The Heart Has Its Own Intelligence: Legacies of the Gee’s Bend Quilters

A roundtable discussion on the occasion of the exhibition “The New Bend”

By Cassie Packard

Girl at Gee’s Bend, 1937. Photo: Arthur Rothstein, courtesy Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project

  • Mar 18, 2022

Gee’s Bend—or Boykin, as it was officially renamed in 1949—sits at a hairpin turn along the Alabama River in the heart of the state’s Black Belt, a region that was named for its rich topsoil and that remains inextricably intertwined with histories of enslavement, dispossession, and civil rights organizing.

Gee’s Bend is small, a hamlet, really; its inhabitants, many of whom are descended from Africans enslaved on Joseph Gee’s cotton plantation in the early 19th century, number fewer than 300 people today. But the community’s cultural footprint, in contrast to its population, is massive: Gee’s Bend is the birthplace of the most significant intergenerational quilting tradition in the history of the United States and is now also acknowledged as one of the most important sites of 20th century American abstraction.

Gee’s Bend’s aesthetic legacy grew out of an ethos of self-reliance and communal care. Women pieced together quilts from readily available materials to keep their families warm in old houses without central heating (electricity didn’t become available in the area until the mid-1960s); the women then passed the practice down to daughters and granddaughters. A diasporic art form rooted in West and Central African textile traditions, the abstract quilts have a distinctive visual vernacular characterized by large, asymmetrical pieces of fabric, vibrant colors and patterns known as “Housetop” (dominated by concentric squares) and “Bricklayer” (distinguished by stepped pyramid motifs) that provide geometric scaffolding for improvisation, akin to jazz riffs. The quilts frequently incorporate salvaged materials such as recycled denim work clothes, dresses, and feed sacks; the meaning and memory embedded in these materials shape the quilts’ emotional texture.

Beyond their functional, aesthetic, and affective appeal, Gee’s Bend quilts have historically been enmeshed with battles for social and economic liberation. Through the Freedom Quilting Bee (1966–2012), a quilting cooperative founded in the mid-1960s in nearby Rehobeth, local Black craftswomen were able to generate income from their work, determine the conditions of their production, and reinvest in their community—at a moment when many local Black men had lost their jobs in retaliation for exercising their right to vote. Civil rights activism was prevalent among Freedom Quilting Bee members, and a number participated in voting rights drives such as the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

“If I had to choose one thing to look at for the rest of my life, I would choose the Gee’s Bend quilts … I think that the Black feminine resourcefulness in them—and the way it connects the everyday with the spiritual—is profound.”—Sojourner Truth Parsons

Jennie Pettway and another girl with the quilter Jorena Pettway sewing a quilt, Gee’s Bend, Alabam, 1937. Photo: Arthur Rothstein

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sewing Center of the Freedom Quilting Bee, 1974. Photo: Patricia Goudvis

A second economic cooperative, the Gee’s Bend Quilters Cooperative, was established in 2003, a year after a major exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Giving the quilts unprecedented exposure and catapulting their makers into national consciousness, the show traveled throughout the United States for several years, with stops in New York, Memphis, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The quilts, which had typically been framed as “folk art” in the 1990s, began to be described as undisputed modernist masterpieces by art critics, who drew comparisons to work by Josef Albers and Frank Stella.

The show, particularly in its Whitney Museum iteration in 2002, was an important turning point. Since that time, the conversation around the Gee’s Bend quilts has grown beyond the staid siloing of “art” from “craft,” and “folk art” from “fine art.” Compelling questions and considerations continue to arise. How has the Black American South shaped abstraction? How might the chronology of modernism be retold with the full inclusion of this history, exploding exclusionary canons? What new lenses might the Gee’s Bend quilts be seen through, and what new models could they engender?

“There can never be one critical paradigm for the evaluation of artistic work,” bell hooks wrote in her 1990 essay, “An Aesthetic of Blackness—Strange and Oppositional.” “In part a radical aesthetic acknowledges that we are constantly changing positions, locations, that our needs and concerns vary, that these diverse directions must correspond with shifts in critical thinking.”

“The New Bend,” curated by Legacy Russell at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, invites the kind of expansionary thinking that hooks advocates. Evoking a call and response, the exhibition explores the dialogue between Gee’s Bend quilters and a group of artists at work with textiles today, using them in ways that engage with the medium’s history of gender, race, and class while offering visions of its future. I recently sat down with three of the show’s artists, Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola, Basil Kincaid, and Sojourner Truth Parsons, to discuss the aesthetic and social influence of Gee’s Bend’s on their work.

Sojourner Truth Parsons, red goes away, 2021 © Sojourner Truth Parsons. Photo: Thomas Barratt

Installation view, “The New Bend,” Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 2022. Photo: Thomas Barratt

Cassie Packard: I’m curious about the origin of your respective relationships with quilting, and with the quilting traditions of Gee’s Bend.

Basil Kincaid: Quilting has been in my family for generations. I personally started sewing and making quilts in 2016, after a period of collecting materials on the streets in St. Louis. My grandmother, her sister and some of my great aunts were in a quilting circle that was similar to Gee's Bend, but in Arkansas. They were doing improvisational quilting, so that's how I got interested, through wanting to continue my family tradition and reclaim a piece of my family history.

I feel like quilting comes back to this idea of repurposing elements, giving them new life, and letting them continue. It’s like keeping a stew going. There’s a book about an endless meal: you start a meal, then you take leftovers from that meal to make a new meal. To me, quilting is the act of keeping this energy going.

Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola: I’ve never really considered my work to be quilting per se. There’s an element of sewing in my practice, so I can’t really neglect conversations around quilting and craft—but I put more emphasis on the conceptual repurposing of material, and a kind of geometric abstraction also practiced by the Gee’s Bend quilters.

For my piece in this exhibition, I stitched the tails of durags together and was beginning to see stripe patterns. I thought, “I’m about to really play with this.” And then I saw that the Gee’s Bend quilters had already done it! I feel like I’m really in conversation with them, and their work is what I need to be looking at. It’s hard for me to be in conversation with Josef Albers, for example, because we don’t have similar goals in what we’re making. Albers is really about rules. But with the Gee’s Bend quilts, without those rules, you arrive at the same result, of work that is compositionally sound and provocative.

Sojourner Truth Parsons: My grandmother grew up in a tiny fishing village and became a master knitter there. She left the village for the first time to help my mom raise me, and I grew up with this fourth grade–educated master artisan who thought that what she did was no big deal. She asked, “Why would you want to learn this rubbish?” but meanwhile she was making these incredible pieces of art: knitted blankets with color combinations that were so amazing and strange. (It turned out that she was colorblind.) So, I grew up in that space, immersed in the building of a colorful, flat world.

If I had to choose one thing to look at for the rest of my life, I would choose the Gee’s Bend quilts. They move me on such a deep level, and I think that the Black feminine resourcefulness in them—and the way it connects the everyday with the spiritual—is profound. In my practice, I have always connected with the idea that you make something for a reason. The kinds of reasons that have felt compelling to me come from the space of the heart and feeling. These quilts were made for such a reason.

“I feel like quilting comes back to this idea of repurposing elements, giving them new life, and letting them continue. It’s like keeping a stew going.”—Basil Kincaid

BK: When I graduated college, I felt like I had kind of wasted time learning about old white dudes; I could appreciate the technique, but for me, emotional content in artwork is the most profound thing. When I left school and saw Gee’s Bend quilts for the first time … true is the best word for it. I thought, “Damn. I was searching all through school and this is the thing that I was looking for.”

STP: They’re an undeniable truth.

BK: Exactly.

AOA: If you watch documentaries on Gee’s Bend quilters, a lot of the language that they use to discuss their work is very matter-of-fact, and there’s a way in which the art becomes accessible. A woman making the most beautiful quilt might say, “I just wanted to make something for my aunt, and she liked these colors.” The high-art realm takes these things and super-conceptualizes them or formalizes them. One of the women said that it was hard for her to think of the quilts as art because when it got cold in Gee’s Bend, they used them as quilts. There’s this recognition of the utility of the object as a blanket.

I want my work to have that energy. I didn’t study art in school, so I didn’t have formal training or know who the abstract masters were. I just thought, “I’m using material.” So their attitude is empowering in that way. I don’t like the idea of feeling forced to justify something that can just come about naturally. I think about Josef Albers, and the laws of color, and think “Just use what you got.”

CP: And historically, the Gee’s Bend quilters have used what they’ve got—for example, incorporating pieces of corduroy and denim work clothes into their quilts.

AOA: I really like the denim work because, obviously, it’s all blue denim, but the variations in how it was worn produce a really interesting experiential palette with subtle gradations. It’s not as if the quilter needed to mix colors to make it; these things already existed in the material.

BK: You’re letting nature mix the color. It’s like when you see paint peeling off a building, or a particular patina that you couldn’t have preconceived. They’re harnessing that.

I studied with Mary Ann [Pettway] and China Pettway in 2017 [two current, prominent Gee’s Bend quilters.] One of the main things that I took away, that they said from a point of instruction and reflection on the practice itself, was that the whole thing is rooted in joy. That’s something I found really powerful: The heart has its own intelligence. In some of those quilts, the serendipity of color and rhythm in the work feels like music; all of that comes from letting intuition be at the helm and staying in that joyful energetic space. When you look at what that does cognitively, and what it’s done for Black people throughout time, it is a real work of magic beyond art.

In this kind of quilting, you take elements with memory content from people you love; put your own energy and love and presence into it; and then your loved ones wrap themselves in it. You’ve created a space and an artifact that memorializes your joy in the face of an outside world that subjugates and depreciates you.

AOA: That brings me to a term I often use in relation to my work—representational abstraction. With quilting, there is an asymmetrical exchange of information, where if you’re familiar with how certain things have been communicated in quilts historically, you can read into their meaning. When I work with durags, I’m working with a material that a lot of people wear regularly, like the pieces of clothing incorporated into quilts. There’s this deeper connection with the material, where it’s abstract and representational at the same time.

BK: And the closer you are to the actual artist, the more of the story you can get. I guess there are gradients of intimacy, where you can access a deeper understanding of the work the closer you are to the experiences that created the framework for it.

STP: Both of you are talking about intuition. That’s something that I also feel really compelled by, in how these works are made.

CP: If value is ascribed to intuition in art spaces, which are so often elitist and intellectualizing spaces, maybe that intrinsically repositions power?

Anthony Akinbola, Jubilee, 2021 © Anthony Akinbola. Photo: Thomas Barratt

Basil Kincaid, Four Eyes One Vision, 2021 © Basil Kincaid. Photo: Thomas Barratt

AOA: I really like that subversion. Everyone has a relationship with textiles through everyday items like blankets or clothes, and so when they’re used, everyone can connect, to a degree. But if you want to look at some of the geometrical abstraction artists, all of a sudden you need to know theory.

BK: What you’re describing to me sounds like a barrier to the feeling part of the art. If you don’t have the prerequisite knowledge, you don’t have access to the work.

STP: What’s so powerful about things that are made intuitively from the heart is that they’re the truth, and people can feel that. Even if you haven’t invested a lot of time in certain dialogues around looking at things, when you look at art, you can feel if it’s honest—and truth, I think, is very compelling.

CP: In that vein, there’s a truth to these quilts in that they don’t conceal how pieced-together they are. They don’t pretend that they arrived whole, and there’s an honesty to the visible stitching of disparate fragments. I see something inherently restorative or reparative in that.

BK: There’s a meditative nature to the process of piecing together the quilts, and quilt-making has been so therapeutic to me over the years, and healing on so many levels. In college, when I was painting, it felt like a fight. I would duke it out until the end. But when I started quilting, it was as if my hands already knew how to do it.

It’s an automatic process that involves improvisation and patience. Doctors should prescribe this stuff! It has been amazing to find a practice that’s situated in my familial and cultural tradition that I can make my own, and I feel a tremendous compulsion to do this work.

STP: Well, you’ve had a confirmation, in the form of that knowing—which becomes a ship, and then you board that ship and go.

BK: Exactly. And the improv piece is a large part of that to me. If I had one rule, it would be that when someone encounters my work, feeling comes first and contemplation second. It’s similar to how I work, from a feeling first.

AOA: I feel similarly. The people who gravitate toward my work don’t necessarily care about color theory, or conversations surrounding the readymade; more so, they’re moved by how the material has been used, that durags have been brought into a blue-chip art gallery or an institution that has historically been inaccessible or exclusive.

The work is frequently politicized but it’s fundamentally versatile. It could be about color theory and relativity; it could be about labor and mass production and commodification. I like that versatility. Depending on what discussion needs to be had, the work can be a kind of chameleon and adjust.

BK: That’s one thing I love about your work. Also, that way of working is very reflective of how—and I’ll speak for myself here—I’ve been made to exist in this space. I’ve had to be a chameleon to operate functionally, and it’s inevitable that the work is going to reflect those experiences.

For me, I’ve always thought that if I make work that is true to my lived experiences, it might be hyper-specific, but that specificity is what opens the door for it to touch on something universal.

“A lot of the language that [the Gee’s Bend quilters] use to discuss their work is very matter-of-fact … A woman making the most beautiful quilt might say, “I just wanted to make something for my aunt, and she liked these colors.””—Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola

AOA: When I encountered your abstract works made from calling cards, they touched me. My parents are Nigerian, and before WhatsApp, they were really using calling cards.

BK: I’m so glad you brought that up, because that was the work that directly led me to quilting. I made those large-scale calling-card collages the first time that I went to Ghana, in 2015. I collaborated with neighborhood kids to collect the materials.

STP: The calling-card works bring me back to what Cassie was saying about edges, and not disguising the ways that the quilts are pieced together. For me, the calling-card works are profound because they evoke edges of time and recall an experience in the body. I find edges really beautiful. When I’m experiencing the world, I can’t help but see everything as an edge, as a color next to a texture next to a flatness. And as a white-passing person of color, that “edgeness” has been part of the way that I’ve moved through the world interpersonally, my whole life. On an edge.

There’s this question, in our work and lives, of what we choose to foster. I know that the calling-card works could be perceived in a number of different ways, but I see them as choosing to foster love. I think that the Gee’s Bend quilts also choose to foster love. They kind of feel like God, in a way, those quilts. Work that is infused with that, like the calling-card pieces, ends up being deeply touching.

BK: When I first started making them, I was thinking about my family. It was my first time in Africa, and I wanted to capture how we were communicating in that moment. I was looking at calling cards from an emotional place, but also looking at this pattern of economic extraction from Africa. These calling card companies are almost all owned by European and American entities.

If you look at European cultures, the highest value is placed on objects because those cultures were developed in spaces of scarcity. In Africa, where it’s beautiful every day and you have an abundance of resources, culture evolved to focus on interconnection. The emphasis on community and relationships shapes our rituals and the way that we engage with one another. And then there’s this economic extraction from our ability to connect with each other, tapping into a core cultural value.

Basil Kincaid with Rhodaline Parlton holding Kincaid’s Untitled (2014), Ghana, 2014. Courtesy Basil Kincaid. Photo: Nii Odzenma

STP: I’m thinking back to what you were saying earlier, Basil, about keeping the stew going, and Anthony, about sewing together the tails of durags and finding stripes and then seeing yourself in the other, in the striped Gee’s Bend quilts. I love that when we move forward, we notice that we’re coming together.

AOA: I was recently in an exhibition that played off of this intergenerational theme. There are original ideas, but there’s also a lot of crossover from just being and living in the world, and that is something that should be accepted and embraced. There are, of course, some artists who don’t like that, who want to be the only one doing something.

STP: It’s so white to think like that.

BK: I was going to say that, too—you are spot-on.

AOA: That’s why these kinds of exhibitions, and this sort of conversation, are so necessary. We need to be in dialogue with other work, as opposed to this lone-wolf mentality that prizes getting ahead.

BK: Working together is going to help us all grow at a more expedient rate either way. Iron sharpens iron. There’s this notion that everyone needs to be the champion of their own destiny, but our destinies are intertwined. If your goal is to become the best artist you can be, that goal shouldn’t be tied up with something being lesser than you. But we can grow. I think that what Anthony said is true, that conversations like this, where we have access to each other, are a really valuable asset.

STP: The health of the individual is directly linked to the health of the community, right? Understanding each other and learning from each other and sharing and supporting one another—that’s wealth.

Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola (b. 1991, Columbia, Missouri) is a first-generation American raised between Missouri and Nigeria. Foregoing conventional approaches to painting and sculpture, Akinbola reimagines the construction of identity through startling original treatments of color and texture. His self-developed techniques explore the possibilities of totemic materials such palm oil, hairbrushes, and durags—fiber scarves used in the maintenance of Black hair. Characterizing his works as “metaphors for what a first-generation existence might look like,” Akinbola unpacks the rituals and histories separating Africa from Black America.

Basil Kincaid (b. 1986, St. Louis, Missouri) is a post-disciplinary artist who explores the fixity of conditioned and self-imposed constructs. Through quilting, collaging, photography, installation and performance—done with found, salvaged and donated materials—Kincaid interrogates social mores while drafting alternative cultural fabrics. With an improvisational and community-oriented approach, resourcefulness and freedom of imagination emerge as critical components in the liberation of spirit.

Sojourner Truth Parsons (b. 1984, Vancouver, British Columbia) makes paintings that are personal yet fictional moments, driven by a desire to translate the psychological and the affective into visual form. Bodies, flora and fauna, the city—the touchstones of daily existence—are anchoring forms in her practice; they are images that stand in for the emotional acuities and atmospheric intensities that occupy her time in the studio. Parsons’ paintings aim to manifest a perception concerned with the saturated and sacred, one that is filtered through illusion and shaped by multiplicity and doubt.

“The New Bend” was on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 3 February – 2 April 2022.

Photos by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.