Reading: The Gee’s Bend Effect

Cooks, B (2014) “The Gee’s Bend Effect” In Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture. (12) 3 pp. 346-363

I’ve written before about concerns with appropriation – see for example 24-Dec-2014 and 12-Dec-2014. Cooks’ article has really challenged and extended my thinking.

The arguments presented and overall flow of the article is complex (to me at least), so I’ll start with an overview:

  • Quilts have come to be seen as a tradition in American culture, although often devalued as domestic, women’s work.
  • Gee’s Bend quilts have received particular attention, with multiple touring exhibitions. “… a popular sensation not only because of their visually stunning designs, but also because the identity of the makers themselves stirred powerful narratives of racial nostalgia” (Cooks, 2014, p 348)
  • The quilts have become even more visible through merchandising (stamps, interior decorations, menus), literature, use in political campaigns…
  • Link to American spirit, endurance through tough times, triumph of values – but without recognition of the failure, horrors, hypocrisy, the exclusion of Black people from freedoms and ongoing discrimination
  • Cook’s three specific lines of inquiry (p 350):
    – “how does the citation of Gee’s Bend quilts inform the interpretation of art made by artists outside of the historical and geographic framework of Gee’s Bend?”
    – “in what ways do references to Gee’s Bend quilts re-entrench traditional exclusionary racial boundaries of the art world?”
    – “how do allusions to a Gee’s Bend aesthetic lend cultural capital, along the lines of economic, racial and gender identity, to work by other artists outside of Gee’s Bend?”
  • On this foundation Cooks discusses the work of specific artists, art historians and critics. A sentence of particular interest to me: “Because of the ubiquity of the quilts in the art world in general, and quilting practices in particular, I am not particularly concerned with whether or not artists consciously intended the references to Gee’s Bend” (Cooks, 2015, p 350).

  • Artist Jen Pack uses mixed media (chiffon, wood) and techniques to create structures with a translucent, quilt-like covering.
  • Art historian Jane Livingston has compared Gee’s Bend quilts with abstract paintings, thereby suggesting an inappropriate hierarchical relationship.
  • The context of the quilts is changed by hanging them on walls for display, rather than using them on beds. “This recontextualisation devalues their original intention and context of the quilts as it seeks to appreciate them as if they were another form of traditional ‘fine art'” (Cooks, 2014, p 353).
  • Given aesthetic similarities, Pack’s work is an appropriation, a commentary on the Gee’s Bend quilts and their entry into the art world.
  • Pack’s work has been connected by viewers to Ghanaian kente cloth, Korean hanbok dresses and Mexican textiles. She finds these connections made by viewers “pretty fascinating to me even though it isn’t the origin or basis for me creating the work” (Jen Pack, quoted in Cookes, 2014, p 353).
  • As an artist Pack has a privileged position, is given authority to appropriate, to play and invent, to create from aesthetic rather than utilitarian concerns. “The similarity of aesthetic design coupled with the intentional change of materials marks differences in the class and social agency of the artists” (Cooks, 2014, p 354).
  • Cooks finds in Pack’s work references to the labour of textile production and the making of a new whole from scraps. Is there an aestheticization of poverty in her work?
  • “What’s at stake in interpretation is the perpetual repetition of cultural appropriation – the major thematic narrative in the historiograph of Black creativity” (Cooks, 2014, p355). Examples are cited from music, poetry and fine arts.
  • Cooks examines the Foreclosure series of quilts by Kathryn Clark, again finding many connections to Gee’s Bend quilts.
  • The links provide additional depth, strength and credibility to Clark’s work.
  • In the artists’ works poverty becomes stylized, there is a nostalgia for the past, there is a celebration of American spirit – all ignoring “the reality of continued exploitation and structural inequality” (Cooks, 2014, p 359).
  • There is a lot more to think about in the notes to Cooks’ paper, including discussion of a reference to Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use”. A college-educated Black woman now discounts the values and context of her home, treating the family quilts as objects of (monetary?) value, of nostalgia, to be displayed rather than used.
  • I’ve tried to test some of these points.

  • Changing the context of the quilts, thereby demeaning the intent and value of the women who made them. Is that how the women themselves view what’s happened? I found an article quoting Loretta Pettway in 2006, around the time of an exhibition at the Smithsonian: “Now I see my quilts hanging in a museum. Thank God I see my quilts on the wall. I found my way.” (Pettway quoted in Wallach, 2006). The change of context has given her opportunities, changed her life.
  • Cooks also raised concerns about the change of materials, to chiffon and to specially bought rather than frugal and clever use of the scraps which was all that was available. Wallach notes of one of Pettway’s recent works: “an explosion of red polka dots, zany stripes and crooked frames within frames (a dramatic change from the faded colors and somber patterns of her early work-clothes quilts)”. Another Gee’s Bend quilter, Mary Lee Bendolph, said of an early exhibition it “spunked me to go a little further, to try and make my quilts a little more updated” (Bendolph, quoted in Wallach, 2006).
    The quilters worked with what they had. When circumstances changed, they welcomed the chance to change their work.
  • Do exhibitions of the quilts feed a romantic nostalgia for past days, ignoring cruel, racist, discriminatory treatment of Black people? Again basing my response on Wallach’s article, no. There is a lot of detail, a lot of bad detail, describing the past treatment of the women and their families. The past is not forgotten and it’s not romanticized. The quilters are able to tell their own stories in their own words. They now describe themselves as happy, as enjoying themselves.

