MFA’s “Fabric of a Nation” recreates American history through the quietly radical power of quilts

“A Deeper Form of Chess” by Sanford Biggers in 2017, in the exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” at the Museum of Fine Arts.Murray Whyte / Globe staff

“Fabric of a Nation” was conceived as a straight timeline four years ago, curator Jennifer Swope told me during a recent visit to the MFA. But times have changed and plans have been disrupted, and a stronger show in tune with the moment is the result. The exhibition spans over 300 years, positioning quilt making as a constant in American cultural production, quietly roaring in the background; but a redesign with the upheavals of those many months of pandemic in mind made it fresh and timely, tying historical complexity to the noisy upheavals of today.

“Fabric of a Nation” will greatly satisfy the vast networks of quilts, which are legion: many of the museum’s exceptional collections are on display for the one and only occasion in a lifetime. But for the uninitiated, it’s also a captivating lesson in how a form long neglected as serious art has left its mark at every vital moment in American cultural history, and continues to do so.

From left to right: Irene Williams "Vote" quilt, 1975;  Navajo blanket, variant of the first phase, 1865-1870;  Hoosier Suffrage Quilt, pre 1920, in gallery opening at "Fabric of a Nation: American Quilts Stories" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Left to right: Irene Williams’ “Vote” quilt, 1975; Navajo blanket, variant of the first phase, 1865-1870; Hoosier Suffrage Quilt, pre-1920, in the opening gallery of “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Museum of Fine Arts

Swope disrupts the chronology at strategic points, linking historical event and contemporary moment. The opening gallery offers a trio of star and stripe motifs riddled with complications. Irene Williams’ ‘Vote’ quilt in 1975 was made in Gee’s Bend, the hamlet of Alabama just outside of Selma famous for the quilts made by the descendants of the Pettway Plantation slaves. Next to it hangs a red, white, and blue striped woolen blanket woven in the late 19th century by a Navajo woman for her employer, Major James Cooper McKee, New Mexico’s chief medical officer who was involved in negotiating the treaty of 1868. which established the relationship of the Navajo nation with the United States government. On the right, a disjointed star-and-bar quilt from the early 20th century in Indiana is embroidered with the names of supporters of the women’s suffrage movement.

With a federal bill designed to protect the voting rights that struggle to survive in Congress right now – and the many state bills introduced this year to restrict them – “Fabric of a Nation” plants its flag in the age-old American conundrum of flawed democracy, tying our own moment of impending disenfranchisement with countless others that came before it.

From the start, “Fabric of a Nation” weaves historical complications of all kinds – and nothing later escapes them. With the staging, the exhibits pivot you to Bisa Butler’s ‘To God and Truth’, a shimmering fabric monument in which the New Jersey-based artist recreated a photograph of the baseball team from the Morris Brown College from 1899 using Kente fabric, hand-dyed Nigerian batiks and wax resistant African and Dutch printed cottons.

Bisa Butler's "To God and to the truth," 2019, at "Fabric of a Nation: American Quilts Stories" at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“To God and Truth” by Bisa Butler, 2019, in “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” at the Museum of Fine Arts.Museum of Fine Arts

It is a densely woven work, and not just materially. The fabrics themselves are laden with an unsavory colonial history – prized in Europe, and often produced and obtained by means of exploitation. The piece is radiant and ennobling, each of the actors delicately nuanced with colors that enliven the difference. That he stands in front of an anonymous, crudely made early 20th-century quilt that uses various racist tropes in flippant cartoon style – a black shoe shine, cliched Native American dance – takes stock the medium and the country at the same time.

Quilts live in the popular imagination as the product of folk lovers looking to liven up their sheets, but one of the show’s revelations – for me, anyway – is how they have been used historically to emanate of status and power. Increase Sumner, governor of Massachusetts from 1797 to 1799, would have taken his third oath of office while draped under a huge red silk bedspread hung here. (At that time, important business was conducted in bedrooms, making bedspreads important outward symbols of wealth and influence.)

