One of the most important things hanging on the wall at “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories,” which just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, isn’t a quilt at all. Rather, it’s a swatch of pale, plush carpet, thick and velvety, installed midway through the exhibition at a strategic pause. “Fabric of a Nation” engulfs with its material and social history, its craft and narrative, its balance of dark and light; the carpet is a reflective moment to catch your breath, and one visitors have embraced: Its surface is scored with the imprint of countless hands that have left behind little greetings and sketches in its silky hide.
That it comes at the exhibition’s most harrowing passage makes it welcome indeed. “Harrowing” might not be a term that leaps to mind when considering an exhibition of quilts, a comfortably homespun medium if there ever was one. But that’s just one of the surprises to be found here. The carpet hangs adjacent to “A Deeper Form of Chess,” a 2017 installation by the artist Sanford Biggers, whose powerful 2019 exhibition at Tufts University Art Galleries centered on Black people shot by police; it includes a human-size wooden idol splintered by bullets in front of a ragged patchwork of fabric. Nearby, Carolyn Mazloomi’s “Strange Fruit,” 2020, a whole-cloth quilt, captures the eerie Billie Holiday song in black-and-white stitchwork that depicts lynched Black Americans hanged from trees. A small untitled piece by Michael Thorpe, made in haste the morning after the murder of George Floyd, says “Black Man” in pale brown twill, stitched to a patchwork of applique cloth, one of which is sketched with African mask motifs. He declared it a call to action “to every white person I know.”
“Fabric of a Nation” was conceived as a straight chronology four years ago, curator Jennifer Swope told me on a recent walk through at the MFA. But times changed and plans were disrupted, and a stronger show in tune with the moment is the result. The exhibition spans more than 300 years, positioning quilt-making as a constant in American cultural production, rumbling quietly along in the background; but a rethink with the upheavals of these many pandemic months in mind has made it fresh and timely, linking historical complexity to the clamorous upheavals of today.
“Fabric of a Nation” will be enormously satisfying to the vast networks of quilters, who are legion: Most of the museum’s outstanding collection is out and on display for quite likely the one and only occasion in a lifetime. But to the uninitiated, it’s also a captivating lesson in how a form long overlooked as serious art has left its tracks across every vital moment in American cultural history, and continues to do so.
Swope disrupts chronology at strategic points, tying together historical event and contemporary moment. The opening gallery offers a trio of stars-and-stripes motifs rife with complication. Irene Williams’s 1975 “Vote” quilt, was made in Gee’s Bend, the Alabama hamlet just outside Selma famous for quilts made by the descendants of enslaved people from the Pettway Plantation. Beside it hangs a red-white-and-blue-striped wool blanket woven in the late-19th century by a Navajo woman for her employer, Major James Cooper McKee, chief medical officer of New Mexico who had a hand in negotiating the 1868 treaty that established the Navajo nation’s relationship to the US government. On the right, a disjointed stars-and-bars quilt from the early 20th century in Indiana is embroidered with the names of supporters of the women’s suffrage movement.
With a federal bill designed to protect voting rights struggling to survive in Congress right now — and the many state bills introduced this year to restrict them — “Fabric of a Nation” plants its flag in the age-old American conundrum of imperfect democracy, binding our own moment of looming disenfranchisement to countless others that have come before.
Right from the start, “Fabric of a Nation” knits in historical complications of all kinds — and nothing that follows escapes them. With the stage set, the exhibitions pivots you toward Bisa Butler’s “To God and Truth,” a shimmering fabric monument in which the New Jersey-based artist has re-created a photograph of the 1899 Morris Brown College baseball team using Kente cloth, Nigerian hand-dyed batiks, and African and Dutch wax-resist printed cottons.
It’s a densely-woven work, and not just materially. The fabrics themselves are freighted with unsavory colonial history — prized in Europe, and often produced and obtained by exploitive means. The piece is radiant and ennobling, each of the players delicately shaded in colors that animate difference. That it sits across from an anonymous, crudely-made quilt from the early 20th century that employs various racist tropes in offhand cartoon fashion — a Black shoeshiner, a clichéd Native American dance — makes a point about the medium and the country both.
