PRESS PREVIEW: Friday, September 12, 2008 from 10 am – 12 noon. Inquiries: 215-684-7364.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, an exhibition taking a fresh look at the quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and introducing new artists and new motifs in works ranging from the early 20th century through 2005 (September 16-December 14, 2008). The exhibition examines the resurgence of interest in quilting in the Gee’s Bend community, particularly since the landmark 2002 exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, that brought these artists international renown. The quilts are widely acclaimed as spectacular examples of modern, abstract art and their makers as brilliantly creative self-taught artists.
Since the mid-19th century African-American women in this tiny rural community, most of whom are the descendants of slaves, have been producing these visually stunning works, transforming an essential necessity into an art form through quilts that express their stories of family, community and basic human survival. This exhibition presents newly discovered quilts from the 1930s through 2005 by established quilters and the younger generation they inspired. It documents the development of key quilt patterns— courthouse steps, flying geese, and strip quilting—through outstanding examples. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta, the exhibition is accompanied by a publication by Bernard Herman of the University of Delaware, and includes an essay by Dilys Blum, The Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“While the art of these remarkable women is clearly informed by their particular geographic and cultural coordinates, their creative command of materials and design connects them to larger movements in contemporary American art,” Blum remarked. In his catalogue essay, Herman compares the works in the exhibition to the structured compositions of Piet Mondrian and Esther Mahlangu, a Ndebele house painter from South Africa.
The 75 quilts in the exhibition, all of which are shown for the first time, will demonstrate how the quilters play upon the structure or "architecture" of the quilt to create a work of art that is based upon a traditional quilt pattern while simultaneously creating a visual vocabulary that is stylistically identifiable as Gee’s Bend. Each pattern is examined with visual examples detailing various interpretations. New works by granddaughters and great-granddaughters of master quilt makers will be shown, along with quilts from the early and mid-20th century.
About Gee’s Bend
The quilts in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation for the support of African-American vernacular art, founded by William Arnett. Arnett first traveled to the area in 1997 in search of Annie Mae Young, whose picture he had seen in Roland Freeman’s book on African-American quilters, Communion of the Spirit, along with her quilt. Young pointed him to Gee’s Bend, a community of about 750 residents isolated on a U-shaped sliver of land on the Alabama River. Lacking ferry service until very recently, Benders, as residents are called, are one hour’s drive from the county seat of Camden, the closest source of supplies, schools, and medical services. Geographically isolated, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.
Gee’s Bend was named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845 and most present-day residents are descendants of enslaved people on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Gee’s Bend first became known for its quilts, briefly, during the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s when the Freedom Quilting Bee was organized. Many quilters in the community represent second-generation quilting within a family.
Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt has been organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta. The exhibition is supported by a MetLife Foundation Museum and Community Connections grant, by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and by The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Education and community outreach programs are funded by The Delphi Project Foundation, Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, the Connelly Foundation, Paul K. Kania, and Lynne and Harold Honickman. Promotional support is provided by NBC 10 WCAU and The Philadelphia Tribune.
The Gee’s Bend exhibition will coincide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Thomas Chambers, 1808-1869: American Landscape and Marine Painter (September 27-December 28, 2008) and James Castle: A Retrospective (October 14, 2008-January 4, 2009). The Chambers and Castle exhibitions are both organized by the Museum and share with Gee's Bend a focus on self-taught or vernacular art.
Also in the community, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company will present the stage play “Gee’s Bend,” written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and directed by Eleanor Holdridge (From October 9 – November 30). Visitors to the Museum may bring a ticket stub from the Arden Theatre’s production of “Gee’s Bend” to receive a $2 discount on general admission during the course of the exhibition. The Arden will offer a $5 discount on adult tickets to any performance of “Gee’s Bend” while supplies last to anyone who brings a ticket stub from the exhibition to the box office, or mentions the discount when ordering by phone at (215) 922-1122.
Accompanying the exhibition is an extensive catalogue featuring 330 color illustrations. Gee´s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt includes essays by Dilys Blum and Bernard Herman, director of the Center for American Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. Other contributors include Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, Euegene W. Metcalf, Jr., Lauren Whitley, Diane Mott, and Maggie Gordon. The catalogue will be available for purchase in the Museum Store ($50, cloth) or by calling 800-329-4856 or online at: www.philamuseum.org.