At Large  September 26, 2022  Effie Jackson

Evolving Perspectives on Quilts as Folk Art

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.

Grace Zimiga, Sundance Star, 1968-1980. Cotton, muslin, and thread, 61.1 x 88.8 in. (155.3 x 225.7 cm.),

Folk art reflects the stories of survival and heritage among often underrepresented peoples. Its distinction as being a separate entity from fine art was originally due to the class structure of European society since it was classified as “an expression of the common people” in 1932 by Holger Cahill, then-director of the MoMA. Until the 1960s, Folk art was seen as a reflection of the primitiveness of lower social classes, often those disenfranchised by historical and institutional discrimination and lack of access to resources, according to art historian and educator, Elizabeth Manley Delacruz. In the early 1970s, museums and galleries began integrating quilts and other pieces of Folk art with fine artworks. Yet Folk art’s identity struggled to break away from the colonial lens of otherness that had been ascribed to it.

Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge

Mary Lee Bendolph, Grandma Strips, 1935. Cotton, 75 x 77 in. (190.5 x 195.5 cm)

To deeper understand quilt narratives and their significance in Folk art, one must first understand the underbelly of Modernism and Modern art: primitivism. Primitivism is, arguably, the exploitation and poorly interpreted reproductions of Indigenous African, Asian, and American tribal art. Delacruz asserts that folk art’s original categorization was controversial since it became sub-classified into Outsider art, Naïve art, and Primitive art. Art deemed primitive – typically art made by self-trained artists with found tools and objects – was made outside of and without consideration of the European establishment. Therefore, all other art was viewed through a critical postcolonial lens

The works of primitivism by artists such as Gauguin and Picasso often only focus on tribal women as exotic and sensual, further othering non-white persons as only existing for the pleasure of the European elite. Anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle considers such classifications to be justifications for colonization that are reinforced to exclude non-Western artists from Modern and Contemporary art. This exclusion was exacerbated by the Western art institution’s misappropriation of sacred Indigenous iconography. Although some scholars believe that this exposure to Folk art helped it gain notoriety, others such as Delacruz acknowledge that it stems from long-overdue exposure of non-white artists.

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.

Marie Strong Heart Kinzel, Star, 1968-1988. Cotton and thread, 92.9 x 76.5 in. (236.2 x 194.5 cm.)

Creating aesthetics that don’t obey traditional Western standards of art, the quilts made by enslaved Black persons in the American South sought to preserve African culture, religion, and tradition in environments of violence, restriction, and erasure. Quilts like Mary Lee Bendolph’s Grandma Strips (1935) are a continuation of an aesthetic of quilt making that became prevalent among enslaved African Americans on plantations. Originally, such quilts were weaved from excess and unused fabric and weaved in patterns that, at first glance, are resistant to symmetry.

Upon a longer inspection, the rhythmic geometry weaved by Bendolph is reflective of tribal African aesthetics. Grandma Strips is a piece of a larger puzzle of quilts that came out of Gee’s Bend, a predominantly Black and isolated rural community in central Alabama that was once surrounded by plantations. Now, the ancestors of those enslaved African Americans are being honored for their craftsmanship and for strengthening American Folk art.

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.

Mina Yellow Robe, Harvest Star, 1973-1975. Cotton and thread, 41.1 x 46.8 in. (104.5 x 119 cm)

Among the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation in the American Midwest, the star quilt has become a powerful symbol of Indigenous identity. Kim Elise Taylor, a graduate student of the University of Montana, highlights in her master's thesis that the demand for the star quilt is so great that many, if not most, Sioux women operate the production of the quilts out of their homes on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. The abundance and availability of the star quilt motif have contributed to its national reach and embrace as an icon of Native American identity. Fort Peck Reservation’s high production of quilts is also due to the necessity of star quilts as ceremonial gifts throughout the Sioux nation. 

The star quilt is not a recent unifier of the Native American identity. When the United States was being colonized, and America’s Indigenous peoples were suffering genocide and displacement from their homelands, the star quilt became a symbol of honor and unity. This was partly due to the near extinction of buffaloes, a sacred animal to Indigenous tribes. The buffalo was relied on for nourishment, clothing, and shelter. Its near-extinction served as an almost-too-literal metaphor of what America’s Indigenous peoples were suffering from as well. While America’s Indigenous population still suffers a lack of resources, opportunity, acknowledgment, and respect, the star quilt continues to serve as a symbol of strength, honor, and survival.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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