The Quilts of Gee's Bend
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend features a selection of twentieth-century quilts produced by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small, isolated community in southwestern Alabama. The inhabitants of Gee’s Bend populate a curving peninsula in the Alabama River and descend primarily from the former slaves of the Gee and Pettway Plantations. The origins of the Benders, as they call themselves, date to the early 1800s. Historically an agricultural society where the women plowed and planted and also cooked, kept house, and reared their large families, the Benders lived at a subsistence level well into the twentieth century. The programs of the New Deal in the 1930s and 40s helped these farmers survive, modernize, and, finally, take ownership of the property they had cultivated for generations. Although conditions improved, the community continued to have little contact with the outside world until the 1960s, evolving its own cultural and artistic modes of expression.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement helped spawn the Freedom Quilting Bee, a quilt-making cooperative that employed the women of Gee’s Bend. As their quilts began appearing in eastern department stores and elsewhere in the United States, the Benders’ prodigious talent and unique designs earned widespread recognition.
Ultimately, the requirement to reproduce identical examples of the same quilt proved incompatible with their individualistic approach. The Bee did, however, have one important consequence; the women began to use corduroy, a fabric that inspired a new chapter in their quilt-making story.
One section of the exhibition is dedicated entirely to the corduroy quilts. Others present memorable examples of "Workclothes" quilts, styles known as "Triangles" and "Housetop," as well as more eccentric designs in groups labeled "Patterns" and "My Way." The exhibition also highlights styles that have evolved within families through several generations. Overall, the quilts demonstrate a distinctive art form that encourages comparison with other genres, particularly modernist abstract painting. As is often true of abstract art, the quilts’ innovative patterns and brilliant use of line and color demonstrate a highly developed talent for structure and design. Unlike abstract painters, however, the Gee’s Bend women created their quilts out of necessity and practical considerations rather than a conscious attempt to make art. Their focus on such everyday concerns as salvaging discarded fabric, recycling old clothing, and finding ways to keep their families warm and comfortable makes the extraordinary aesthetic appeal of their quilts even more remarkable.
While we celebrate and applaud these exquisite creations for their aesthetic qualities, we also respond to their visceral human connections. Closely linked to family well-being, a sense of identity for the individual quilters, and the cultural continuity of their community, a Gee’s Bend quilt constitutes more than a creative outlet. As one of the Benders stated, "It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history."
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend has been organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta. The exhibition’s presentation at the Corcoran is supported by The President’s Exhibition Fund and contributing sponsor Hecht’s.