By: Melanie McKay and Maaja Stewart
The exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts has brought into focus a number of attitudes held by African American quilters in the Deep South toward cloth-wealth. Everyday textile works are valued because they “materialize memory”: they transmit skills, family history, and palpable reminders of individuals whose clothes are recycled into “covers.” These attitudes, we argue, create a complex relationship with commodity value in the dominant culture – value that is always part of museum display of objects designated “art.”
We examine the meaning of such cloth-wealth by placing Gee’s Bend quilts in the context of memories of slave quilts in the Deep South frontier communities. Second, we situate the dominant color, blue, in the Gee’s Bend work-clothes quilts in the context of indigo production in the Deep South as well as the wider African diaspora. We argue that West African meanings of indigo as a sacred color coexisted with the memory of brutal indigo production in the plantation economy in the Deep South to create particularly powerful “blues” quilts.