Thursday, November 1, 2007

Something to think about....

Today, on Deb Richardson's blog ~ Red Shoe Ramblings ~ she posted a link to the International Quilter's Association winners page for the 2007 competition. I'm also posting it because it is worth looking at. Some wonderful work there, and some nice prize money too...LOL. The theme of the competition was "A World of Beauty" and the quilts I saw were faithful to the theme. As I scrolled down I saw that some artists had taken a technique to the next level, some paper-piecers have been busy, someone took the next step in developing a convergence style quilt, and since I have recently come to appreciate applique, there was plenty of eye candy for me to ooh and aaah over.

About halfway through the exhibit, I saw a quilt that has had me thinking off and on throughout the day today. Initially, the images were so graphic and brought up a lot of emotion and I thought, "this is a show about beauty" and I'm not seeing that....". Then I looked at the artist's name to see if I recognized it.

I am familiar with the work of some African-American quilters, and wondered if it was someone I knew, but the name was unfamiliar to me.

That brought up some questions in my mind. I have no idea who the quilt artist is, or what her ethnicity is, and further, even questioning that makes me uncomfortable. But, I will go on. The images in this piece bring up a flood of emotions, and the subject matter is one that many would avoid discussing at any cost. The fact that it is precisely a subject that should be brought out into the light and talked about until such time as healing has been achieved, tells me that it is good that these images were used. But, on the other hand, who has a right to use the images portraying the experience of African-Americans? Aren't these images and this history the property of African-American people, and shouldn't it belong entirely to them?

My experience is that of a Caucasian woman raised in a country that has a history of violence against people of color and a tradition of institutionalized racism....I'm not speaking from pride but am acknowledging the reality of where I came from. I would not use images of lynching, the Klan, or any of the other horrors of slavery, racism, or violence against African-Americans in any quilt I make mostly because I would not wish to offend, but also because I feel that they are not mine to use.

I long have used African fabrics in quilts I make, not because they are African, but because the colors and patterns appealed to me and were right for the piece. I’m also drawn to them ~ search them out in any fabric store I visit. I made a traditional bowties quilt in African fabrics and called it "Nelson Mandela's Bow Ties". That is as close as it gets for me to using a theme or image that originates in African culture.

I've admired the quilts of Gwen Magee, and feel that as an African-American artist she has every right to "mine" African-American history for images and experiences that translate into works of art. It is her history and her culture. And who better to ensure that those images and that experience are treated with reverence and dignity. And who should profit, if there is profit, from the sale of any art that originates from the African-American experience? My thinking is that if the artist were white and created something entirely from the African-American experience, then profited from it, that would be obscene. That's just my opinion.

Kyra Hicks wrote on her blog that there are an estimated 1.9 million African-American quilters in the US today. Among them are some amazing women who have contributed to, expanded upon, and even changed the direction of quilting today. Manufacturers of designer linens and some fabric and quilt "designers" have built their careers on the contribution of these women. Look at the some of the quilts of Denyse Schmidt and those of the Gees Bend Quilters to see what I'm talking about. I'm not denigrating anyone, just making an observation.

Off and on at other times I've thought some about all of that that I wrote above, but it all came together for me when I saw the quilt today. I assumed that the quilter was white, but I could be very wrong. But no matter, the questions for me remain. I think a dialogue would be good but don't know where to start ~ but, I will start. On my blog, I'm posting this today and hope that someone will read it and start to think about it too.


Raquel said...

This is a toughy... hmmm...

I, personally, think that it's all of our history. And while some groups can most certainly relate in a more personal way to the subject matter, it doesn't negate the reality that it happened nor that we all deal with emotions differently.

I don't struggle with a color issue, but rather a person to person issue. Had my grandmother experienced something terrible in her own life, I would PERSONALLY have a hard time creating art that reflected it.

Because, for me, art is an expression of emotions that I either am feeling or have felt. It's difficult for me to have confidence in understanding anyone else's experiences.

Does that make sense?

I guess my overall opinion is that art for me is healing. Maybe the artist is grappling with guilt or learning about what really went on within her own culture and is expressing that? I dunno. I can only guess.

But interesting topic... I'm sure that I'll be considering this today as I go about my day ;)

lindaharre said...

