Image: Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled, 1970s, with embroidered scripture added mid-1980s; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1997. Photography by Ben Blackwell
Until December (and virtually) the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is showing a massive retrospective of nearly seventy works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, drawing on a historic bequest of African American quilts that the museum announced in 2019. An internationally renowned artist based in Richmond, CA, Tompkins (1936-2006) contributed more than five hundred quilts to the collection of Eli Leon, a scholar and advocate for African American quiltmaking traditions who donated his entire collection of nearly three thousand works to BAMPFA. Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective marks the first exhibition at BAMPFA of Tompkins’s work since this transformative bequest, and it includes dozens of quilts that have never been exhibited previously.
Image: Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled, c. 2002; cotton, printed cotton, polyester, canvas, knit velour, polyester fleece, wool, polyester knit, polyester double knit, cotton embroidery, and buttons; 104 × 145 in. Photography by Ben Blackwell
Born Effie Mae Howard in 1936 in Arkansas, the artist later adopted the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins. She learned quilting from her mother as a child but did not begin to practice the craft seriously until the 1980s, when she relocated to the Bay Area. Often inspired by her belief in God, Tompkins made quilts directed toward her own healing and spirituality and to honour family members. She employed a wide variety of traditional patterns, including half-squares, medallions, and yo-yos, exploring and adapting these approaches through her individual sensibility and integrating such favourite fabrics as velvet, artificial fur, and various types of glittery material. She also frequently incorporated embroidery—stitching words and citations of Christian scripture—as well as printed images on recycled clothes, which suggest the artist’s commentary on contemporary social, political, and cultural events.
Image: Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled, 1986; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1990; velvet and velveteen; 75 × 49 in. Photography by Sharon Risedorph
An Oakland-based psychologist, collector, and art scholar, Eli Leon (1935-2018) spent more than thirty years assembling his collection of African American quilts, which encompasses the large majority of Rosie Lee Tompkins’s total body of work. Leon was a close friend and early champion of Tompkins, organising at the Richmond Art Centre one of the first exhibitions to feature her quilts.
Enjoy the exhibition through online resources at bampfa.org
On 22 October join the LIVESTREAM: Roberta Smith and Lawrence Rinder on Rosie Lee Tompkins