“The beauty of these quilts makes it so accessible,” says Elizabeth Wiecher Pierce, vice president of marketing at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Eighty five story quilts from African-American artists represent 40 years of history from 1619 to the present and are on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in its newest special exhibition “And Still We Rise; Race, Culture and Visual Conversations.” The show opened October 12, 2013 and will run through March 29, 2014.
Curated by Carolyn Mazloomi, Ph.D., director of the Women of Color Quilter’s Network (WCQN) founded in 1985, the show is planned for a national tour displaying the international work. Organized by both the Freedom Center and the Museum Center, the quilt show takes the viewer through many aspects of the African-American experience graphically and historically. Stories of the Civil War, Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington in 1963, Juneteenth and Martin Luther King are depicted through fiber arts. The quilters use their creativity to tell stories with color, patterns and texture, including embroidery, needlepoint, appliqué, fiber collage and hand beading.
While they’re all new quilts created in 2012, they represent not only an African presence, but also a source created by self-taught low-income artists who demonstrate how African-American history impacted culture. The quilts speak to the pathos and triumph in the African-American tradition, including such heroes as Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall and the Tuskegee Airmen.
A retired aerospace engineer from Lockheed, Dr. Mazloomi loved quilts for a long time. Now an international curator, she has exhibited shows in China, Costa Rica and Egypt. She asked her artists, whose average age is 72, to celebrate little known events of African-American history as well as those well known. Some titles include “Ebony & Ivory: A Remembrance,” “A Letter from Phillis,” “An Open Book to Freedom” (Harriet Beecher Stowe), and “Robert Snalls: Wheeling Freedom,” “His Dream: 1963 March on Washington” and “Freedom Riders” (1961).
C. G. Newsome, new president of the Freedom Center, comments on the exhibit: “This exhibit is a wonderful way of telling stories. It covers 400 years of African-American and American history. These venues speak to specific events; all touch upon fabric and textures. The events as related to African-America are done with such imagination. This is another way of relating history. My words can’t capture what fabrics are doing with color and placement of images.”
Newsome’s favorite piece is “The Invisible Man” named after the book with the same name by Ralph Ellison. “This quilt demonstrates a visual image and surpasses the bookbinder. It is striking with a perceptible image, but in a ghost-like way.”
As a “museum of conscience,” the Freedom Center seeks to deal with a difficult and painful history, according to Newsome. “This work is a labor of love,” he says.
The Freedom Center is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 adults; $10 seniors/students and $8 children 3-12. The website is freedomcenter.org.