Quilting lecture commemorates African-American/African studies

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Assistant Professor Pearlie Johnson delivers a lecture on African-American quilting Wednesday at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.

Story and Photos by Bob Al-Greene, NewsNetNebraska

The pages of history are not always black and white. Sometimes they’re elegant patchworks and mosaics of bright colors with deep meaning.

On Wednesday, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus hosted a public lecture entitled “African-American Quilts: Teaching the Past through Quilting.”

The lecture, presented by Pearlie Johnson, an assistant professor from the University of Louisville, was part of a four-day series commemorating the 40th anniversary of UNL’s African-American and African studies program. A grant from the Nebraska Humanities Council made Johnson’s appearance possible, said Maureen Ose, communications coordinator at the Quilt Center.

Johnson, who teaches Pan-African studies at Louisville, spoke for an hour to a diverse group of quilt enthusiasts before taking questions from the audience. Johnson went through a slideshow of works created by African-American quilters. Most of the works were produced in the past decade, a period she said has seen a resurgence of quilting as an art.

“What quilts offer women today is expression,” Johnson said. “It opened up a new way of expressing yourself. It’s like a painter who takes his brush paint and can create any work he wants.”

The audience at Johnson’s presentation was a bit different from the usual turnout at Quilt Center seminars, Ose said, particularly because of the higher number of students in attendance. Ose estimated there were 80 total audience members. The interdisciplinary nature of the presentation – combining quilt study with ethnic studies – opens the Center up to higher student attendance, something she said she would like to see continue.

Johnson pointed out mostly visual cues that tie modern quilts to cultural history. These could be symbols, representations of traditional art pieces or even the type of fabric used, all of which can be tied back to African cultures.

Looking at the art through lenses of sociology, feminist theory, critical race theory and art history exposes sides of the art that others might not pick up on, Johnson said.

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More interdisciplinary lectures involving quilts could help boost student involvement at the Quilt Center, Communications Director Maureen Ose said.

“Everything I look at, I look for the African-ness in it,” Johnson said. “An art critic may see something totally different than what the artist was creating.”

Multiple quilts, for example, used a pattern recognizable in kente cloth used by the Ashanti people of Ghana.

“As an art historian, when I see a quilter using fabric, I want to teach the audience where that cloth actually comes from,” Johnson said. “Not only is (kente) an African fabric – it has a specific culture.”

Quilt study is a difficult topic to define, Ose said, because it shares similarities with art history, antrhopology and even archaeology. The study of material culture – everyday objects – can tell a lot about a people that might never have been written down. Quilts in particular are ubiquitous around the world.

Most of the pieces in her lecture celebrate traditions and culture, Johnson said, while they can also criticize or cause controversy. Sometimes both can happen in the same piece. But no matter the topic, the point is expression.

“That’s the great thing about quilting,” Johnson said. “It brings people together. Even those addressing controversy – that’s our culture today.”

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African-American quilter Yvonne Wells’ piece, “Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South,” is on display at the Quilt Center now.

Jonathan Gregory, assistant curator of exhibitions at the Quilt Center, echoed Ose’s sentiment that quilt study is a type of archaeology. Experts try to place the works in context in order to interpret their meanings.

“I think people are surprised that you can look at quilts as cultural studies,” Gregory said.

Specifying the textiles and symbols being used in quilts clarifies the reasoning behind the art, Johnson said.

“Art in African society is never just ‘Oh, I created this so I can set it on my coffee table,’” she said. “It’s created for a reason. It’s created with a purpose in mind.”

More events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the African-American and African studies program will take place around campus until Saturday.

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