First of all Susan......did you post a pic of the quilt? I am not getting some of the photos on others' I am not sure if I should be seeing it or not:D From what I can gather....the person that made this quilt had a lapse in judgement! A BIG LAPSE IN JUDGEMENT!!!!! Really, I feel that the person that submitted the quilt must have made a mistake..... so insensitive!!!! It is hard to believe today that someone wouldn't know how offensive those type of images are! Bad judgement call! I would chalk it off to ignorance and go about your way:D Thanks for asking.....Linda

Sharon said...

Good food for thought.

First, I think that ALL our history belongs to ALL of us. Just as any story is told from different perspectives, the stories we tell about race/racism are from different perspectives, too. Hollis Chatelaine portrays a different ethnic form than her own as she is caucasian, but she has a perspective of her people from having lived with them in their country. I might have a perspective of a different race from having spent time with them as well, or by having a close bond with them. For example, I have a piece that I created that is of a dancing woman. Most associate her with a black female. The fabric for the figure was a black background with multi-colors on it to signify it was "any" woman. But still, people think she is black. Maybe when I was creating the form, I was subconsciously remembering the black women dancing so joyously at Carnival in South America.

Nevertheless, while we don't know what the artist was thinking when she created Underground Railroad, I think the piece does exactly what she wanted it to do. Made us think. Made us talk. Made us remember...

These kinds of things aren't always easy to think about - or talk about. It's not always easy to admit that we as a nation of Americans could have thought such hateful things and to have treated other human beings so horribly. But to NOT talk about them, or show them is to hide them away and not admit that they happened - no matter how shameful.

As to who "owns" these images? I would agree that perhaps they were not tasteful, but they are indeed owned by us as part of our history - never to be repeated again! If I felt the need to make art such as this, I probably would not use it in a national quilt/art show, unless it was part of a narrative of historical art.

Good discussion!

mountain-quiltist said...

Raquel, I too think that it is all of our history, but I think that images of slavery are so loaded as to evoke a visceral response, that they would be handled *perhaps* with more sensitivity by someone whose ancestors came out of slavery than from someone whose ancestors might have been slaveowners. Just from a point of being considerate of those African-Americans who might view the piece.
I'm glad that this piece opened up a dialogue, and got me, and others to thinking.
As my mind was wrapping itself around all that I was thinking about, I might also have been trying to understand what the artist was hoping to do by including this piece in this particular show.
Could it be that she had no other forum for displaying this quilt? Or that she trusted that including it would spark some of what we have talked about today?
I don't know either. Just more to think on.
Thanks for responding.

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn) said...

Hi Susan,

Cultural appropriation is what you’re concerned about. It’s a sensitive issue that has been discussed and fought about (very passionately from both sides) for a very long time. It’s an issue that comes up in every art form and in every culture. It’s an issue that will never be resolved.

The art of Native Americans (in the U.S., South America and Canada), the art of aboriginals in Australia and New Zealand, the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism and other religions are among those that have long been viewed as being “open season” and “up for grabs”. Often, those who have done so are viewed as having an inappropriate sense of entitlement.

The other side of the coin is the question of artistic freedom and of whether anyone (or any group) has the “right” to limit or to put restrictions on the expression of another person’s art.

Basically, it’s an ethical issue that each person has to decide for him/herself. As with so many other things, there just isn’t any one “right” answer that will cover every situation. I think the following article presents a good perspective on the subject.

Where Does Artistic Freedom End and Cultural Appropriation Begin? – Agnieszka Matejko

Deb R said...

Hi Susan. Thanks for your note letting me know about your post.

I think you've raised some interesting and valid issues, but I don't feel like I have enough information to have an informed opinion on the intent of the artist who made that particular quilt, since there was no artist statement posted. (I wish there had been!) It could be she had ancestors who were slaves, or maybe she lives in a house that was a stop on the underground railroad. Or, of course, none of those things could be true.

I *do* think it's good that both the quilt itself and your post cause people to think about these issues. Very interesting post!

mountain-quiltist said...

Linda, thanks for taking the time to read my windy entry for today. I can see why someone might see those images as insensitive, but I'm glad that they have us talking and thinking. History is not always pretty...I'd be curious to know how the decisions of our leaders today will play out in the history books...but I think it is important not to sweep it under the rug and wish it would go away...I'd rather talk it out and see if we can bring something positive out of it.

mountain-quiltist said...

