Monday, November 9, 2015

"Dahomey Revisited": An African-Inspired Quilt

 A Tribute to Harriet Powers

  by Patricia L. Cummings

African-inspired quilt by Patricia L. Cummings features Benin/Dahomey area images

The quilt shown above was put together in a relatively short time, having been started on January 30, 2004 and finished on February 2, 2004. The backing is a piece of fabric from Senegal, and the layers are secured together with ties of black embroidery floss. The edges are brought from back to front, and sewn down.

The background fabric is black wool, washed it in cold water, and dried it in a hot dryer in order to "felt" it. The pieces of colored wool were purchased as a packet of felted wool which came in handy for creating the design motifs.

The outline shapes of the animals are available in a book: Quilting the World Over by Willow Ann Soltow, (Chilton Book Company, 1991). If you enjoy international textiles, this book is a must-have for your library and worth trying to find a copy even though it is now out of print. The author has added a lot of good history information about the Dahomey area. Additional information about Dahomey can be found online here:

I have used the recommended traditional colors of red, blue, green, and magenta, but have added other colors as well. I have chosen how to stitch each motif as I worked, so each design is sewn on, in whatever way suited me at the moment. Mostly, they are applied with running stitch, or buttonhole stitch appliqué.

I added the cross, in remembrance of Harriet Powers' love of the Bible, and in honor of all of our Black sisters and brothers who have had some cross to bear in their own lives. It is with joy that personal burdens are overcome so that one can  become free from the chains of the past. 

In re-creating some of the traditional Dahomey designs, as set forth by Soltow, I realize that I do not fully comprehend the hidden meanings the images may hold. I have "borrowed" these motifs from another culture, and in that transition, they have become "Americanized," if you will. The images on the quilt originate in the Benin/Dahomey area.

In Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts by Cuesta Benberry (The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., 1992), the author states that these kind of motifs are "symbolic in nature"... and "represented battles and heraldic devices, illustrated proverbs and transmitted subtle message."

The quilt seen here is a quilt made to honor the work of the late Harriet Powers (1837-1910), a former slave. Much has been written about her. The two known Bible quilts that she made now reside in the Smithsonian Institution and in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She may have made a third quilt, "The Lord's Supper," which may or may not exist today in a collection. She described that quilt in a letter which she wrote according to the following wikipedia file:

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