“Narrative” quilts by three Shaker residents receive extraordinary plaudits.
By Diana Simeon
Spend an hour or two with Jakki Dukes, Gloria Kellon, and Regina Abernathy and you’ll never think of a quilt or quilt-making the same way again. For these Shaker residents, quilts are the canvas on which they create visually stunning works of art.
These quilts range from the traditional patchwork style, often with a twist, to the modern and free-form quilt and seemingly every variation in between. They use a dizzying array of fabrics. Get up close to their work and you’ll see hand-stitching, needlepoint, appliqué, and embroidery.
You’ll discover all sorts of materials, including buttons, beads, even shells. Their themes range from the deeply personal – such as a quilt by Kellon that features her husband, George, which, like a Chuck Close painting, comes into full focus only from a distance – to the historical. The latter includes a quilt by Dukes that features Crispus Attucks, a man of African descent who was the first American casualty of the American Revolutionary War. The quilt was part of a recent exhibit, “And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations,” at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
But a common thread runs through all three artists’ work: to reflect on and preserve the African-American experience. And as a testimony to the quality of their work, the three were chosen to exhibit original quilts last summer at the International Quilt Convention Africa in Johannesburg, in honor of Nelson Mandela.
“I’m interested in people whose personal contribution to history has been suppressed. This happens in so many instances with people of color. If we don’t tell these stories, who will?”
These Shaker artists are part of a renaissance, now well into its third decade, of African American quilt-making in the United States. The success of the movement is in many ways due to another Ohio artist and leading historian of African-American quilts, Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. In 1985 she founded the Women of Color Quilter’s Network. Today, WOCQN has more than 1,700 members, and there are hundreds of similar, local organizations around the country, including Northeast Ohio’s African American Quilt and Doll Guild (AAQDG), founded in 2006 by Kellon and Warrensville Heights artist and Case Western faculty member Sandra Noble.
“We put out a call and 35 people showed up,” Kellon says. “As we talked we felt like we had known each other for a long time.” Today, AAQDG has more than 70 members, including Dukes and Abernathy and eight other members from Shaker Heights. Mazloomi, a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow, has helped bring particular attention to a type of art quilt known as a narrative or story quilt. Dukes, Kellon, and Abernathy work in this genre.
Telling Their Stories
A narrative quilt that Kellon was finishing up when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 – she was stitching the binding, while watching the election returns on television – was recently featured in the book, Journey of Hope: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama. The quilt, titled “The Journey Ends,” depicts Northeast Ohio’s contribution to the Underground Railroad system, including Cleveland’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was known as Station Hope.
Dukes’ work was also featured in the book, namely a quilt she made after a summer spent in Hawaii titled “Oahu, Ohana, Obama,” which celebrates the President and his home state. Dukes, who teaches in Hudson, also has made quilts featuring the journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, as well as the chemist Caroline Hunter. While working for the Polaroid Corporation, Hunter helped expose the company’s role in developing the photographs used in the passbooks that black South Africans were required to carry during the Apartheid era.
“She was a woman of conscience who could have gone on her way and had a fabulous career, but she chose to challenge them,” says Dukes. “I’m interested in people whose personal contribution to history has been suppressed. This happens in so many instances with people of color. If we don’t tell these stories, who will?”
Abernathy, also a retired teacher, agrees: “We are telling our stories not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.”
Story quilts can draw on contemporary themes, too, including a quilt by Abernathy that depicts young people enjoying their lives and music over a quilted backdrop of more than a dozen different African fabrics, which zigzag in all directions. “We have gone from trying to escape slavery to our children just being able to be children. It’s an amazing, wonderful story to tell,” she says. “And the African fabric shows how we had to go in all these different directions to get here.”
In late 2013, Mazloomi and a colleague, Dr. Marsha McDowell, a professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Michigan State University, put out a “challenge” for narrative quilts that celebrated the life and legacy of the revered South African statesman and Nobel Laureate, Nelson Mandela. They were planning an exhibit, which would debut at the International Quilt Convention Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa. Kellon, Dukes, and Abernathy each submitted a quilt and, last spring, learned they had been accepted for the exhibition. “It was an honor,” says Abernathy. “A real surprise.”