Quilts live in the popular imagination as the product of folksy hobbyists looking to enliven their bedclothes, but one of the show’s revelations — to me, anyway — is how they’ve been used historically to emanate status and power. Increase Sumner, governor of Massachusetts from 1797 to 1799, is said to have taken his third oath of office while draped under an enormous red silk bedcover hanging here. (In that era, important business was conducted in bed chambers, making bedcovers important outward symbols of wealth and influence.)
But the show is decidedly frank about the source of that wealth and power. Across the gallery, a glossy blue whole-cloth wool quilt with thick floral and vine patterns, made in Connecticut in the 18th century, provides a direct link from the United States to the indigo plantations — where the color came from — that used enslaved labor in the West Indies and American South. Rowland Ricketts’s “Unbound Series 2, No. 3,” from 2018, hung nearby, feels like an attempt at amends: Ricketts grows indigo on his Indiana farm; his tiny piece reflects how much he can produce, in sharp contrast to the trans-Atlantic exploitation once required to support cultivation at an industrial scale. It’s a small and beautiful thing where absence is presence: The delicate fabric is mirrored by an empty wooden stretcher at exactly the same size.
The show isn’t content to let its historical artifacts rest, however significant they may be. Historical precedent is constantly subverted, portraying quilting as quietly radical. Contemporary artists like Butler, Mazloomi, and Biggers leverage the medium’s history to powerful outward effect, but quilting’s subversive potential is knit into its history. Just beyond the tactile rug is one of the show’s key moments: a pair of works made by Harriet Powers in the late 1890s. One, her “Bible Quilt,” is owned by the Smithsonian, among the rare loans here; the other, her “Pictorial Quilt,” is a jewel in the MFA collection.
Powers, considered “the mother of the African American story quilt tradition,” according to the MFA, was born into slavery in Georgia in 1837. Her quilts captured Black American life both post and antebellum with an unflinching clarity of vision, and now serve as critical documents of Black historical perspective; A passage in her pictorial quilt envisions the 1833 Leonid meteor shower that lit up the sky with so many shooting stars that many slave owners, believing it to be judgment day, renounced human bondage on the spot, hoping to save their own souls.
Powers is the perfect bridge to the show’s final chapters, where contemporary quilting brings the show to a close with a flurry of radical innovations in content and form. It’s a tidy coda: The 20th century made the medium both broadly popular and accessible; quilting guilds formed, and mainstream retailers like Sears held national quilting competitions, some of which ended up displayed at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Richard H. Rowley’s intricately quilted vision of the fairgrounds themselves on the shore of Lake Michigan, hanging here, was a prize-winner among 25,000 submitted; Rowley, an architectural draftsman, entered it in his mother’s name, later telling his son that quilting was only something a woman would do.
The dominant notion of quilting as “women’s work” — quaint, insignificant and beneath the notice of serious art — became fodder for generations of makers. Swope includes here Agusta Agustsson’s “Blanket of Red Flowers,” an anatomically-correct grid of quilted genitalia in bright colors that was banned from being shown at an exhibition of women’s art at Boston City Hall in 1979; it’s a provocatively bawdy avatar for the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” feminist movement that has its roots right here.
Formal innovation abounds: It’s hard not to be taken by Virginia Jacobs’s “Krakow Kabuki Waltz,” 1986, a quilt made as a sphere; and Susan Hoffman’s “Coastline,” 1975, is inherently painterly, built strip by strip.
But the medium’s natural intimacy — snips and swatches, pieced together by hand — can also carry meaning. Gio Swaby, a young artist living in Toronto, crafts silhouetted portraits of other Black women, mostly friends and family, in a loving tribute to the power of the community that nurtured her. My mind links back to Powers and her narrative innovation of long ago, using a maligned medium to capture and preserve overlooked stories in a gesture of radical domesticity. Like Powers, Swaby doesn’t question her medium — she embraces it as art, a way to declare something powerfully personal and universal. Lineage is important to “Fabric of a Nation” because it’s always been important in art — which quilting is, and maybe always has been.
FABRIC OF A NATION: AMERICAN QUILT STORIES
Through Jan. 7, 2022, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org