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Exhibit Explores African-American Improvisational Quilts By BECKY O’MALLEY

Tuesday September 06, 2005

Different cultures and historic eras have had various approaches to imitation, originality and improvisation in art forms. 

In much traditional art in Asia, careful imitation of the work of a master has been considered one of the highest goals of the artist. The same was true in Europe for long periods, but starting with the Renaissance and continuing to the present day, originality has been highly valued, both in visual arts and in music. 

Improvisation on a standard theme occupies a middle ground between the poles of imitation and originality. European classical music featured a good bit of improvised ornamentation through the Baroque period, but it’s been out of style lately. Jazz and other forms of music with an African inheritance, on the other hand, have maintained a robust improvisatory tradition.  

A small exhibit now at the Mills College Art Museum, “Improving the Bow Tie: African-American Improvisational Quilts,” provides a capsule illustration of how some African-American women artists have struck a balance between standard themes and original expression. The catalogue—free to all attendees, as is admission—is a six-fold cardstock brochure, with handsome prints of all 10 quilts. Curator Eli Leon’s extensive notes plus bibliography provide a good introduction to the art form. 

Leon traces the artists’ style back to their African heritage:” While every society finds its own balance between structured and spontaneous artistic expression, sub-Saharan African cultures—and the traditions they inspired throughout the Americas—are exceptional in the degree to which they favored spontaneity.” He says that this “posed a problem” for Euro-Americans, whose crafts historically have favored exact repetition.  

In the European tradition the divergence between high art and crafts, which has been taking place since the Renaissance, has allocated originality to “art” and imitation to “crafts.” Crafts have often been accorded lower status, especially the fabric crafts, possibly because they have largely been the province of women. But when well-meaning American women of European descent taught quilt-making to African-Americans, they were confounded by what emerged from many of the quilters. These students mastered what Leon calls “standard-traditional” patterns when they chose to, but they also branched out into the colorful riffs on standard themes which this show celebrates.  

Leon calls them “Afro-traditional” quilts, saying that they “incorporate a seemingly heterogeneous mix of qualities, including improvisation, that depart from Euro-American standards while conforming to norms that cut across a broad spectrum of African cultures.” The examples in this exhibit contain variations on the traditional bow-tie pattern deployed in unique designs.  

Leon got into quilt-collecting in the ‘60s, starting out with standard-traditional quilts. He’s an inveterate collector—he says he “must have 50 different collections” of art objects made from things that might otherwise be thrown away, mostly packed into his small North Oakland house. He found quilts made by African-Americans particularly beautiful and intriguing, and started researching their origins. 

There were a few scholars studying this kind of art who were starting to reject what he calls “the deficit theory,” that these were simply failed attempts at traditional quilting, and he learned from them of the African origins of the genre. Later on, he sought out the still-living artists and taped interviews with them about what their intentions were, which confirmed his idea that there is usually some kind of non-random planning underlying their deviation from standard designs. 

The quilts in the Mills show all have the bow-tie somewhere in the design, and they’re all made from vividly colored fabrics, but the interpretation of these motifs is strikingly different for each artist represented. 

Leon had lost track of one of them, Johnnie Poindexter, whose “String Bow Tie” quilt was pieced in 1981 when she lived in Oakland. A friend took her to see the Mills exhibit, and she and Leon reconnected. 

The show was originally scheduled to close on Aug. 7, but it was reopened at the request of African American Mills alumnae who are meeting there this week, and will go on until Sept. 11. Johnnie Poindexter was at the reception which accompanied the re-opening, meeting fans and having her picture taken with her work. 

Talking to her, I was reminded of a line from a hymn I once heard in an African-American church: “After all I’ve seen, I still have joy.” She gets around with a walker now, 24 years after she made the quilt in the show, but she’s still enjoying life. She’s moved to a senior citizens’ apartment building in Berkeley, where she continues piecing her joyous quilts.s