A childhood activity that many American students completed in school is the coloring of the Thanksgiving turkey. Some students chose to color the feathers in a random fashion, making them each one of their favorite bright colors. Other students colored the feathers in a controlled, pastel gradient. Just like with those turkeys and the various approaches to coloring them — each different but not better or worse than another —  there are no set rules that can be applied to any given artistic tradition. With this approach, the viewer shifts their mindset to the landscape of the individual piece and assesses it independently as a unique item, rather than one that needs to be measured against other works, styles or expectations. 

According to Black feminist scholar Elsa Barkley Brown, when it comes to quilting and textile making, what the art world has long deemed conventional are the Western values of balance, symmetry and a meticulous coordination between the compositional elements. African American women’s quilting art is more interested in contrast, striking colors and abstract patterns. On this, she says that “The symmetry comes through the diversity.” Brown’s interpretation of “gumbo ya-ya” — a Creole expression that means “everybody talks at once” — embodies the distinct stylistic qualities of African American women’s quilting. 

In her essay “African-American Women’s Quilting,” Brown sets out to share her own approach to studying African American women’s art by encouraging conversations to shift away from preconceived notions of what is considered normative — the white, middle-class male experience. The issue that she proposes is not simply a question of being able to intellectualize about a variety of experiences, but rather being able to acknowledge them without seeing them in terms of a certain “standard.” Rather than decentering one experience to center another, Brown proposes “pivoting the center” in the words of political activist Bettina Apthecker. By doing so, we can assess African American women’s art within the context of their own experiences and also be equipped to learn about other cultures’ artworks without relying on a Eurocentric yardstick.

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With this idea of “pivoting the center,” Brown introduces an interesting perspective on African American women’s quilts: Gumbo ya-ya is a phrase that originates from the Louisiana Bayou country and has persisted as a key element of Creole custom. The implications of this motto are deeply significant to African American women’s experiences, which are often influenced by democratic community and collectivity. As everybody talks at the same time, the individual has their own voice which is unique but not divorced from the whole. Each individual is simultaneously speaking, contributing, listening and responding, and not one person dominates nor does the whole attempt to achieve an “objective” consensus. 

Citing “Aesthetic Principles of Afro-American Quilts” by Maude Southwell Wahlman and John Scully, Brown refers to the polyrhythms of improvisational jazz as a guidepost for viewing quiltwork in terms of gumbo ya-ya. Wahlman and Scully write: “When the colors of the strips are different from the colors in the row of blocks or designs, two distinct movements can be seen: one along the strips and the other within the designs … This represents a textile aesthetic which has been passed down for generations among Afro-American women who were descendants of Africans …  Afro-American quilters do not seem interested in a uniform color scheme. They use several methods of playing with colors to create unpredictability and movement.”

Historian Lawrence W. Levine describes this style: “The various voices in a piece of music may go their own ways but still be held together by their relationship to each other.” Essentially, no one part of the ensemble needs to be quiet in order for another to be heard; each player in the piece can be vocal and prominent in a way that does not detract from the contribution of other players. When looking at African American quilts with this frame of mind, viewers are confronted with the questions of “does good composition necessitate certain shapes or colors to submit to others in order for there to exist a harmony among them?” and “does the visual story being told need to convey a single consensus?” Aptheker’s idea of “pivoting the center” comes into play when considering these questions about African American women’s history and their non-Western philosophies of self-expression and communication.

One of the most notable sources of African American women’s quilts is the Gee’s Bend community located in Boykin, Alabama, which produced a prolific collection of aesthetically distinct quilts. The African American agriculture-based community in Gee’s Bend consisted of descendants of the enslaved people who worked on Joseph Gee’s cotton plantation in 1816. The Gee’s Bend women’s quilt-making practice was born of necessity, but in their creative process these women assumed a sense of ownership of their living space by repurposing textiles into colorful and meaningful displays. 

In this rural farming region, women’s time and labor could usually only afford to serve utilitarian purposes, leaving few expressive mediums of creation, many of which were within the realm of domestic use and craftsmanship. Possessions were there for practical use, such as the quilt, which traditionally served to keep families warm at night. It was through domestic tasks that women managed to create art ,as it was accessible to them at the time. 

In addition to the agency that quilt makers found in utilizing creative expression and personalizing their living space, they also found comfort in the meditative nature of stitching, especially with the help of other women. Gee’s Bend resident Missouri Pettway found solace in stitching and strip-piercing her late husband’s clothes into a quilt to keep his memory alive. Her daughter, Alonzia Pettway recalls helping her tear up the strips of cloth. In her book, “Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt,” Vassar College Professor Lisa Gail Collins writes, “When Missouri Pettway created her quilt, it was common local practice for female kin and other neighborly women to visit a quilt maker’s home and assist in the final step of sewing together, or quilting, the layers of her quilt.” Through kinship and community, the gumbo ya-ya principle manifested in the work-up of these Gee’s Bend quilts, as different parts of the blanket were sewn together by different women.

While quilt making has a rich history originating from the enslaved women of Gee’s Bend and that history often informs study of African American women’s quilts, it is worth noting that the practice has been inherited through generations and has since been adapted by numerous  contemporary artists. Modern quilts can be interpreted in countless ways, showcasing all aspects of the creator’s internal life from symbols of kinship to religious iconography to their perspective on the cultural world. In the late 20th century, quiltmakers Rosie Lee Tompkins and Maxine Wallace of W Magazine wrote: “…she shifts between Mondrian-esque blocking to more traditional patchwork, then takes a hard left turn with an abstract, fractal quilt bearing religious overtones, crosses akimbo. Then, she’ll suddenly switch to what can only be described as pop art: images of Michael Jordan, OJ Simpson, John F. Kennedy, and even Jesus Christ appear in various compositions. Her use of text, stitched into the fabric, resembles Basquiat’s scrawl.”

Tompkins’ quilts engaged with pop culture and her interests were situated in the modern world, but she also preserved the gumbo ya-ya nature of her predecessors’ quilts as seen in the maximalism and bold juxtaposition in her individual pieces as well as her experimentation with such a broad range of styles. For Tompkins, one individual piece or element of a piece is not at odds with the collection to which it belongs. 

The exploration of quilting traditions, from the Gee’s Bend community to contemporary artists like Rosie Lee Tompkins, demonstrates how African American women’s art is uniquely rooted in a communal, democratic experience. The Gee’s Bend quilting tradition, shaped by collaboration, speaks to the way women found solace, meaning and purpose in this artform. The legacy of Gee’s Bend has been inherited by modern artists like Tompkins, whose eclectic and experimental approach also embraces the gumbo ya-ya ethos. Through the rich tapestry of African American women’s quilting, we find not only a unique artform pioneered by women from the domestic sphere, but also a testament to the compelling works that come from abundance and allowing room for multiple voices to exist at once.