The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

THREE
Michael Cummings: Stitching in Tempo

Interview by Graham Lock

Michael Cummings belongs to a new generation of art quilters who have moved away from traditional patterns to find fresh images with which to tell their stories. Born in Los Angeles in 1945, he moved to New York in 1970, where he hoped initially to become a painter but later switched first to collage and then to quilting.

Cummings rarely works in single quilts, and his subject matter has included multi-part series on butterflies, lullabies, Haitian mermaids, and two complementary quilts on Josephine Baker. However, his most ambitious and celebrated project to date has been the twelve-quilt African Jazz series, inspired by a photograph he found in Greenwich Village. His work has been seen in many solo and group shows, has appeared on the covers of books and CDs, has been featured on American television, and has also been used to illustrate children’s books.

We spoke in his Harlem brownstone, its walls lined with cultural artifacts from the African diaspora, in October 2003.

GL: How did the African Jazz series originate?1

MC: I found a poster in the Village at the end of 1989. I would always look through the poster stores, and I found this one called Africans Playing Jazz, 1954. It was a black-and-white poster, kind of abstract, almost cubist-looking in terms of the way the characters were all broken up in shadows. I walked by it at first because I thought, oh there’s nothing there you can really identify with, but then something started to ring in my ear about how this contradicted everything I knew about jazz. I mean, I knew about jazz in America, I’d heard about jazz in Europe, but I’d never heard of jazz in Africa. Then, going back and looking at the poster again, it took on a sort of mystique because it connected a history in

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