By Jacqueline Basker Taylor
The Fiber Matrix exhibit at the Westbeth Gallery, which took place in October 2017, dispelled the idea of quilting as an activity of harmless, grey-haired ladies gathered to sew, brag about grandchildren, and gossip.
This staggeringly beautiful display of quilts revealed a passion for activism: social justice and the acknowledgement of scars that history has inflicted on people of color and minorities worldwide. Curated by quilter William Daniels, this exhibit’s goal was to show quilts as not only aesthetically successful works of craft but art that explored complex social themes and issues. The exhibit displayed textiles in a different way, compared to other museums and galleries. The work of the Quilters’ of Color Network of New York was initially rejected by museums, which wanted quilts that just contained good craftsmanship and were pretty to look at.
The Network gathered quilters of color who wanted their craft to express a passionate commentary on the violence, injustice, and discrimination they witnessed in their lives. They also wanted to celebrate their heritage as African-Americans and share both joys and sorrows.
“The Price of Cotton,” by Thadine Wormly-Hendon, depicts the figure of a young female slave against patterns that reflect the history of the slave trade, along with actual balls of cotton. Many of the quilts celebrate African culture with figures, patterns, and materials. William Daniel’s “Bovine Mask” series transforms African sculpture into intense textiles.
Diane Pryor-Holland created an installation with a stark black quilt showing the Twin Towers in complex stitchery. Her husband, who worked there for months after 9/11, died from cancer due to the toxins. Flags and a video of her poetry brought this reviewer to tears, remembering my own experience and loss.
Former Network President Sylvia Hernandez produced multiple quilts about the recent slaughter of young blacks. Her “Hoodies” quilt chronicles 30 African-Americans shot by police. Her piece “Choose Love” expressed the hope of this exhibit, quoting Martin Luther King: “Hate was too great a burden to bear.”
The environmental crisis and endangered animals were also addressed, as in Marilyn Hamilton’s quilts, which depict species in danger.
Their superb craftsmanship turned quilting into a high art form with profoundly meaningful content. This exhibit was both a significant aesthetic display and an event that gave voice to those who suffered violence as they struggled for justice and peace in this world.