Fabric of a Nation
American Quilt Stories
Discover the extraordinary stories behind 300 years of American quilts
Quilts and coverlets have a unique capacity to tell stories: their tactile, intricate mode of creation and their traditional use in the home impart deeply personal narratives of their creators, and the many histories they express reveal a complex record of America. Quilts have also been used in North America since the 17th century, and their story, told by many voices, has evolved alongside the United States.
Upending expectations about quilt displays—traditionally organized by region, form, or motif—“Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” is a loosely chronological presentation in seven thematic sections that voices multiple perspectives. Visitors see and hear from artists, educators, academics, and activists, and the remarkable examples on view are by an underrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds from the 17th century to today, including female and male, known and unidentified, urban and rural makers; immigrants; and Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQIA+ Americans. The exhibition invites visitors to celebrate the artistry and intricacy of quilts and coverlets and the lives they document, while also considering the complicated legacies ingrained in the fabric of American life.
The exhibition brings together the only two surviving quilts by artist Harriet Powers, displaying the MFA’s iconic Pictorial quilt (1895–98) alongside the Bible quilt (1885–86), on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, for the first time. Powers, who was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia, was an exceptional artist and storyteller. But who gets to tell her story? By looking at Powers’s life and work through the lens of history and hearing from a variety of individuals, visitors are encouraged to make resonant connections to their own lives. Among other highlights are Bisa Butler’s To God and Truth (2019), a vibrantly colorful and elaborately patterned quilt based on an 1899 photograph of the Morris Brown College baseball team, and Carla Hemlock’s Survivors (2011–13), in which figures and names of 48 First Nations and Indigenous groups that survive today are stitched around a traditional pattern. Together, the masterpieces in this exhibition tell inclusive, human stories that link us across time and articulate a rich, and richly complicated, story of our shared history.
Unidentified artist, Civil War Zouave quilt, probably mid to late 1860s
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98
Carla Hemlock, Survivors, 2011–13
Irene Williams, Vote quilt, 1975
Bisa Butler, To God and Truth, 2019
Virginia E. Jacobs, Krakow Kabuki Waltz, 1987
Richard H. Rowley, A Century of Progress, 1933
Harriet Powers, Bible quilt, 1885–86
Sanford Biggers, A Deeper Form of Chess, 2017
Unidentified artist, Amish Floating Bars quilt, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States, about 1940
Unidentified artist, Hoosier suffrage quilt, probably Indiana, United States, before 1920
October 6–9, 2021
10:00 am–5:00 pm
October 10, 2021
10:00 am–11:00 am
In the News
Generous Supporter with Carolyn and Peter Lynch
Additional funding from the Dillon Fund of the Boston Foundation, the David and Roberta Logie Fund for Textile and Fashion Arts, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Fund for Exhibitions, the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, the Loring Textile Gallery Exhibition Fund, and the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund.
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