Tuesday, May 26, 2015

And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations

"As an artist, I strongly believe art has the capacity to touch the spirit, engage, educate, and heal in ways that words alone cannot." Carolyn L. Mazloomi
The origin and use of quilts has always been about warmth and protection. Quilts have also always been about art and expression. Quilts have been created to express political affiliation, to raise funds for causes, and to communicate the ideals and goals of various groups and social causes.
(For an overview see: http://worldquilts.quiltstudy.org/americanstory/engagement/awareness-activism)

And Still We Rise consists of 97 quilts by 69 artists that express the totality of the African American experience. In her opening essay Carolyn Mazloomi explains the genesis of the quilt exhibition: using the accessible and visual medium of quilting, artists explore 400 years of history, from 1619 when the first kidnapped and enslaved Africans landed on American soil to Trayvon Martin's murder.

Each quilt merits a full page and a detail illustration accompanied by the artist's statement. Unlike many "coffee table quilt books" this is not a book to flip through lightly. The quilts incorporate diverse techniques that merit study. The subject matter and story behind the quilts are thoughtful and passionately presented. The diversity of the subject matter is extraordinary, and very personal to the quilt artist.

The quilts are presented in historical order beginning with 20 and Odd  concerning the 1619 arrival of the first enslaved Africans in America. The Dutch ship The White Lion battled a Spanish ship and captured "20 and odd" enslaved Africans. The White Lion landed at Jamestown, Virginia and traded the Africans for food and supplies.  The quilt by Carolyn Crump shows the ship hull made of African bodies.

The quilt subjects include the expected: Crispus Attucks who died in the Boston Massacre; enslaved first American poetess Phillis Wheatley; Nat Turner rebellion organizer; the Amistad case; Harriet Tubman; and John Brown. Other subjects appear that are not covered in typical American textbooks: Griot Lucy Terry Prince; Levi Coffin who established the Underground Railroad; political activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; political activist Ida B. Wells; the first black U.S. Naval ship captain Robert Smalls; Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks; and the first African-American Brigadier General in the U.S. Army Benjamin O. Davis Sr. Iconic African American achievements in music, athletics, and the arts appear.

The artists address the dark side of the African American experience. Ironic by Sandra Hankins portrays the three men murdered in Mississippi in 1964 whose story was central to One Mississippi, Two Mississippi  by Carol V. R. George which I reviewed at the beginning of the month. The Scottsboro Boys: The Arrest by Patricia Montgomery commemorates the nine Negro young men who were wrongfully arrested and condemned to death. Other quilts present The Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, the bombing of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church, and the signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

There are quilts to celebrate achievements and firsts: the first all African-American flight crew; the election of President Barack Obama; the appointment of Condolezza Rice; Brigadier General Hazel Q. Johnson-Brown; and astronaut Mae C. Jemison.

Reading the book, confronted by the quilts, brings a roller coaster ride of emotions. One is educated, one remembers, one mourns, and one hopes. Arriving at the 2012 Trayvon Could be My Son by Dorothy Burge brings a heavy awareness of current turmoil and the inequalities of our society and justice system.

The last quilt Visionaries of Our Freedom: Quadricentnnial: The First Four Hundred Years of African Presence in America by Sherry E. Whetstone-McCall is a crazy quilt collage in the shape of the continent of Africa. The artist states, "Let that anniversary be marked by the telling of stories that recognize and celebrate the perseverance and triumph of the African-American people. Let the stories inspire the world to take courageous steps for freedom today and for generations to come."

I received a free book from Schiffer in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations
Carolyn L. Mazloomi
Schiffer Publishing
$34.99 hard cover
ISBN: 9870764349287