Of all the kinds of art you might encounter in a museum and gallery, a quilt is the only one you might be inclined to throw around your shoulders. Quilts can be beautiful artifacts to behold, but they also can comfort. A quilter makes art that is designed to interact, physically, with its possessor — art that shows an awareness of the human body.
A formidable tradition of quilting exists within African American culture. Suffering and joy, frustration and release, grudging acquiescence and active resistance: It’s all sewn into the seams of countless quilts, created by thousands of artists, mostly women, many unnamed. Colorful evidence of this efflorescence is now on display at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, in a 50-piece show that demonstrates just how versatile fiber art can be. “The Social Fabric: Black Artistry in Fiber Arts, An Exhibition in Homage to Viki Craig” will be up until Oct. 24. It’s a lavish, emotional, frequently political show that envelops the viewer like a … well, you know.
As welcoming as these 27 artists are, they also possess a clear desire to strut their stuff. These quilters are masters of color theory, compositional balance and, in some cases, visual storytelling, and they do not sew for the sake of subtlety. Fabrics are eye-popping. Juxtapositions and contrasts are striking. Shapes and colors jostle for attention as boisterously as they would in an abstract expressionist show.
The “Social Fabric” quilters are also quiet provocateurs, consistently stitching symbols of liberation into their work. The image of the North Star, shining to guide escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, recurs often, most spectacularly in Carole Robinson’s marvelous, harmonious array of blue, brown and white batik triangles and quadrilaterals. Sherry Shine places the North Star in a quilt within a quilt, hanging on a farmhouse under a wavy Van Gogh sky while two brown-skinned laborers till the field in the foreground. If you were wrapped up in these blankets, their deeper meanings could make an impression on the drowsing mind.
The exhibition is designed to amplify the reputation of Viki Craig, a Garden State artist who ought to be better known. The Morristown quiltmaker, who died in 2018 at the age of 71, was one of the founders of Art in the Atrium, a local initiative that grew to be one of New Jersey’s largest annual celebrations of African American painting, quilting, photography and sculpture. “The Social Fabric” is a joint presentation of Art in the Atrium and the Morris Museum, and the biographical details of Craig’s life provided by the curators help construct a portrait of a very interesting New Jersey woman and her creative circle.
For instance, Craig gave “Freedom Quilt,” one her largest and prettiest quilts, to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Morristown to auction off. The winner was her sister-in-law, who paid a thousand dollars to keep a masterwork in the family.
At “Social Fabric,” Craig’s quilts are displayed lovingly in a room of their own. They hang on the walls, cushion the floors and drape the corners; it’s as immersive as any panorama. This is friendly work, as most quilts are, but there is also austerity to Craig’s patterns and color choices and regularity to her rhythms that suggest a highly disciplined and teacherly mind. Some of her quilts have the elaborate symmetry of a Persian rug; others play the perception-distorting tricks characteristic of op art; others suggest the starkness of early American design.
But as “Gee’s Bend Sampler,” named for the small Alabama town famous for their quilting tradition, makes clear, all of this careful, meticulous experimentation is firmly and deliberately grounded in the expressive tradition of African American art.
The rest of the show is subordinate to Craig’s work, but it’s too good, and too joyful, to be mere contextualization.
Ellaree Pray’s delightful “United” is a waterfall of colored arrows, with small images of New York skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, rendered in blue denim, peeking from the margins.
Janet O. Green jigsaws together swatches of batiked fabric in “Out of Africa.” Even better is her “Got It Twisted,” a dazzling array of strips and textures that coalesces into a whirling grid of diamonds.
Tina Williams Brewer’s “Out of Troubled Waters Comes Bliss” juxtaposes wax printed fabric from Ghana with crystal beads and metallic thread, and somehow doesn’t seem busy at all.
While much of the show is a celebration of the beauty of West African cotton textiles, none of it feels entirely abstract. There is a real sense of purpose — and accelerator-to-the-floor drive — to all of these pieces, as well as absolute confidence and a will to communicate.
Sometimes the storytelling is made explicit.
Faith Ringgold, the best-known artist in the show, contributes “Tar Beach #2,” a tapestry of New York with paragraphs of a story of life in Harlem peeking between the stars in the night sky.
Michael Cummings, another established artist, gives us a portrait of James Baldwin in dense thread, complete with an enhanced American flag, a cross offering Christian salvation, and a pointed quote. His Baldwin is shattered, maybe a little frightened, but resolute, advancing with knowledge as his shield.
These are accomplished pieces of fiber art, and reminders of the artists’ contributions to a rich heritage. But some of the best works in “The Social Fabric” were created by younger artists, who continue to carry tradition forward in unusual ways.
Sharela May Bonfield, for instance, stitches selfies that are, at once, a commentary on the speed of modern self-representation and fuzzy little windows into her day-to-day reality. “Return From Baltimore, 7 Train 8:13 P.M., 2021” is one of the humblest works in the show, but it’s also among the best-realized.
Then there is Jersey City’s Theda Sandiford, who is becoming a local art star, and whose very large, very lively “Wonder Woman” welcomes visitors to the Morris Museum lobby.
Sandiford has sewn beads, bottle caps, buttons, action figures, little mirrors, purple plastic circles and other random objects into a giant tapestry of an African American woman’s head and hair. It’s not the sort of blanket you’d go to sleep it, but it is the kind you might get lost in. And that, for these adventurous fiber artists, may well be the real objective.
“The Social Fabric: Black Artistry in Fiber Arts, An Exhibition in Homage to Viki Craig” can be seen through Oct. 24; visit morrismuseum.org.
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