American quilts hailed as miraculous works of modern art come to UK
When the wildly distinctive quilts made by generations of rural women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, went on display in New York, one critic called them “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”.
The quilts have since been used on a set of American stamps and a series of them will travel to the UK for the first time next year for an exhibition showcasing art and artists from America’s Deep South.
The gallery Turner Contemporary in Margate announced details of a show that will shine light on work made by people as they lived through America’s civil rights struggles, often in conditions of utter poverty.
“This work is not well known at all in the UK and has been very rarely seen,” said Sarah Martin, head of exhibitions at Turner Contemporary. “Most of these artists and makers have not been exhibited in the UK or Europe at all.
“In the US the work that is in significant collections has always been bracketed or shown in the context of ‘craft’ or ‘outsider art’. That is changing, but it has been collected and shown in that camp for many years.”
The quilts of Gee’s Bend, an isolated hamlet known today as Boykin, have become minor celebrities in their own right.
They were made from anything that was to hand – old blue jeans, strips of cloth, cornmeal sacks – and are vividly colorful and strikingly abstract.
Reviewing a 2002 show at the Whitney, which included the quilts, a critic for the New York Times wrote: “The results … turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee … arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural south in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee’s Bend was a plantation.”
The Margate show will include quilts, paintings, and sculptural assemblages by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.
They include William Edmondson, usually called a folk art sculptor, who was the first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Emmer Sewell, whose found object sculptures include Black-Panther-inspired scarecrows.
The show was the idea of the artist Hannah Collins, who came across the artworks and stories while working in the American south.
Photographs Collins took of the artists’ working environments, Sewell’s porch for example, will be included in the show.
Victoria Pomery, director of Turner Contemporary, said the aim of the exhibition was for audiences to see works, traditionally categorized as folk or outsider art, in a new light. They were “extraordinary works”, she said.
“Bringing this exhibition to Margate, one of the most deprived areas of the UK, highlights the global importance of creativity and its power to provoke change … fundamentally altering the course of an individual’s life, challenging social inequality and inspiring vital debate.”