    One could argue that these are the voices of only a few, that many still face discrimination and disadvantage. That’s true. That a few are fortunate doesn’t change the situation of many. I’ve never been to the US, but from TV and newspapers the ongoing issues and wrongs are impossible to discount. I don’t see that celebrating a positive for some is equivalent to denying the ongoing different experience of others.

  • Further to that, the general tone, the reference to the Alice Walker story, leads me to ask – what does Cooks see as a good outcome for the many? If education or success or a little extra money lead to a change or evolution in values, is that bad? Are new ideas and ways of doing things so dangerous? If in the past necessity led to making quilts from scraps for warmth, and now one can choose whether to make a quilt for the bed or the wall, or whether to buy blankets, or fabrics for a different sort of quilt – have people lost something critical in having and making those choices? Perhaps “yes” if it also means turning their backs on others who don’t yet have choices, but is that inevitable?
  • Turning now to the question of appropriation by the artists: Cooks is not concerned about any actual conscious connection to Gee’s Bend by the artist – if a work’s appearance is similar it must be influenced, and if it doesn’t look similar it lacks “mnemonic power” (Cooks, p 354). Ellen Caldwell, the curator of the group exhibition “Recrafting History: History, Nostalgia and Craft in the American Memory” which is referenced by Cooks, has written of Pack’s works “They speak to history, using craft as both the medium and subject. Her colorful patchwork aesthetic conjures conflicting memories of familiar cloth from many different places and cultures: patchwork quilts, Ghanaian kente cloth, Korean hanbock dresses, Mexican blankets etc. As such, she plays with the fluidity of cultural or national identity in addition to memory.” (Caldwell, 2011b). In conversation with Calwell Pack has said “I love learning this about kente cloth! I think all cultures are continually appropriating and fusing aspects from different cultures, it is inevitable and hybridization occurs everywhere we turn at this point. It is something that interests me to no end because of my own heritage (Korean Caucasian) and what I think of as my own subtle version of ‘in-betweenness’ when it comes to expressing gender norms. I think of the work as collages rather than creations, because the fabric is already speaking while I’m using it, it already has a voice I’m just letting it sing.” (Caldwell, 2011a). There is mention of multiple cultures – including Pack’s personal experience – and of appropriation. Like any artwork, Pack’s is open to interpretation and connections made by viewers, including Cooks. This feels to me like a theory looking for affirmation.

    And if there is a connection to Gee’s Bend, and kente cloth, and Mexico, and Korean hanbok (although the work reminds me more of pojagi) – should the artist be expected to deeply research them all and more?

    I’m not convinced by Cooks’ argument, which seems to include some finessing of logic. And yet, and yet… there is an emotion, an anger, a sense of cultural loss and ongoing damage, which I cannot answer. I think of my own country, of my research on proppaNOW (see 5-Jan-2014 and https://proppanow.wordpress.com/), and that same anger and sense of ongoing loss is expressed by Indigenous people here. I compare that to the lilting excitement and fun of Austin Kleon in Steal like an artist (15-Jan-2015). I look at various posts on the OCA college blog – “Whos afraid of appropriation?” and “Stealing from the unknown” and even “So what is research?”. “Stealing” from people who are playing the same artworld / academic game – fine. Where does it become an abuse of power, theft from someone who feels that so much has already been taken?

    The only answer I can find – “it depends”.

    References

    Caldwell, E. C. (2011a) ‘Fabrications with Jen Pack (NAP #73) | New American Paintings/Blog on WordPress.com’. New American Paintings/Blog. Available at: https://newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/fabrications-with-jen-pack-nap-73/ (Accessed: 27 February 2015).

    Caldwell, E. (2011b) ‘Crafting & Curating: “Recrafting History” at Taylor De Cordoba | New American Paintings/Blog on WordPress.com’, New American Paintings/Blog. New American Paintings/Blog. Available at: https://newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/crafting-curating-recrafting-history-at-taylor-de-cordoba/ (Accessed: 1 March 2015).

    Cooks, B (2014) “The Gee’s Bend Effect” In Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture. (12) 3 pp. 346-363

    Wallach, A. (2006) Fabric of Their Lives, Smithsonian.com. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fabric-of-their-lives-132757004/ (Accessed: 28 February 2015).

    2 Responses to “Reading: The Gee’s Bend Effect”


    1. 1 epocktextiles (Jane B) March 2, 2015 at 6:53 am

      what a great post, Judy. very complex area, and while I cannot comment on it at this stage, I have read it and am still digesting!

    2. 2 fibresofbeing March 2, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      Hi Jane
      Every time I think about this or talk with someone new perspectives pop up. I’m reading another book, “Cultural threads: transnational textiles today” which has some more collaborative, positive vibes so far.


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