Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Spirits of the Cloth: A book review

There is a vast collection of books on quilting in existence today. Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts stands out among them. In this book, Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi gives African American quilters, an emerging group within quilting, a voice to be heard and an opportunity to be recognized for their outstanding contribution to the field of both art and quilting. Not only does this book outline in detail the beginnings of African American quilting and how it has progressed through the years, it also provides stunningly beautiful photographs of quilts in this genre.

With a preface written by Faith Ringgold and a foreword written by Cuesta Benberry, also quilters, writers and researchers within their own right, Spirits of the Cloth can be considered to be an academic work within the field of African American quilting. As a quilter, researcher, writer, historian, curator and lecturer regarded as an authority on the subject, Dr. Mazloomi’s scholarly work provides the uninitiated with a wealth of information on a topic virtually unknown before the latter quarter of the 20th century. The text highlights 150 quilts, referred to by the author as the “stories” of the artists who created them.

Mazloomi discusses how, initially, the work of African American quilters was largely ignored by the traditional quilting community, as it did not conform to traditional, commonly-held practices and beliefs surrounding quilting. Quilts created by African American quilters had, naturally, been influenced by the African culture from which the quilters and their ancestors had come. Even in the quilts of today, the use of bold, strong, vibrant color can be seen in the quilts of their black creators.

It was not until the 1970s that this unique category of quilts came to be recognized and regarded as “official” by the larger quilting community. However, these so-called experts, while taking a step in the right direction, inadvertently caused more harm initially. They stated that African American quilts, in order to be categorized as such, had to fall within certain narrowly defined parameters, and made by black women who resided in a particular geographical region of the United States. This, then, meant that the vast majority of African American quilters were still left virtually unrecognized and unwelcomed into the quilting community, as their work fell neither in the category of traditional quilting or within the newly defined category of African American quilting.

Fortunately, the definition of African American quilting became broader in the 1980s, ironically enough because of the pioneering work of such women as Dr. Mazloomi herself, along with a number of her contemporaries. The first African American quilting guild was formed as a result of an advertisement placed by Mazloomi in a magazine; nine women responded. Today, the Women of Color Quilter’s Network has approximately 1700 members, some of whom are accomplished artists, speakers, and authors themselves. Similar guilds have since been formed.

This is a book with rich content and beautifully photographed quilts that cannot be passed up. It is truly a “coffee table” quality book. If you are still not convinced, borrow it from the library. You won’t want to give it back.

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