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Afro-American Quilts

Quilts are familial, made by mothers and grandmothers for siblings to huddle under. So it seems very natural that the Wahlmans make up a family portrait, perched on couches and rockers after dinner in their Victorian living room, as they look at Maude Wahlman's prize quilts.

Maude holds Christina, her new baby. As her husband, James, unfolds quilts and flops them on the floor, their daughter Victoria crawls underneath them or sprawls on top (''Victoria is jealous of the quilts,'' Mrs. Wahlman says.) Her sister, Vicky, here to help with the baby, tries to get Victoria to sit down. As quilt after fantastic quilt unfolds, we stop exclaiming and just sigh, huddled around them not for physical warmth, but for the comfort of beauty. As Vicky says of one, ''That's a hot quilt.'' Maude Wahlman rocks in her rocking chair, the baby caws, and she talks proudly about the quilts, not because she made them, but because she found them and because she admires the ladies who did. She is a mother and a lover of quilts, but she is also Dr. Wahlman, with an art history PhD from Yale University, earned by examining the African roots of these quilts, all made by black women in the South. And she is curator of ''Ten Afro-American Quilters,'' a quilt show traveling around the country.

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These quilts aren't the tiny-stitched, neat, orderly gatherings of faded colors you'd expect. The quilt lying on the Wahlman's floor looks like it's the product, not of a quilting bee, but of a jam session. It is bright, loud, and hot. The stitches are big, the strips of color are crooked, and the pattern keeps changing. Bright red isn't what you expect in a quilt, nor Black Watch plaid, tipped and sewn together so the white lines make a star, but it's all in here. This one is in the ''cotton leaf'' or ''bear's paw'' pattern. At least one corner is. It's basically a square of color with triangles sewn on the edges to make a fringe that looks like a bear claw or cotton leaves. The square is in four different pieces, the fringe contrasts, and it all sits in a contrasting block of color.

That's the way Plummer T. Petway, the Alabama quilter, did it - once. In another square, the fringe is on the inside of the blocks, so it looks like it's been turned inside out. Sometimes the fringe jumps off the square to the border of the block, as if the bear kicked his claws off or the cotton boll blew up. And the squares aren't really square. What they are is red, plaid, flowered, and lopsided.

The difference between these and the pale, daintily stitched heirlooms most people are used to is Africa. These quilts were made by women who learned to quilt from their mothers, who learned from their mothers before them, and somewhere back there the mothers were slaves who learned to make quilts from their Anglo-American mistresses. While they learned the patterns and made quilts for their owners, they also made them for themselves. When they did that, their African aesthetics came out, says Maude Wahlman. ''The cotton leaf or the bear's paw is just a standard Anglo pattern. They picked it up,'' and now the bear's paw is dancing wildly across the quilt in many permutations.

Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of art history at Yale, has a theory that Afro-Americans adopt a pattern, master it, and then deliberately break it, Wahlman says. ''Obviously, she can do a bear's-paw quilt,'' she says. ''It's very clear. But if she's going to do one, she's going to do it her way.''

Dr. Wahlman, who studied and wrote about African textiles before she did her research on Afro-American quilts, points out that Africans were used to wearing big, bright cloths. They were made by piecing together strips of woven cloth. The use of many patterns was prestigious, because you had to be educated to order them from the weavers and rich to pay for them. Likewise, Afro-American quilts put all sorts of patterns together in ways most other Americans would disdain as ''busy.'' For instance, pajama material with its worn-out-looking olive-green medallions cavorts next to some beige-and-black plaid that looks like an old pantsuit, with turquoise and red strips intervening. These things don't go together at all. Which is the point.

''One of the phrases a number of them use repeatedly is 'the colors have to hit each other right,' '' Wahlman says of quilters she has interviewed in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. ''It's kind of an Afro-Americanism. . . . They think, not in terms of complementary colors, they talk about colors hitting each other. And of course, that's counter to the whole New England idea of subtle color.''

In poverty it has been easy to obey this aesthetic, since the quilters, many of whom live in sharecropper's shacks without indoor plumbing, have used whatever old clothes were at hand. But Wahlman says it's not just necessity that brings about the brilliant, competing colors and the offbeat patterns. It's art.

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''A lot of people, when they first saw Afro-American quilts, thought they were accidental and just amateurish. But the more you study them, and the more you talk to quilt-makers, the more you know they know exactly what they're doing. They can't always verbalize it, but there's something in their tradition that's going on, because all over the United States, Afro-American quilts are like this. They're wierd.''

