Saturday, February 05, 2005

Unlikely Artists-Gee's Bend Quiltmakers


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They sang it often : "Look Where He's Brought Me From!". Highly religious people, older black women 70+ years of age, 70 odd of them in all. They are the artists, unlikely as it sounds, they are! They have other things in common too. All descendants of slaves from mainly Pettway Plantation, they lived a thirdworld existence of adject poverty from generation to generation in the poorest county in the USA, in the state of Alabama.

But about ten years ago things changed for the women and the community of Gee's Bend in a very unexpected way. The skill of quiltmaking handed down from generation to generation, mother to daughter is now the source of remarkedly improved standard of living. An art historian, "discovered" the discarded and undervalued art form among the women. The quilts had been made to keep desparately poor families warm. They were made from old scraps of cloth, from strips of discared clotes, old bags etc. One of the women for example made an entire quilt of all her deceased husband's clothes. She made it solely to comfort herself at the times she missed him most.

Through the art historian, the women of Gee's Bend discovered that their quilts were works of modern art, historical peices and that they could fetch up to US$2000 for one quilt. No wonder they sing as often as they can: Look Where He's Brought Me From". The quilts have been sold to art museums, books have been written about them and the women are an integral part of the gallerry shows presenting their works.

Unfortunately however very few of the younger women of Gee's Bend have the slightest interest in quiltmaking. Of 70+ quiltmakers in Gee's Beend only one or two grandchildren appear interested in carrying on the tradition and skill. It is sad to realise that this generation of quiltmakers may very well be the last. The irony is that the skill and art form may die soon beacuse now these women can afford to keep themselves and their families warm by other means thus reducing the need for homemade quilts.

3 comments:

Jdid said...

I think this sort of thing happens the world over. The younger generation isnt interested in carrying on the traditions or more opportunities arise from them and they move on. Can they really be blamed for not carrying on if they found something better though?

ThandieLand said...

yah one the gee's bend quilters said it is a time consuming ativity and so she understands why the young ppl don't bother.

But of the few who take the time off to learn....they may be setting themsevles really well for the future...supply and demand really. I do hope that this art and skill survives for a long long time...to many of our ppl's traditions are disappearing...they hardly ever survive except others from outside pick up the ball.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4184856

their stories are now being played on pbs...check it out if u can.

cahapa said...

Well my feeling on this is mixed. I hate to see stuff "die" but that is the way of the world. And culture ain't no different. It can't be - cos we make it. We die. Therefore, the products of culture (language, art, quilts, whatever) die.

I often wonder how we (people generally) have come to the fetishizing of things "past" beyond their present usefulness? It seems to go against the grain of the "natural" which is to live and then to "die".

I always wonder why I feel such a sense of sadness when things change. Because there's no loss - just change. The laws of physics apply here too - energy is never lost - just changes form.

I wonder why as people we can't live in uncertainty? We are fearful about the unknown. We create heaven and hell to be sure of what we do not know and have never experienced. Quilts look like they are losing their appeal and we start to worry about cultural armageddon.

Well I have no answers. Only more questions.