UC Berkeley History of Art Department

Events

Stoddard



To Catch the Eye: Revisiting Harriet Powers's Visionary Textiles

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


When Harriet Powers' "Bible Quilt" was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1974, its label read, "Made by Harriet, An Ex-slave, Athens, Georgia." A curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had recently acquired another of her visionary textiles, quickly provided Harriet’s last name and a bit more of her history. Made in Georgia in the late 1880s, Powers' quilts had been exhibited at so-called "Colored Fairs" in Georgia and then at the Atlantic Exhibition in 1895, but for most of the twentieth century, they remained in private hands. Their rediscovery in the 1970s reinforced an already growing interest in American quilting and in the African roots of American culture. By 1991, Powers was so-well known among the general public that when the Smithsonian attempted to have her "Bible Quilt" reproduced in China, a phalanx of quilters picketed the museum. Powers' continues to inspire contemporary quilters, poets, filmmakers, writers, artists, and amateur historians. But, curiously, her work has received surprisingly little attention from scholars, including those who specialize in women's history or the American south. Ulrich’s lecture will introduce Powers' quilts to those who don't yet know them and make an argument for why they matter.