Saturday, February 05, 2005
Unlikely Artists-Gee's Bend Quiltmakers
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.