''If you go through the characteristics of the quilts, they all have African reasons,'' she says. Many of them have long vertical strips around the patch patterns, as if to hold together the jazzy bits, which look like they might vibrate off the bed. These recall strips African men wove on small looms, strips about the width of a hand. When Wahlman showed some African weaving to Pecolia Warner, a quilter living in Yazoo City, Miss., Mrs. Warner held her hand up to the strips and remarked that whoever had made them had done it right, and she said she could piece a quilt from it.

''Bright colors,'' Dr. Wahlman continues, ''carry from a distance. In Africa, people could read people's status from a distance and give them the proper greeting.'' Large Afro-American quilt designs, like the ''cowcatcher'' pattern, which is lots of little strips sewn together with big bold bands of color across it like the cowcatcher on a train, are best seen across a room. The prestigious multiple-design textiles were made of many strips with different designs, which deliberately played off each other instead of matching up. And Afro-American grandmothers deliver the same syncopated rhythms in cut and sewn cloth, a red block jolting the black square alongside of it though the edges are uneven.

''The aesthetic has carried,'' says Dr. Wahlman. The original function has disappeared, but the taste for strips, bright colors, and asymmetry is still with Afro-American quilters, even though there's no weaving going on. ''They've lost track of why, they just like it that way.'' Colors, too, have meanings to the quilters similar to their African symbolism.

Dr. Wahlman teaches non-Western Art at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Mississippi University (which everyone just calls ''Ole Miss''). She is tall and thin with eyes that narrow as if she is inspecting new patterns, and thick, short red hair. Having just moved here to teach, after finishing her dissertation at Yale in 1980, she doesn't have a Southern accent. Leaning back in a comfortable chair on the back porch of her rambling yellow house, she speaks with an odd combination of professorial detachment and affection, which isn't surprising when you consider that she is a scholar who also cares about the quilters and the survival of their craft (and that while she talks, she is nursing Christina).

The quilters are of a generation that ''grew up in a time when there wasn't social security and the only way to survive was constantly keeping busy. Younger women look at the quilters and think they'll never recoup the time. Most Afro-American quilters sell their work for $100 or $150. There's no way they'll get equal payment'' for hours worked. But the time and money equation doesn't mean much to the quilters. ''Most are older black women who are compulsive quilters. They love color, they love manipulating color. They dream quilt patterns.'' (African male weavers, she points out in her dissertation, also dream patterns.) ''They fall into the category of visionary or compulsive folk artists who are driven by some inner need to express themselves in material form.'' Not unlike other artists.

''Quilters have tried to teach their children, but the children grow up with other value systems,'' she says. ''I hope, with a show like this, at least to document some aspect of American culture that has not been documented. I hope somehow younger black people will be inspired.''

Pearlie Posey and her daughter, Sara Mary Taylor, grew up in the time Maude Wahlman talks about, a time of such hard work and so little pay that making quilts was just one more thing that could help out, not hours of minimum wage lost to sewing.

Pearlie Posey was brought up by her grandmother in Andine, Miss. Her grandmother, she says, ''was a slavey-time woman. She was sold from her family, she said.'' Mrs. Posey has a deep, pleasant voice, and she and her daughter sit in one of the many small rooms of a house that has had rooms patched on all over it, like a bright, warm, slant-edged quilt, in the black neighborhood in Yazoo City. It's unusually cold for Mississippi, and a gas heater burns in the corner. All over the walls, there are pictures which Mrs. Taylor has used as patterns for her appliques. A ceramic panther has made an appearance or two on quilts, as has a turkey cutout and a slinky fashion model in a cape.

Sitting still for an interview, they are both elaborately polite; perhaps it's because they hardly ever sit still. Pearlie Posey made quilts when she was little, but only after she finished with her other work. ''I used to plow, hoe, I split rails, I dug pole holes, I stretched barb wire around the pasture for the cows. I raked hay, stack it on the haystack. Yeah, I did all that kind of work in my life.''

She recalled plowing by holding the crossbar of the plow, because she was too short to reach the handles. ''I wouldn't have time to sit down and do nothin' till the winter. They be sending me to school and those school days, when I get back, why, I got to get the stove lit and wash dishes and sweep the kitchen. . . . You got home from school, you had to start pulling that dress off, because you had to go to the field and knock stalks, cut bushes and things, got to . . . put the wood by the stove and the water, everything.'' After her grandmother cooked dinner, they'd sit down and piece quilts. They used thread they unraveled from feed sacks and castoff clothes her grandmother's white employers gave her. By the time she got married, at age 15, she had made nine quilts. She never stopped. Her grandmother kept giving Pearlie clothes, and she made quilts of them.

