Leading Contemporary Artists Pay Homage to the Pioneering Quilters of Gee’s Bend
Installation view of “The New Bend” at Hauser & Wirth in New York, 2022. © Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.
For centuries, craftspeople have joined fibers and fabrics to tell tales about time, color, and space. Though textiles and quilts have often been associated with domesticity, they can be more than gorgeous practical items. These pieces have long been recognized for their aesthetic value, and in recent years, art-world aficionados have increasingly taken notice.
Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, has long held an interest in textiles. “The New Bend,” the exhibition she recently curated at Hauser & Wirth in New York, pays homage to fiber art’s complicated history. The show features a diverse range of work by 12 contemporary artists: Anthony Akinbola, Eddie R. Aparicio, Dawn Williams Boyd, Diedrick Brackens, Tuesday Smillie, Tomashi Jackson, Genesis Jerez, Basil Kincaid, Eric N. Mack, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Qualeasha Wood, and Zadie Xa. Their works exist in conversation with textiles from Gee’s Bend, Alabama—a town where Black women have been fashioning quilts out of scrap fabric for generations.
In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized the exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” bringing these objects to the fine art world’s attention. The acclaimed show would go on to travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art and several other esteemed institutions in the United States. Now, on the 20th anniversary of this seminal show, “The New Bend” reexamines this history.
“[The exhibition is] about artists coming together at this moment,” Russell said during the press preview. “They are really writing a love letter to the women in Gee’s Bend and acknowledging important and enduring contributions of women, [especially] Black women, in the American South.”
Some pieces on view employ traditional quilting techniques, much like the women in Gee’s Bend do. One such work is Kincaid’s Four Eyes One Vision (2021), which combines materials such as Ghanaian wax block fabric, abrokyere, and Ashanti Kente cloth to create a compelling, multi-textured narrative where abstract figures undulate around one another in a medley of blues, purples, and yellows. And other works, such as Boyd’s The Right to (My) Life (2017), similarly stitch together pieces of fabric to tell stories. The 36-by-48-inch quilt deftly uses both figuration and text to potray a salient tableau of three people sitting next to one another while an angry mob in the background brandishes signs emblazoned with slogans like “PLANNED PARENTING” and “STOP ABORTION NOW.”
Though the show is anchored in the lineage of quilting, “The New Bend” also incorporates other textile pieces, like weavings. One such work on view, Brackens’s survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life (2021), uses cotton and acrylic yarn to depict a shadowy central figure flanked on all sides by triangles, creating a composition that is almost evocative of an Ohio Star quilt block pattern.
Meanwhile, Wood’s jacquard weaving Ctrl+Alt+Del (2021)—a monumental 84-by-62-inch piece—renders a self-portrait of the artist trapped in a digital landscape replete with clouds and computer windows. The work embodies another theme that undercuts the show: the connection between fiber art and computation. As scholars Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash describe in their 2020 essay “On Cultural Cyborgs,” the recursive techniques and patterns used in activities like weaving bridge the gap between art and technology, and communal activities like these may provide the opportunity for marginalized groups to rethink the meaning of computational innovation.
The legacy of Gee’s Bend is alive and well—women in Alabama continue to craft beautiful quilts, and many fiber artists around the world still look to them for inspiration. “The New Bend” places these textiles in the context of a long-standing tradition, opening up a necessary dialogue about the nature of fiber art and allowing for these typically raced, classed, and gendered objects to enter popular imagination.