But the show is decidedly candid about the source of this wealth and power. Across the gallery, a shiny blue whole wool quilt with thick floral and vine designs, made in Connecticut in the 18th century, provides a direct connection between the United States and the indigo plantations – where does the color come from – who used slave labor in the West Indies and southern United States. Rowland Ricketts’ Unbound Series 2, No. 3, from 2018, hung nearby, looks like an attempted repair: Ricketts grows indigo on his farm in Indiana; its small room reflects how much it can produce, in stark contrast to the transatlantic exploitation once necessary to support culture on an industrial scale. It’s a small and beautiful thing where absence is presence: the delicate fabric is reflected by an empty wooden stretcher of exactly the same size.

works by Harriet Powers at the end of the 19th century "Biblical quilt" (left) and "Illustrated quilt" To "Fabric of a Nation: American Quilts Stories" at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Harriet Powers’ late 19th century works “Bible Quilt” (left) and “Pictorial Quilt” in “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” at the Museum of Fine Arts. Museum of Fine Arts

The show doesn’t just sit back and rest its historical artifacts, important as they are. The historical precedent is constantly reversed, describing the quilt as quietly radical. Contemporary artists like Butler, Mazloomi, and Biggers leverage the medium’s story for a powerful exterior effect, but the quilt’s subversive potential is built into its story. Just beyond the tactile mat is one of the key moments in the exhibition: a pair of works by Harriet Powers in the late 1890s. One, her “Bible Quilt,” belongs to the Smithsonian, among the few loans here; the other, his “Pictorial Quilt”, is a jewel of the MFA collection.

Powers, considered “the mother of the African American quilting tradition,” according to the MFA, was born into slavery in Georgia in 1837. Her quilts captured the lives of black Americans both after and before the war with clarity of flawless vision, and now serve as critical documents of black historical perspective; A passage from his pictorial quilt contemplates the Leonid meteor shower of 1833 that lit the sky with so many shooting stars that many slave owners, believing it to be judgment day, renounced human bondage on the spot, hoping to save their own souls .

Powers is the perfect bridge to the final chapters of the show, where the contemporary quilt ends the show with a flurry of sweeping innovations in content and form. It’s a tidy coda: the 20th century made the medium both widely popular and accessible; quilting guilds formed, and traditional retailers like Sears held national quilting contests, some of which were featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Richard H. Rowley’s finely quilted view of the fairgrounds themselves on the shore of Lake Michigan, hung here, won an award among 25,000 submissions; Rowley, an architectural designer, listed it in his mother’s name, later telling her son that the quilt was just something a woman would do.

The dominant notion of the quilt as “woman’s work” – quaint, insignificant, and under the gaze of serious art – has become fodder for generations of designers. Swope includes here that of Agusta Agustsson “Cover of red flowers”, an anatomically correct grid of quilted genitals in bright colors that was banned from showing at a female art exhibit at Boston City Hall in 1979; it is a provocative avatar of debauchery for the Feminist movement “Our Bodies, Ourselves” which has its roots here.

that of Susan Hoffman "Littoral," 1975, to "Fabric of a Nation: American Quilts Stories" at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“Coastline” by Susan Hoffman, 1975, at “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” at the National Gallery.Museum of Fine Arts

Formal innovation abounds: it is hard not to be seduced by Virginia Jacobs’ “Krakow Kabuki Waltz”, 1986, a quilt made like a sphere; and “Coastline” by Susan Hoffman, 1975, is inherently pictorial, constructed strip by strip.

But the natural intimacy of the medium – cuts and samples, pieced together by hand – can also make sense. Gio Swaby, a young artist living in Toronto, creates silhouette portraits of other black women, mostly friends and family, in a loving tribute to the power of the community that nurtured her. My mind goes back to Powers and its storytelling innovation of a long time ago, using a maligned medium to capture and preserve neglected stories in a gesture of radical domesticity. Like Powers, Swaby doesn’t question her medium – she embraces it as an art, a way of declaring something powerfully personal and universal. Lineage is important to Fabric of a Nation because it has always been important in art – what quilting is, and maybe always has been.


Until January 7, 2022, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 465 Huntington Avenue, 617-267-9300,

Murray Whyte can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.

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