980s] it was clear to him that "the
African-American community is a host of many varied traditions,
and within it there are different tastes and a remarkable variety
in how these tastes are expressed." He gives credit to
Cuesta Benberry as one of the few who understood "the
dangers of oversimplifying the study of quilts made by African
Americans." Well I remember her quiet and dignified
presentation that looked broadly at A-A quiltmaking and its
relationship to the totality in February 1992 at Louisville
Celebrates the American Quilt. Perhaps if we had
heard from Freeman sooner about his own recognition of
stereotypes, they might not have become so entrenched.
Some might prefer a more statistically analytical approach to
the Conclusion. (Mazloomi, when interviewed by Freeman, estimated
that the improvisational strip quilt represents only two to three
per cent of the work being done by WCQN quilters. She also
pointed out that some of the contemporary random patterning work
is from "a conscientious study of West African woven fabrics
. . . not something inherent.") However, even from survey
results published here more or less as raw data, surely even the
least discriminating of reader must see that the stereotypes are
totally invalid. (The project results will also by made available
through an exhibition produced by The Group for Cultural
Documentation. A selection of the photographs and surveyed
quilts, interpretive panels, and other artwork related to the
quilters opened in January 1997 at the Mississippi Museum of Art
in Jackson and will tour for three of more years.) Highly
Nancy Cameron Armstrong, one of only
three named from Canada for inclusion in 88
Leaders of Today's Quilt World (Nihon Vogue, 1995), is
Chairperson for the Canadian Quilt Study Group. She dedicates
considerable time and effort to this locally-based organization
with members in 11 countries. A quilt researcher and retired
library science professor, she curated the respected exhibit of
Gulf War quilts, "Women in the Eye of the Storm," which
appeared at 1992 IQF (Houston) and 1995 MAQF (Williamsburg). She
lives two miles from the US/Canada border, and can be reached at email@example.com.
(c)Copyright 1997 by Nancy Cameron Armstrong. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.
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