The New Bend
The quilters of Gee’s Bend, a Black community in Boykin, Alabama, have been creating boldly innovative and quietly tender tapestries for more than five generations. Many of the town’s residents, such as artists Sarah Benning, Lizzie Major, Missouri Pettway, Sally Bennett Jones and Mary Lee Bendolph, are descendants of enslaved people who lived on a plantation there and first began a tradition of quilting. Some works, such as a 1979 quilt by Lucy Mingo, on display at The Kitchen, with a colorful, nine-block center, have a strong formal organization; others, known as “crazy quilts,” are pieced together from scrap fabric and worn clothes. Recently, the quilters’ work has been framed as an alternate narrative to Modernism, having arrived at similarly abstract forms by nearly opposite means: not as a streamlined response to industrial life, but as part of a tradition within a historical, tight-knit, agrarian community.
Due acclaim to the Gee’s Bend quilters in contemporary art only began with a 2002 Whitney group show, which, while giving recognition to an under-appreciated movement, also failed in many respects: it did not give name to many of these artists, and couched their work as a miraculous efflorescence in isolation. Not so here. In “The New Bend,” curated by Legacy Russell, the executive director of The Kitchen, 12 contemporary artists extend the slicing, pinning and stitching techniques of Gee’s Bend across an exhibition that nods to handicraft, but also digital media, collage and alternative methods of Black queer production.
“Queerness” is intentionally an open word, allowing for all that which is closed from or on the periphery of a mainstream viewpoint. In that sense, the quilters of Gee’s Bend made queer quilts. Many of the artists in the show are themselves queer, but queerness in their work is not always explicitly sexual: they have extended the open-ended and counter-hegemonic aspects of queerness. Some works on view borrow straightforwardly from the vernacular of quilting, with strong cut-out shapes, such as Dawn Williams Boyd’s The Right to (My) Life (2017), which juxtaposes a crowd of white anti-abortion protesters behind a group of Black families in the foreground, clutching each other as if preserving their own right to life.
But others make more abstract homages, such as Eric N. Mack with Forward walking boy on the edge where the sand meets the shore (from DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX) (2018). Draped silk organza, cotton handkerchief and tulle lift into the air from the floor via a thin cable, like the titular character in motion. Qualeasha Wood has created a digital age quilt by incorporating the desktop bar of a keyboard in her Jacquard-weave tapestry—including, if you look closely, a Black, emoji-like baby Jesus.
This is an exhibition that reaches both forward and back. A lot has changed in the two decades since the Whitney’s first exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts. These artists have their present success, their heritage and their artistic future: quilting as a practice which stitches together not only disparate piece of fabric but different modalities of time as well—not just a bend in the river but a new bend in the road of contemporary art. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Dawn Williams Boyd, The Right to (My) Life, 2017. Mixed media, 36 x 48 inches. © Dawn Williams Boyd, Courtesy of Fort Gansevoort, New York. Photo credit: Ron Witherspoon