Pictorial Quilt

Article excerpt

This extraordinary quilt was created at the end of the nineteenth century by Harriet Powers, an African-American woman slave near Athens, Georgia. The quilt was made by working each square separately by sewing simple shapes onto squares of cotton cloth in a process called applique, and embroidering details by both hand and machine. She then stitched the squares together to form the quilt top.

Each square is highly original in composition and detail, telling a complicated story with drama, humor, and the simplest of means. Powers used ten squares to depict biblical events--the fall of Adam and Eve, the trials of Job, Moses in the wilderness, Jonah and the whale. Other squares record celebrated natural events, such as a meteor shower and an extreme cold snap when, Powers recounted, "isicles [sic] formed from the breath of a mule." The square in the center of the bottom row features Betts, "the independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia." Powers was highly imaginative and deeply religious. She was also, as this quilt makes clear, fascinated by animals. Although she would have considered it a sin to attend such a place, she said how much she wanted to visit a circus in order to see "the Bible animals."

The Artist

Little is known about Harriet Powers. She and her husband, Armstead Powers, had three children, two of them also born into slavery. The family came to own four acres, which they farmed with moderate success. After her husband left the family in 1895, Powers managed the farm by herself until 1900, when she sold it and supported herself, probably by sewing, until her death in 1911.

The African Connection

Quilting is a strong tradition within the community of African-American women. During slavery, women quilted for their owners during the day and for themselves in the evening. In pattern and construction, most surviving "daytime" quilts are derived from European models, but the quilts slave women made for themselves often reflected African textiles.

Powers' quilt is strikingly similar in design and technique to the appliqued cotton textiles made by the Fon people in Abomey, the ancient capital of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) in West Africa. This cloth was used by the religious and secular elite for costumes, festival decoration, and wall hangings. However, most of the slaves of Powers' parent's generation were brought to the American South from the Congo and Angola. Therefore, it remains a mystery how Powers became aware of Dahomey appliqued cloth which, moreover, was made only by men.

History of the Quilt

Only two quilts by Harriet Powers are known. Powers showed the first (now at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC) at a fair in Athens in 1886 and sold it a few years later to a local artist and teacher, Jennie Smith, for $5. When Smith exhibited the quilt at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, it attracted the attention of a group of wives of professors at Atlanta University, who commissioned this second quilt as a gift to a retiring trustee, Reverend Charles Cuthburt Hall. Hall's son inherited the quilt and sold it to collector Maxim Karolik, who gave it to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1964.

For the Viewer

In each square of her quilt, Powers tells a complex story using only a few flat and simplified shapes. Some of these shapes represent figures or animals; others are personal symbols that Powers created to express an idea. …