Mrs. Taylor made string quilts when she was little - the type most Afro-American mothers teach their daugters to make. The ''strings'' are little pieces of material the size of a stick of gum, which are sewn together edge to edge to make strips. (The strip with its stripes is like the African woven strip , striped with different patterns, which also gets pieced together to make a cloth the size of a quilt top, Maude Wahlman says.)

Sara Mary Taylor grew up on a plantation. Her father got all the money she made during the week, but the children could keep what they made on the weekends. The plantation owner didn't like them to work for anyone else, so they sneaked through the woods to pick cotton on another plantation. Mrs. Taylor still remembers the day they raised their pay to 35 cents for 100 pounds of cotton. She was so excited about making 70 cents that she picked 200 pounds of cotton and fainted. Two hundred pounds, she said, wasn't that much. That was when she was a little girl, who had to be carried over to the other plantation. When she was bigger, she said, ''I got so I could pick five (hundred pounds) like the other girls.''

The first quilt she made when she was married was padded with rags.

''It was to keep warm, and I thought it was pretty, didn't even know how to hem it.'' She and her mother break out laughing. ''Those rags was hangin' down like fringe'' out of the sides of the quilt. ''Lookin' good to me,'' Mrs. Taylor says with hilarity. ''So my mother, she came to the house, and I thought it was the prettiest thing. She said, 'poor little thing, let me show you how to hem it.' ''

Her mother taught her how to hem it, and now the roles have been reversed. Sara Mary Taylor now makes applique quilts, and she cuts out pieces for her mother to sew, as well. Mrs. Posey's sister, Pecolia Warner, a famous quilter, as quilters go, was selling quilts and being interviewed by Maude Wahlman, so she told her niece, Sara Mary, that if she quilted some, she would try to sell them. One day Mrs. Taylor thought, '' 'My hand'd be pretty.' So I take my hand and laid it out upon a big old piece of paper, and I draw it. My left hand, and it turned out a beautiful quilt.''

She has made several; and she's right, they're beautiful. Also very abstract. One has hands and rabbits, popping up all over a ranging, uneven grid of colored strips. The hands, as big as the rabbits, play off each other and balance delicately on the strips. She has gone on to cut out all sorts of shapes. She uses pictures in magazines - like the model in the cape, who in silhouette with big sewn-on eyes looks like a very appealing space creature, and who has slim figures backdiving gracefully away from her on her quilt. She has also cut out geese, bicycles, and squirrels. She traces leaves - hollyhock, tomato, and others. ''I saw something over the TV called a mermaid, and I draw it and pieced it, and on and on.''

Now Sara Mary, once a new bride who couldn't hem a quilt, cuts the designs for herself and her mother. They're very happy to be making money. One of the first things Mrs. Taylor spent it on was to have part of her house jacked up, and a new room added on.

Both women are represented in the ''Ten Afro-American Quilters'' show, and though the cutouts are all by Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Posey's quilts are expressive in her own way. Maude Wahlman has written of Sara Mary Taylor's quilts: ''Her applique designs and arrangements suggest her ironic humor.''

Mrs. Posey ''prefers small, intricate appliques that she can arrange in intimate groupings,'' Dr. Wahlman notes.

''While her colors have the brightness and intensity found in classic Afro-American and African textiles, she breaks up and varies them in a very personal manner which visually suggests a light dance.''

As James Wahlman unfurls quilt after quilt on the floor of the living room, which is decorated with African and Afro-American treasures from his wife's research, Maude Wahlman exults in the colliding colors and dancing asymmetries as if she's just hauled them in from the distant corners of the South. ''What I love about them is the variety,'' she says, as squares of color unfurl, all dancing in different directions, until there's a thick stack on the floor and we are all dizzy. ''There's always a surprise. You look at one square and there's no way to know what the rest of the quilt looks like.''

''Drunkard's Path'' is a pattern of curved shapes that fit into corners, the curves blurring the square design but always turning the corners. James Wahlman flops down Lucinda Toomer's version, where the curves go every which way and washes of color seem to be sluicing downhill between them. ''When I first saw it I wasn't liberated enough to appreciate it,'' Wahlman says. ''It was too free, too wild, but the more I studied Afro-American quilts, the more I appreciated it, because I was still thinking in terms of squares or some kind of order, and this just has its own order.''

''She knows what she's doing, It works as an art form, it balances out somehow. They paint with cloth, because that's what was acceptable for them to work with. They're quilters; it was acceptable. And they use salvage materials. It would never have been acceptable for these women to go out and buy oil paints. But . . . what brilliant painters they would have been.''

''Ten Afro-American Quilters'' will be at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, Madison, Ga., Dec. 6 - Jan. 28; the Community Arts Council in Goldsboro, N.C., Feb. 14 - April 8; and the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., April 25 - June 17.m

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