For Generations, African American Women Have Used Quilting as a Powerful Tool of Survival, Resistance, and Artistic Expression
The art of quilting, the painstaking process of collaging and stitching layers of fabric together, has long been associated with so-called women’s work. Though originally born out of necessity, the craft has now built a vast archival history that supersedes its relationship with objects of utility, comfort, and warmth.
For African Americans, the practice of quilting not only preserves memory through the use of repurposed fabrics, but also plays a vital role in protest, as artists have used—and continue to use—the medium to assert their voice to claim identity, tackle racism, and confront sexism. Practitioners of textile arts fuse material and message in expressions of freedom and liberation. This contemporary application of the craft has its historical antecedents in the American South. As a tool used for clandestine communication, quilts contained secret symbols that guided the enslaved to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The symbology contained in these quilts also harks back to African imagery, including the Kongolese cosmogram, a symbol that represents birth, life, death, and rebirth. For many enslaved people, these linkages to African roots became essential ties to home and identity that resisted erasure during slavery.
As articles of ancestry, quilts were passed down through generations as family heirlooms. But quilts are also important artifacts of a Black artistic legacy that is often overlooked. “We are all artists. Piecing is our work,” artist Faith Ringgold once said. “We brought it straight from Africa. … That was what we did after a hard day’s work in the field to keep our sanity and bring beauty into our lives.”
The communal process of creating quilts—the quilting bee—is a gathering of women who work collaboratively, sharing skills, valuable information, and history with one another. With that in mind, below is a contemporary quilting bee, highlighting six Black women artists who have used the métier of cloth to share their stories and bear witness to world-shaping events. With every stitch, appliqué, and brushstroke they weave tales and references from the past with modern themes. Using traditions rooted in Southern vernacular craft traditions, these Black women conjure the memories of their foremothers, whose work was often relegated to the margins of art but who have now gained the attention they deserve.