QUILT-MAKING FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE by Carolyn L. Mazloomi
The shocking murder of George Floyd, a black man who died as Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds in Minneapolis, not only shocked the nation, but angered people around the world. George Floyd is only the latest addition to the long list of victims of police brutality: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Andre’ Maurice Hill, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, and Philando Castile are just a few of many. The murder of George Floyd was different. His murder was different. It was condemned by citizens across social and political spectrums, causing protests and riots not seen in this country since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only were there protests in America, but Floyd’s death resonated around the world. Around the globe, marches of solidarity and protest condemning racism and police brutality under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’ took place.
“Mama! Mama!” There is nothing more powerful to mobilize a collective of women than the cries of their children. Such cries serve to herald a call to arms for such a time as this. George Floyd’s dying words ignited this call on behalf of every child who has suffered and succumbed to the evil trinity of brutality, inequity and racism in America. A mother’s first instincts are to protect, to comfort, and to teach. These are her counter-trinity tools. Historically, quilting has long been deployed as the mother-art evoking those tools as a maternal response to a child’s cry for protection and comfort, and to their need for learning.
I am an African American woman born in the Jim Crow segregated south, and I continue to survive the psychological and physical violence of white supremacy. I grew up seeing African Americans treated poorly by whites, killed by whites, and denied access to proper housing, education and health care. Racism in America is on the rise, and it’s “open season” on Black folks.
I cried for days after seeing the video of Floyd’s murder. Floyd’s cry to his mama for help mirrors a symbolic guttural cry for help from the belly of our nation. African Americans are crying out for fairness, justice, equality, and for protection from brutal police. In response to that cry, and to help educate the public on brutality, inequities and racism in America, I was inspired to curate We Are the Story, a series of quilt exhibitions on racism and police brutality. The exhibits took place at various venues in Minneapolis, the city of Floyd’s murder. As an artist and curator, I firmly believe art has the capacity to touch the spirit, engage, educate and heal in ways that words alone cannot.
Why use quilts to tell this story of issues of race in America? Because quilting is one of America’s most powerful art forms, with its widespread appeal and its association with comfort, warmth and healing. Quilts and quilt making are especially important to African American culture, because the art form was historically one of the few mediums accessible to marginalized groups to tell their own story, to provide warmth for their families, and to empower them with a voice. Through cloth, people can relate to history visually (story quilts), as opposed to reading about history, in ways that reach our hearts. We as human beings have a cradle-to-grave affair with cloth. Cloth is the first thing we are swathed in upon birth, and the last thing that touches the body upon our death. Most people are familiar with cloth. Telling a story, regardless of the subject, seems more palatable in cloth form.
The quilts as visual media pose an alternative and non-threatening approach to topics of social issues, about people and events that are embedded in the American memory as sensitive cultural parameters of race, class and gender. The artwork prompts a dialogue between the artist/interpreter and the viewer, challenging existing notions and posing questions that serve to move the discussion of racial reconciliation forward into the next generation of problem-solvers.
Art matters. I cannot be silent. Each exhibited quilt indispensably enriches us all, has potential to advance the conversation on racism and equality in the United States, and works toward shaping human potential. Does the viewer get it? Viewers are mesmerized by the beauty, the ingenuity, and the stories the quilts convey. I have actually seen viewers walk away in tears. I have received letters from viewers profoundly touched by the quilts, vowing to educate themselves on African American history and culture. People must hear our stories, feel and understand our pain. I will not be protesting in the streets; however, I will let the artwork do the talking.
Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, is the founder of WCQN - The Women of Color Quilter’s Network, and a Bess Haus NEA Fellow, whose work has been recently added to the collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum and Boston Museum of Art. Dr. Mazloomi is the curatorial director of We Are The Story: A Visual Response to Racism – The internationally-acclaimed exhibition featuring story quilts from across the globe including works by The Women of Color Quilter’s Network. Learn more about Dr. Mazloomi HERE.