I ask myself, if we could quilt across the slave trade in Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean through the Middle Passage to the Americas; to early black citizens, inventors and entrepreneurs, enslaved and free; to the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War; to Reconstruction and Pan Africanism; to the Industrial Revolution and the Great Migration; to the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance; to the WPA Movement; to Negritude; to the Civil Rights Movement; to the Black Power Era and on to Black citizenry in contemporary America, what would the African American experience in quilts look like? So begins And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversation.
When contemporary artists are in sync with the social, political and cultural currents of their communities, their artistic renderings become some of our most effective tools to foster knowledge, dismantle mythical notions and engage the trust of others. The exhibition, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, constitutes an unprecedented commentary, dispelling the problem of restricted African American artistic and historical agency by voicing, in cloth, an untold chronological account of the struggles and triumphs of a marginalized people. When one faction of American society is excluded from the master narrative of our collective histories, the whole society loses. The loss of a more inclusive history leaves our entire nation needlessly vulnerable to repeating mistakes of the past.
The problem addressed by this monumental educational and artistic effort is two-fold. First, American history is not complete without the stories of African-American men and women, from our enslaved ancestors to our contemporary political leaders and current societal challenges. It is widely known that America’s mainstream educational curricula do not adequately include diverse American histories. Second, it is also common knowledge that average American citizens do not use reading material as the primary, preferred, or most effective mode of education. Today’s contemporary learners, across varied age, ethnic and social class groups, are pictorially and multi-media focused, particularly when it comes to acquiring knowledge about others. In light of this reality, the Women of Color Quilt Network offers the quilt exhibition, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, as an inspiring solution to the problem of educating the general population about the ascendant influence of African American culture on the American cultural landscape.
The priority of educating our nation’s citizens about important segments of our complex authentic national history is critical to our vitality. But why quilts? Because quilting is one of America’s most powerful art forms with its widespread appeal and association with comfort, warmth, and healing. Quilts and quilt making are important to America and Black culture in particular, because the art form was historically one of the few mediums accessible to marginalized groups to tell their own story, to provide warmth for their families, and to empower them with a voice through cloth. People can relate to visual history (story quilts) as opposed to reading about history in ways that reach our hearts and teach us about our shared values. Choosing quilts as the visual medium for this exhibit accentuates the intersections of African American contributions to American cultural production while at once informing others about the art form and its role in African American history. It is this often unknown and/or underappreciated shared reality that must be voiced if we are ever to truly value the unique contributions diverse groups make to the fabric of our nation.
And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations explores the path of black history with a timeline of original quilts. The exhibit traces the course of black history in America - from the first enslaved people brought over by Dutch traders in 1619, brave souls marching for civil rights, the ascendant influence of African American culture on the American cultural landscape, the election of the first African American president more than 400 years later, to the death of Trayvon Martin. Unrivalled in breadth and scope, in one sweeping and important collection, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations provides an unparalleled account of the history of a people and events that have marked the evolution of African Americans in America. These quilts take us to people, places and events that many have never before encountered. There can be no discussion of the development of this nation and liberty without the enormous story of the new Africans and the evolution and demise of American slavery with the pivotal ascension of the African American as integral to all points of American history.
The quilts, as visual media, pose an alternative and non-threatening approach to topics of social issue about people, places and events that are embedded in the American memory as sensitive cultural parameters of race, class and gender, labeled by James and Lois Horton, as the "tough stuff of American history." The artworks prompt a dialog between artist/interpreter and the viewer to challenge existing notions and pose questions that serve to move the discussion of racial reconciliation forward into the next generation of problem solvers.
The exhibition brings broad American audiences a collection of powerful artworks that not only excite but also educate. For the African American viewer, the exhibition is a validating expression of cultural genius. For viewers external to the culture, it is an awakening to the unknown and uncelebrated contributions of African American artists to our Nation's history. For scholars of art and American studies, the exhibition is fertile soil for research inquiry and artistic critique of some of the finest material culture works emanating from contemporary American artistic masters.
The exhibition also aligns well with educating the public about the effects of racism and misinformation about African American contributions to the building of America. It provides an opportunity to dismiss divisive identity labels and to reconstruct triumphant identity with the viewing public. Through the exhibit, museum visitors will experience both the quilts and African American history as avenues toward expanded understanding of African American culture. Docent tours, gallery talks, text panels, family exhibit guide, brochure and the museum catalogue will all increase accessibility of the artworks by encouraging visitors to think about issues involving race. In general, the exhibit uses a humanities approach to the study of culture by offering a rich experience in the arts and guiding audience members of all ages to reflect on, discuss, and explore facets of that experience.
Learn more about the exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center
Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi
Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellow