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In the opening scene of Vanessa Vadim and Matt Arnet’s 2006 documentary, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, a group of Black women sing gospel hymns on a porch in their hometown of Boykin, Alabama. It is a sunny day; whispers of wind and the sounds of birds rustle through the trees as, stitch by stitch, the group collectively constructs a quilt. Screening on loop in Hauser & Wirth’s Community Lab, the film acted as a contextual supplement to The New Bend, a recently-closed exhibition curated by Legacy Russell. Installed alongside a map and timeline of Gee’s Bend (spanning from 1540 to the present), the documentary features intimate interviews that recall the communal joy, strength, and resourcefulness of the quilting practice, passed through generations.
As Russell’s self-professed “love letter” to the remarkable history of Gee’s Bend, The New Bend acknowledged the raw innovation and resilience of a group of artists whose contributions shifted the reception of a medium historically excluded from a fine art context.1 In an effort to look forward, the exhibition did not include the textiles of Gee’s Bend quilters, instead featuring works by contemporary artists who harness the ethos of quilting to push toward new, hybrid forms of storytelling. Drawing on the influence of a rural, isolated network of quilters, the exhibition illuminated how the internet age has transformed how we perceive the threads that bind diasporic community.
The diverse group of 13 artists included in The New Bend represents a constellation of techniques and influences that navigate “raced, classed, and gendered traditions”2 of the medium. While some paid more direct homage to the bright color palettes and bold geometric designs of the Gee’s Bend quilts, others took divergent approaches, incorporating unconventional materials. The works guided viewers along a material journey through geographies and ancestries, from Zadie Xa’s stitched linen series of Shrine paintings (all 2022), informed by traditional Korean patchwork, to Anthony Akinbola’s elegantly draped tapestry of pink durags (Majin Buu, 2022). By harnessing personal iconography, the works converged and refracted to celebrate permeability and interdependency across disciplines and diasporas.
Throughout the shared space, several artists employed materials imbued with intersecting regional narratives. In The Three Sisters (2021), Tomashi Jackson incorporated soil from the grounds of the Parrish Art Museum and potato bags alongside archival photographs of Black, Indigenous Shinnecock, and Latinx matriarchs of Long Island’s East End. Titled to reference to the Indigenous method of intercropping corn, squash, and beans for optimal survival, Jackson’s piece unites women from distinct communities, their portraits semi-concealed by layers of bright color blocks. The treatment of their portraits symbolically mirrors the excavation of narratives that dominant histories have attempted to erase. In a similar emphasis on site, Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s Holbein En Crenshaw (Washington Blvd. and Crenshaw Blvd., LA, CA) (2018), draws the viewer through the textures of Central Los Angeles. The front of the assemblage is punctuated with acrylic facsimiles of signage for freeway Exit 9 (Crenshaw Boulevard) and the Guatemalan fast food chain Pollo Campero, while the back is made from rubber casts of trees, echoing the effect of stripping a piece of bark to reveal what lies underneath.
Inherent to quilting, visible stitching indexes the maker, much like the way that we embed traces of our identities as we navigate online spaces. In a filmed conversation on view in the gallery, Russell and NEW INC director Salome Asega draw a parallel between the stitch and the pixel to reflect on Gee’s Bend as a model for artist-led initiatives in the context of a decentralized Web3.3 This correlation is illustrated by the work of Qualeasha Wood, whose Jacquard-woven self-portrait Ctrl+Alt+Del (2021) depicts her computer desktop; an open Finder window and halo frame the artist’s face, surrounded by collaged images of clouds and baby angel emojis. Ctrl+Alt+Del melds the legacy of textile-making with Wood’s personal fascination with the internet, avatars, and methods of digital composition. In the context of The New Bend, the work’s title—a reference to the keyboard shortcut used to close a non-responsive application—can be read as a curatorial urge to refresh the hierarchical frameworks of systemic exclusion.
Textiles are archives of identities and lived experiences, portals that connect us to our predecessors. By ambitiously weaving together a confluence of dialogues, The New Bend challenges us to consider how a collective approach to art history can offer new networks and sightlines for future generations.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.