A Photographer’s Love Affair With Southern Black Quilt Making

Rennie Zulu, “Twelve Squares of Traditional Culture in South Africa” ​​(1999) and Crossroad Quilters, “Sacred Animals II Quilt” (2000) (all images courtesy of the collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art )

The Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson has acquired 131 pieces reflecting the long tradition of quilt making among black women in Southern communities. The collection, a gift from the Kohler Foundation, was assembled by Roland Freeman, a prominent 20th-century black culture photographer and documentarian who became increasingly interested in quilt making throughout his career. The giveaway includes quilts made in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and other southern states, as well as Liberia and South Africa.

Varnette Honeywood, “African American Woman in Pink” (1992)

Freeman worked as a photographer for magazine of life and Magnum Photos and traveled the country capturing photos of black communities. In the early 1970s, Freeman became the director of the Mississippi Folklife Project, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, and became interested in the state’s long history of quilt making. The photographer has built up a personal collection of quilts and has published two books on the tradition: Something to Keep You Warm: The Roland Freeman Collection of Mississippi Heartland American Black Quilts (1981), published by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and A Communion of Minds: African-American Quilters, Conservatives and Their Stories (1996), published by Rutledge Hill Press.

Many new works from the Mississippi Museum of Art reflect the history of art practice in its home state. “Star Quilt” (1977), an explosively colorful arrangement of intricate diamond shapes, was created by Woodville, Mississippi native Anne Dennis, who – along with her sister and mother – piqued Freeman’s early interest in the quilt. Another newly acquired work entitled “Honeycomb Quilt” (1976) was sewn by the mother and daughter duo.

Other pieces pay homage to the practical. A quilt titled “African American Woman in Pink” (1992) forgoes the traditional patchwork patterns of many quilts and looks more like a collage. It was sewn by Varnette Honeywood, a painter and illustrator who depicted scenes of black life for television, books and on her own canvases, eventually achieving national fame as an artist.

Annie Dennis, “Star Quilt” (1977)

Several items from the Kohler Foundation gift also highlight the collaborative nature of the Mississippi quilting tradition. More recent figurative work was created by Crossroad Quilters, a group of mostly black artists who design and sew their quilts in groups.

In A communion of mindsFreeman wrote about the personal meaning and resonance the quilts had for him, describing them as “magical”.

“They could heal and curse; they could capture history and affect the future; they could turn pain into celebration,” the photographer wrote.

The museum plans to display the quilts in late 2024 or early 2025.

Annie Dennis and Phoeba Johnson, “Honeycomb Quilt” (1976)
Betty Tolbert, “Improvisational Quilt” (1973), quilted fabric
Cleola McFarland, “Strip Quilt” (1974), quilted fabric
Matilee Knight, “United Quilt”, 1988, quilted fabric

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