Image: Double Wedding Ring, Maker unknown, Circa 1970, Possibly made in Pickens County, Alabama, Hand pieced and quilted, Robert & Helen Cargo Collection, International Quilt Museum.
An interview with Carolyn Ducey, Ardis B. James Curator of Collections at the International Quilt Museum, Nebraska presenting African-American Quilts from the Robert Cargo Collection at The Festival of Quilts at the NEC Birmingham from 18-21 August 2022.
Carolyn, what an exciting exhibition you’re bringing to The Festival of Quilts this summer – the first of its kind for the UK, we believe. African-American quilts are a significant part of American quilt history. What will this exhibition have to say about race, diversity and legacy?
This exhibition is a great reminder that American quilt-making – and really, quilt-making around the world - includes makers from a very wide variety of cultures and has been done by many people from diverse cultures and religious groups around the world. At one point many years ago, we believed that quilt-making was uniquely a U.S. phenomenon, but today we know quilts and quilted clothing and related household items come from all over the globe. I also think it is good to remind ourselves that, though the quilts we are exhibiting at the Festival were a regional group and therefore exhibit similarities between them through their improvisational approach, African-Americans made quilts in all styles and genres throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, so it is impossible to classify them in one way. Race certainly features in some of the communities that made quilts, such as Gee’s Bend, but to look at quilts through that lens does not do justice to the entire gamut of African-American quilt-making.
Image: Everybody Quilt, Nora Ezell (1919-2007), Dated 1985, Made in Eutaw, Greene County, Alabama, Hand pieced and quilted, Robert & Helen Cargo Collection, International Quilt Museum.
As professor emeritus of the University of Alabama and owner of the Folk Art Gallery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Dr. Robert Cargo built a collection that began in the 1950s when he inherited his grandmother’s and great grandmother’s quilts. He was a champion of self-taught artists and quilt-makers from his home state – and later, other states of the Deep South - and the collection grew to become one of the most important in the U.S. What is it about these quilts – and their makers - that captured Cargo’s imagination?
As you mentioned, Robert Cargo grew up with quilts in his home and collected mainstream styles, so when he encountered these quilts hanging outside of homes, on clotheslines in the counties around Birmingham, Alabama, he was completely wowed by what he saw. As a collector of all types of folk art, he was especially appreciative of the individual expressions he saw in the quilts.
In 2000, the International Quilt Museum acquired a 156-piece collection from Dr. Cargo, spanning the twentieth century and representing different parts of Alabama, including the now-famous Gee’s Bend. How important is the collection to the quilting community?
The Cargo collection is particularly important due to the fact that the majority of the quilts have known makers. This is unusual in any case as quilt-makers rarely signed their pieces, but is especially important in the case of African-American makers. Early on as quilt-making history developed, people assumed they could tell an African-American quilt by its construction or materials, and this is simply not the case. Building a collection by dealing directly with the makers or their families, and carefully documented by Dr. Cargo, gives us absolute surety when identifying them. Though that has changed and become more the norm, The IQM collection is still one of the largest and best-documented collections available.
Image: Log Cabin variation, Mary Maxtion (1924-2015), Circa 1994, Made in Boligee, Greene County, Alabama, Hand pieced and quilted, Robert & Helen Cargo Collection, International Quilt Museum.
The quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend have, of course, received much attention in recent years. Why do you think it has taken so long to discover - and indeed to recognise - the significance of these women’s art and their stories?
I feel that the quilts came to a greater awareness due to many factors we see in quilt appreciation overall. Since the 1970s, collectors and historians began to understand that quilts function as great records of the makers’ lives and experience. They particularly bring the lives of underrepresented groups to our attention – including women, African-Americans, Hmong peoples and Native Americans, for example. There simply wasn’t widespread recognition of the art that people outside the mainstream fine arts created.
We are thrilled to be showing an exhibition at this year’s Festival by Michael A. Cummings, the leading African-American male quilter. Would you say there is a relationship between Michael’s work and that in the Cargo Collection?
I see a link between the quilts made by Michael Cummings and the African-American women represented in the Cargo collection through their unique approach. Both make quilts that are impacted by their individual experience. It’s true that mainstream quilt-makers traditionally followed a more formulaic approach through the use of patterns and fabrics. However, the Cargo artists also follow a style or approach that was trending in their Southern neighbourhood. It is a looser approach with an immediacy in decision making. There is a freedom in their creative path as they piece together unique fabrics in original designs.
Michael uses a similar approach as well, although it is informed by his experience as an artist. He takes a very deliberate approach in his subject matter and techniques that is built upon experimentation and experience. It is easy to label him as an artist rather than ‘just’ a quilt-maker. I don’t, however, particularly like using such limiting descriptors. Any maker has a unique vision they transfer to cloth. They make similar decisions about colour, placement, and contrast. The biggest difference, I feel, is simply in how the maker identifies their work – as a functional piece or as a piece made to hang on a wall.
Image: Star of Bethlehem, Pieced by Anna Pearl Jackson Washington (1912-1993), quilted by Roberta Jemison (1928- ), Circa 1995, Made in Greene, County, Alabama, Hand pieced and quilted, Robert & Helen Cargo Collection, International Quilt Museum.
This is an often-debated topic, and one that has merits on both sides. I just feel it is important to appreciate the work in its context, but not get too bogged down in narrow descriptives that force pieces and makers into specific categories. What is important is to appreciate and enjoy each work on its own merit and to honour the individuals’ creative vision.
To find out more about the Robert Cargo Collection at the International Quilt Museum, visit here.
Especially for Selvedge readers, The Festival of Quilts are offering a discount of £1.50 off adult advance tickets and £1.50 off concessions using the discount code: SELVEDGE22. Please note that the discount code expires at 23:59 on Wednesday 17 August 2022.