The Kenya Quilt Guild is presently involved in preparations for an upcoming quilt exhibition to be held in Ailsa Craig, Canada, by a quilt shop Cotton by Post and its owners Suzanne Agnew and Garnet Smalley.
Guild members have been asked to contribute a substantial number quilts, most with an African theme, so that visitors to the exhibition can appreciate the riotous color and rich patterning of African designs.
The first question that arose was “What, exactly, IS an “African” quilt? Consider the possible definitions:
- A quilt made by someone who lives at the time of its making in Africa
- A quilt made by someone born in Africa, no matter where they live or what is their present national status
- A quilt made in Africa, regardless of its style
- A quilt that draws on one or more of the thousands of different ethnic traditions encompassed by the continent of Africa, including many with origins on other continents
- A quilt made with African fabrics and embellishments
This last opens a real can of worms. Many fabrics that look like African prints and weaving traditions are actually manufactured in other countries like Holland and Indonesia, not to mention India which supplies vast quantities of materials to Africa.
As you can quickly appreciate, the notion of “African quilt” is not an easy one to define. It is made even more complicated by the historical reality that African cultures seldom quilted, and certainly not in any form that resembles the kind of art quilting we see today. I’m not talking about appliqué here, which is a different matter. Appliqué and reverse appliqué have their African basis in Bakuba cloths and Fante Asafo flags, among many other wonderful indigenous African textiles.
Many years ago and early in my career as an art quilter, I had posed this same question, “what is an African quilt?” Seeking a clearer understanding of “African” in its stylistic sense, I took a simple design and modified its colors to mimic those I saw in the fabrics around me in Kenya. What do you suppose happened?
The same design expressed in African colors assumed a distinctly African character. That simple experience led me to deduce that the first and most important ingredient in the making of an African quilt is color.
The African color palette derives from two sources. The first is traditional and utilizes earth pigments and natural dyes. This palette is full of ochres, browns, rusts, burgundies, blacks and the whites of raw, untreated cotton cloth and other natural fibers. This is what I call the “natural” African color set.
When synthetic dyes were introduced to Africa a new range of colors appeared. The cloth dyers had not much experience with dyes, so they used each one on its own and at full strength. The result was a set of brilliant, strong reds, rich full blues, emerald greens, and golden yellows, colors never before seen. These form the “dyed” African color set.
When you want to make an African quilt, use fabrics from one or both of these color schemes, and be sure to add black and white. Forget about pastels and to a large degree anything shaded, unless it is one of the dyed African colors. You won’t find a lot of sky blue and baby pink in African quilts, will you? With an understanding of African colors under your belt, you might well ask about subject matter. Certain images are recognized as African – the traditional Maasai with spear and shield, often rendered in silhouette, is one such icon. A round hut with thatched roof is another. A calabash like the one shown below can become a printing motif or the subject of an art quilt. Such images abound and can be sourced from books, photos and sketches.
A gourd calabash for storage and transport of liquids
A quick search of the Internet for “African clipart” produces more sources of inspiration for icons and imagery than I can possibly discuss here. Use caution, however, when downloading or copying what you discover; copyright rules may apply.
Traditional African art supplies inspiration in the form of masks used for ritual and celebratory purposes, as well as household wares like calabashes and pottery. These contain rich examples of African decorative embellishments in the form of engravings, beading and other media applied as trims and ornaments. African jewelry falls into this category of source material, offering surface patterns as well as cast forms to inform you.
A Masai beaded collar provides inspiration for the quilt below
“Doorway to Africa”
Visit your local art museum and inquire whether or not they house an African art collection; you may be pleasantly surprised!
Otherwise, good online places to experience the wonderment of African art include The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum. And don’t forget to investigate online African art galleries, whose sites can provide you with contemporary as well as traditional expressions of African culture.
Like dyes, embellishments follow two trends in African art. There are those natural materials – wood, leather, feathers, fur, porcupine quills, bone, seeds, and shells – that were commonly used in traditional African decorative arts, for the simple reason that they were just about all that was available in a traditional setting. They make wonderful additions to contemporary African quilts, however.
Natural materials are sometimes eclipsed by man- and machine-made trims and details, like the aluminum beads in the photo above. Metals – brass, copper, tin, pottery and glass are found in a variety of ornaments and beads.
One talented South African quilter, Sally Scott, heavily embellishes some of her work with flattened soft drink bottle caps. These are popular additions to children’s toys in Africa and to the work of native African artists, so Sally simply picked up on a local theme and maximized it in her work. Sally shows her African quilts in the South African National Quilt Festivals.
Styles of quilting construction hardly play a specialized role in an African quilt, with many piecing and appliqué methods incorporated into any given piece. However, traditional African art is seldom geometrically perfect, so we expect African designs to be somewhat irregular in form. Improvisational piecing is a natural for African quilts, deriving circuitously from the quilting of Africans in the New World.
“Africa Flows Like a River”
Historic textiles from across the continent are many and varied in technique, color, design and pattern, a rich source of inspiration for contemporary African quilts. Studies of motifs, like those of adire and adinkra designs, can yield a plethora of images for replication in surface design.
Before adding any of these motifs to your own work, however, it might be worthwhile to investigate the significance of any symbols you plan to use. Many represent religious and other cultural ideas and objects; you would not want to get them mixed up and risk offending anyone!
The answer to the question “What makes an African quilt African?” has to do with its connections to the history and traditions of Africa. These include color, form, fabric, print, texture, technique, and embellishments as well as imagery and subject matter. Those quilts which reflect a love of Africa and people and things African can thus be said to be African quilts. If the color and spirit of Africa touch your soul, let that communion be made visible through the medium of textiles, and then let anyone try to tell us it is not an African quilt!