In 2002, the Whitney Museum of Art presented the exhibition The Quilts at Gee’s Bend, which featured the work of 42 quilting artists from the historically Black region of Gee’s Bend in Alabama. The landmark show catapulted the work of these artists — all Black American women — into mainstream recognition. In the decades that followed, conversations surrounding the impact of these artists have often remained retrospective and foregrounded themes of heritage and tradition.
Now, some 20 years later, Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen, aims to bring the dialogue surrounding the Gee’s Bend quilters into the present. “Gee’s Bend often gets mythologized as if it lives behind us,” Russell shared during a press preview of The New Bend at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea, continuing, “I think it’s really important to understand that the Gee’s Bend quilters are creating in the world right now alongside every single [artist] in this room.”
The exhibition, curated by Russell, highlights the work of 12 contemporary artists whose practices integrate quilting and fiber arts to explore a range of identity-centered and socioeconomic themes. As I entered the spacious gallery, I was met with two quilts by Zadie Xa, suspended banner-like from the ceiling. One of the works, “Ancestor Work: Re-member / Black Water Tiger” (2021), shows two sly felines circling around each other, bordered by vibrant geometric shapes, as if in play or fight. Portraying environmental elements like wildlife and fauna with a whimsical touch, this work, and its companion piece, thread Xa’s interest in mythology and folklore together with aspects of her Korean ancestry, to form dazzling compositions. On the wall nearby is a chaotic mixed-media scene by Dawn Williams Boyd portraying an unfolding protest.
Though the exhibition is framed as having a deep connection to and engagement with Gee’s Bend, and the quilting medium, several of the artworks exist somewhere on the periphery of quilting, or in a separate space altogether. Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s large-scale assembly and Genesis Jerez’s linen artwork, for example, feel only loosely connected to the exhibition’s thematic core.
Tapestries also figure throughout the show. In “Ctrl+Alt+Del” (2021), Qualeasha Wood weaves cotton jacquard and glass beads into a self-portrait decorated with MacBook icons, emojis, and clouds. Her signature cyber aesthetic reflects on the representation of Black femmehood and interrogates the way that it is consumed and exploited in the popular culture, both on and offline. Meanwhile, Diedrick Brackens’s deep blue tapestry, “survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life” (2021), depicts a black silhouette of a figure with outstretched arms crouched in a squat; the figure appears almost paralyzed, suspended between an expression of freedom and one of upholding an unbearable weight.
Both of these stunning works illustrate the ways in which the act of weaving is closely related to forms of encoding, or digital computation — a point that Russell emphasized in her remarks by referring to the loom as an early form of digital practice. However, I was left wondering whether more of a connection could be made between some of the artists and artworks and the artists of Gee’s Bend.
The captivating “In Submission: Four Eyes One Vision” (2021), by St. Louis-based artist Basil Kincaid, shows two abstracted figures with bulbous limbs against a multilayered background that vibrates with patterns and textures. Coming from a long line of quilters, Kincaid is particularly interested in carrying on familial art practices. The richly hued mixed-media quilt underscores the artist’s ongoing connection to the medium, which has remained a pillar of his multidisciplinary practice.
Russell described the exhibition as a love letter to the quilters of Gee’s Bend. While it includes a diverse range of beautiful and thoughtful artworks, many dealing with timely and important issues, and is worth for these reasons, a more fitting tribute might have been to incorporate more artists who are engaging with the history and present of Gee’s Bend in direct and intentional ways.
The New Bend Continues at Hauser & Wirth (542 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 2. The exhibition was curated by Legacy Russell.