Gwendolyn Magee

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Threads of anguish, hope emerge from quilts - 'Journey of the Spirit'
November 17, 2004 by Sherry Lucas

In Gwen Magee's Our New Day Begun, a brilliant sun throbs with energy, as ribbons of rays pulse from a roiling yellow center.

Noted photodocumentarian Roland Freeman can't forget his first look at that quilt, in 2000, in her living room.

"It was definitely a new day," Freeman said from Washington, D.C. "It was a new feeling. It was a new horizon. All I could think was, if this is the beginning of a series, look out."

That series is here. Magee's dozen quilts drawing on the lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the African-American national anthem, are part of her first major solo exhibition, opening Saturday at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

In Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee, 30 quilts and a book survey 15 years of quilt-making by the Jackson artist.

At her start in 1989, Magee's goal in quilting was for keepsakes for her college-bound daughters, Kamili and Aliya. "By the time I finished two, I was just kind of hooked," she said.

She kept at it, but a thread of dissatisfaction emerged. Infinity was a turning point, altering a traditional pattern (Rebecca's Fan) to enter a new dimension. Deep, rich hues and spinning stars open a galaxy of possibilities and soulful depths. The two-year, queen-sized 100-piece project was a gift for her husband, ophthalmologist Dr. D. E. Magee, who's also an astronomy buff.

"He refused to allow me to put it on our bed. He said it was art," she said with a laugh.

Friends at Faux Pas Quilters in Clinton insisted she submit it to the American Quilter's Society juried show in Paducah, KY. - her first major show. Connections there put Freeman, documenting African-American quilters with his own exhibition and book, in touch.

New depths

Magee's quilts were included in Freeman's nationally touring exhibits and, through him, she connected with a vibrant network of African-American quilters.

"As I began to learn about other African-American quitters, I really saw that a number of them were doing a heckuva lot more than just making something pretty - that they were going deep," she said.

Her Africa-inspired quilts Serengeti Nova and Nubian Queen came out of the quest to explore her roots. "Still, it did not feel real to me." The Africa she knew was from books, magazines and TV, "and there was a disconnect," she said. "I didn't think I was doing it justice."

She needed to hone in on her own heritage, as an African American in this country, she said. "What immediately came to mind was Lift Every Voice and Sing, so familiar to me and everyone else brought up in the South in my generation, said Magee, 61.

The song by James Weldon Johnson was sung everywhere - at community events, the YMCA, the Masonic Temple, the church, the school. "It just always filled everybody with such pride." It filled her with inspiration.

Anguish, hope

Full of the Faith, Full of the Hope, Stony the Road We Trod, Bitter the Chastening Rod and more tackle the anguish of the past, concerns in the present, and the possibility for a bright future.

Narrative quilts tackle painful subjects head-on. Bitter the Chastening Rod depicts a chained pregnant woman, beaten. God of Our Silent Tears I speaks about the disproportionate number of African-Americans sentenced to death; God of Our Silent Tears II shows the family devastated by the man's execution.

In Full of the Faith, three generations of women kneel safe in the shadow of a golden cross made of strips of African cloth. A pair of graduating seniors stand proud in Full of the Hope, kente cloth around their shoulders. "You can't think of Gwen just as a quilter," said Freeman, who co-curated the exhibit with museum deputy director of programs, René Paul Barilleaux. "You have to think of her as an artist who's using fabric as the format to say what she wants to say.

"I think that this body of work, if it 's kept together, can possibly become as important, over time, as Jacob Lawrence's Migration series."

"Marvelous creative endeavor," quilt historian Cuesta Benberry said.

Real and abstract

Also in the show are Magee's early quilts, her abstract designs and Southern Heritage/Southern Shame, which along with the series' Blood of the Slaughtered, were displayed in the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America exhibit at Jackson State University. At this point, Magee has not sold any of her quilts, but within the next six months, hopes to have work for sale; prices are undetermined.

Southern Heritage/Southern Shame is Magee's response to the failure of a vote to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag. In it, a Confederate flag is overlaid with silhouettes of lynching victims and a ghostly white hood. "There was all this talk, 'I'm not racist, I want to keep this as our heritage.' I felt a need to show very explicitly that heritage. It involved a heckuva lot more than sipping mint juleps on the veranda or strolling around the plantation with a parasol."

"The thing about Gwen's quilts is, they kind of undermine any notion, especially the later work, of what a quilt is about," Barilleaux said. "Quilts are supposed to be comforting, supposed to be calming. The later works, her political narrative, is quite the opposite. It disturbs our sense of comfort…There's nothing comforting about that image" in Southern Heritage/Southern shame.

Other quilts dance with joy. "To me, Lift Every Voice and Sing shows her knowledge of culture and knowledge of history, but her abstract pieces show the freedom, the spontaneity, the fun-loving aspect," said Fran Cummings of Florence, a friend from Faux Pas Quilters. "They really express her inner being, I think…not the kind of things she sees to struggle against, or struggle for, but the real Gwen coming out."


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