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Museum News
01 Mar 2023

Major Quilt Exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum

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(New York, NY) What That Quilt Knows About Me is on view at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Sq., Columbus Ave. at W. 65th St.) through October 29, 2023. Featuring 35 quilts and related works of art, this exhibition will explore the deeply personal and emotional power associated with the experience of making and living with quilts. It is curated by Emelie Gevalt, Curatorial Chair for Collections and Curator of Folk Art at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) and Sadé Ayorinde, Warren Family Assistant Curator.

“Quilts are foundational to folk art and comprise a core and beloved part of our collection,” said Jason T. Busch, the Museum’s Becky and Bob Alexander Director & CEO. “We believe our guests will come away from this show with a renewed appreciation for quilting and the powerful narratives expressed by these hand-crafted objects.” 

The exhibition’s title draws inspiration from a quotation discovered during research on the AFAM collection: “My whole life is in that quilt…my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.” This poetic statement from a lifelong quilter conveys the idea that quilts have the capacity for “knowing” or containing information about the human experience. Reflecting on this sentiment, the exhibition presents quilts as collections of intimate stories. 

Spanning from the 19th through 21st centuries, the works on view will reveal a range of poignant and sometimes unexpected biographies. From a pair of enslaved sisters in antebellum Kentucky to a convalescent British soldier during the Crimean War, the exhibition explores stories associated with both the makers and recipients of the works. On a quilt top from the 1890s, we find a surface bursting with narratives; in an example by Hystercine Rankin, a grid of small vignettes depicts scenes of family life defined by faith and toil. 

The exhibition also explores how artists have continually drawn inspiration from and pushed the boundaries of quilt-making to incorporate surprising materials and ideas, inviting audiences to consider these objects as archives of personal human experiences. Dindga McCannon’s Mary Lou Williams, a quilt-like work, is created with paint, photographs, and fibers, as a tribute to the jazz musician and cultural environment of Harlem. Jessie Dunahoo uses plastic bags and yarn to evoke quilt-like coverings that swath the interior surfaces of his home.

What That Quilt Knows about Me offers so many unexpected narratives. Including related objects that are not typically associated with quilts creates an inspiring conversation about the story of quiltmaking as a whole,” said Sadé Ayorinde, Warren Family Assistant Curator.

Drawn from AFAM’s rich and diverse collection, What that Quilt Knows About Me is divided into three main sections, each exploring different themes related to quilts. In one gallery, quilts that tell stories visually, through the incorporation of elements such as words or pictures, will invite the viewer into a personal world of characters and narratives. Another gallery highlights riffs on quilting in order to explore the boundless expressive possibilities of quilts and adjacent works. 

A third section of the exhibition explores the personal and political stories of historically unheard makers, many of whom were women. Here, quilts and other textiles will represent a multiplicity of regional, cultural and ethnic histories, exploring the experiences of New England, Southern, Mid-Western, African American, Jewish, Amish, Navajo (Diné) and Hawaiian women, among others. The exhibition also includes excerpts from oral histories with present-day quilters, scholars, and others who discuss the rich histories of quiltmaking as it relates to different traditions and personal stories. 

“Displaying these powerful objects through the lens of storytelling will allow viewers to engage with them in deeply personal, intimate ways,” said Emelie Gevalt, Curatorial Chair for Collections and Curator of Folk Art at the American Folk Art Museum. “We are continually astounded by how much meaning quilts can carry. We hope that the exhibition will cultivate an energetic and emotional space for viewers to be inspired by these works.”

About the American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place.