The exhibit, called “The Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela,” featured just 67 quilts, 34 of which were by North American artists. The remaining were made by African artists. Challenges are a common way for exhibit planners to solicit submissions from fabric artists. They provide only a sentence or two, leaving artists free to interpret the challenge as they wish. “So, if there are 100 artists you will see 100 different quilts,” says Abernathy. “There are no real rules. You get to be a true artist.”
Indeed, the quilts Kellon, Abernathy, and Dukes created for the exhibit, all deeply personal tributes to Mandela, are as unique as the artists themselves.
Abernathy took inspiration from Mandela’s famous quote: “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” Her quilt, titled “Mandela – Forgiveness and Goodness Road,” features a road in a decorative black fabric, with an applique of orange footprints. Surrounding the road are dozens of fabrics with African designs, again in a zigzag motif.
“Nelson Mandela did what few leaders did, which was to think about how do you heal a people who have to live together after such atrocities. You have to forgive and you have to show your goodness. That was his genius,” explains Abernathy.
In the center of Dukes’ quilt, titled “Transitions: Toward Including Africans in South Africa’s Promise,” sits South Africa, with cut-outs for Lesotho and Swaziland, on a background of black and white African masks (to represent the many black South Africans who died during the Apartheid era). The quilt features several of South Africa’s ethnic groups, including a Xhosa woman, in needlepoint – Mandela was Xhosa – as well as an Ndebele woman, also in needlepoint.
Dukes fringed the bottom of her quilt with colorful beads, in order to represent the Zulu people and their traditional beadwork, and surrounded the quilt’s edges with the colors of the flag of the African National Congress (the ruling party of post-Apartheid South Africa), as well as colors favored by the Ndebele in their traditional blankets.
“It’s a love note because Zulu people give love notes,” explains Dukes. “It’s got a Zulu saying, ‘Let’s be peaceful.’” The Zulu are South Africa’s largest ethnic group at more than 10 million. “It’s the whole idea of, when I think of Mandela, I think of an incredibly courageous person who was able to at least bring the African people in to have a voice versus having no say so at all.”
Kellon’s Mandela quilt is titled “Mandiba’s Range.” Mandiba is Mandela’s traditional Xhosa clan name. The quilt features an outline of Mandela, in a decorative black fabric that was made in honor of his release from prison in 1990.
Commemorative fabrics are a tradition in many parts of Africa. Kellon had purchased the material, then tucked it away for just the right moment. “One of the things about being a fiber artist is that if something tugs at your heart, you will purchase it and you may not use it right away.” notes Dukes. “But at some time, just the right situation presents itself.”
On Kellon’s quilt, Mandela is surrounded with orange fabric. Toward the bottom, she used a photo-transfer of stones to represent the crushing labor Mandela and other prisoners were forced to do. Around the edges, Kellon embroidered the word “mbutu,” which roughly translates to kindness, and toward the top of the quilt, she created a procession of black South Africans. “When they were first able to vote, I remember seeing on television the people streaming down. That stayed in my mind,” Kellon explains.
Last July, eight members of AAQDG traveled to South Africa to see the exhibit, then tour the country. They brought with them more than 150 handmade dolls as well as soccer balls, which they donated to daycare centers in the townships they visited. During the Apartheid era, black South Africans were not allowed to live in city centers, but rather forced to reside on the outskirts, in areas known as townships. Unfortunately, these townships are still struggling to participate in post-Apartheid South Africa, says Kellon.
“Cape Town, especially, it is a beautiful city. But when you leave Cape Town and go to the outskirts and you see the townships where the blacks live, that’s what hurts. The poverty, no jobs, the housing. The city is beautiful on the backs of other people.”
The group also toured Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. They had an opportunity to meet one of Mandela’s jailers, who Mandela befriended and hired as a personal bodyguard.
“Mandela had such a forgiving spirit and that’s what separated him from everyone else,” says Abernathy. “That’s why people want to celebrate him, as we did with our quilts. He stood above and beyond in his thinking about forgiveness. He understood that we are all God’s people. When we really have that understanding, we can move forward.”