Sharon, thanks for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your design process on one of your own quilts. I'm always curious about how artists go about making their design choices and the thought process that goes into that.
That quilt does have us talking, and that's what I had hoped. I was mowing the lawn today and thinking all the while as I pushed that mower back and forth. I live in the country, am new to this part of the US, and feel isolated at time and yet, I wanted someone to talk with. Thanks for joining in.

mountain-quiltist said...

Deb, thanks for stopping by and letting me know you did.

mountain-quiltist said...

Gwen, thanks so much for the perfect article. Yes, this is exactly what I was trying to convey. This article says it ever so much more eloquently. Thanks for your contribution and for helping me to sort it out for myself a little more.

Montessori By Hand said...

Dear Susan,

Violence is hard to see. But as I have so recently witnessed, it is not exclusive to a certain time in history or a certain race. It continues to happen all the time. We often say "never again" when it comes to slavery in the US, but those who live in the US might not realize that the US has simply broadened an extended their slave-holder's reach. Living in Mexico for the past two years has made it clear that slavery continues to thrive, on a sickeningly global scale.

Right now, I have no particular opinion about the quilt, just that raw realization that SOMETHING must be done about the violence that did not disappear with the end of slavery and the civil rights movement. Individual violence as well as institutional violence must be stamped out. The first step in this process is to realize the horror of its continued existence, then move on from there. Unfortunately, it seems that we humans must be thoroughly disgusted by something in order to work passionately to eliminate it.

Hope this makes sense - thank you for your thoughtful post (and your very kind comment the other day on my blog!)

cher said...

thanks for including me in this conversation Susan-having the opportunity of reading the many thoughtful comments left-I have to agree with Sharon and a few others-it is OUR history if you are an American and that covers a lot of subjects. I never miss a chance to point out to folks around me, that racism continues in our current time and is often done in a more subtle manner-but certainly violence continues in our country against many people based on their hatred of that "group". What I consider art is what brings an emotional response from me-and all subjects are fodder for art -I accept the artist made this quilt because it was important to her- for whatever reason-I do not assume her race, only her gender by reading her name. I have gone to art shows that included quilts made by abused women and found it very powerful and moving to see their statements translated into art on fabric. I think it is a great topic to bring up for a conversation and I applaud the quilt show for being open to all quilts submitted-no matter what "subject" matter they portray.

Su Bee said...

What a brave bunch - the quilter, the jury comittee, judges and right down to you for putting it forward. Cudos to all. This ugliness is not just the past history of all of us, it is current events for many, in varying degrees. The recoil we feel is very visceral, almost genetic now. Although we are nearly 200 years removed from the abusers and victims of slavery, we all seem to feel personally guilty or personally victimized. How many generations will it take before we can all be healed and truly free from this tremendous hurt? Who knows, but I believe that we need to keep images like this, however horrible, in view to remind us that forgetting is not the same as healing.

Feather on a Wire said...

It's a tough question.
I am neither Jewish nor German but feel I can comment on the atrocities of WW2. I am not an American of any colour and feel I can comment on that as well.
Perhaps it's because the story of equality is not yet over in the US that these sensitivities exist? As an American of any colour whilst inequalities exist, you are still part of it?
I would feel uncomfortable using images from the Troubles in Northern Ireland and that probably is because the Peace is still somewhat fragile.
And having said all of that, each time a political thought which could be made into a quilt comes into my head, I don't make it because I'm hooked on pattern and want to create beauty.

mountain-quiltist said...

Meg, you're so right about violence not being part of any one culture or country...I've lived in Jamaica, Mexico, and the US and have found it everywhere in varying degrees.
Thanks for your comments.

mountain-quiltist said...

Cher thanks for joining our discussion and adding your thoughts to the mix. Hope you aren't too wiped out from your move.

Sew Create It - Jane said...

Just wanted to thank you for the lovely comment on my blog. I've been reading yours and I really liked your post about 1945. I tried searching my year of birth in google images and found it really interesting! More blogging fodder if I'm having a slow sewing week ;o)