2 December 202025 April 2021

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Essie Bendolph Pettway, Delia Bennett, America Irby, Annie E. Pettway, Candis Mosely Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Qunnie Pettway, Rita Mae Pettway, Stella Mae Pettway, Loretta Pettway Bennett, Ethel Young

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I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and a piece of quilt.1

Alison Jacques Gallery presents the first solo exhibition in Europe devoted to three generations of women artists living in Gee’s Bend, officially known as Boykin, a remote black community situated on a U-turn in the Alabama River. The show is organised in partnership with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the contributions of African American artists from the Southern states, and provides a survey of quilts spanning nearly 100 years, with a number of the artists still living and working in Boykin to this day.

The geographic isolation of Boykin has fostered a unique environment for both the women’s art community and their chosen method of quilting. The experimental processes and compositional language of the quilts have been passed down through generations of Gee’s Bend residents, from grandmothers to mothers to daughters. This idea of inherited knowledge is a key part of the artists’ work, something demonstrated here by the inclusion of works by members of the same family. A quilt from the 1930s by Annie E. Pettway (1904–1972) is presented alongside another by her granddaughter, Rita Mae Pettway (b. 1941); a quilt from 1970 by Candis Mosely Pettway (1924-1997) comes together with work from her daughter, Qunnie Pettway (1943-2010), and her granddaughter, Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960). The familial lines that run through the show allude to the importance of communality and continuity to the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers, with their techniques preserved and uniquely interpreted by each generation. In this sense, the quilts signify both a collective past and a hope for the future.

Uninhibited by the conventions of fine or folk art, the Gee’s Bend quilts constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art. The vivid and multi-layered textiles preserve numerous vocabularies and approaches to form; the interplay between symbols and asymmetry refers to histories of African textiles while also evoking the formal qualities of Modernist painting. Forgoing more traditional art historical classifications, the quiltmakers organise their quilts into loose categories: ‘Abstraction & Improvisation’, ‘Pattern & Geometry’, ‘Housetop & Bricklayer’, ‘Lazy Gal’ and ‘Work Clothes’. As Michael Kimmelman wrote of the Gee’s Bend quilts in The New York Times in 2002, following the inclusion of several works in a group exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art: ‘The results, not incidentally, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.’

Kimmelman continued: ‘These women, closely bound by family and custom […] spent their precious spare time—while not rearing children, chopping wood, hauling water and ploughing fields—splicing scraps of old cloth to make robust objects of amazingly refined, eccentric abstract designs.’ But the Gee’s Bend quilts were not sewn in the name of recreation aloneand neither were they originally conceived of as artworks. Instead, they were created out of necessity and a staunch belief that nothing should go to waste. When the nights grew cold, the women would stitch together scraps of fabric to insulate their children’s beds. Which is not to say that aesthetic consideration was not given. It was, and is, a common practice for the quiltmakers to publicly ‘air out’ their quilts every Spring, providing members of the local community with the opportunity to survey one another’s methods and take inspiration for their future designs.

The residents of Gee’s Bend are almost all descendants of slaves who worked on the original Pettway plantationmany bear the slaveowner’s name to this day. During the Civil Rights Movement, the community gained national recognition when they established the Freedom Quilting Bee collaborative and distributed their quilts across the country. In 1999, the Los Angeles Times featured Gee’s Bend artist Mary Lee Bendolph in the Pulitzer Prize-winning article ‘Crossing Over’, an account of the community’s efforts to re-establish the Alabama River ferry service, which was suspended in 1967 by the white community who wanted to prevent the residents from registering to vote. In 2006, 39 years later, the ferry was reinstated. Mary Lee, whose daughter Essie Bendolph Pettway presents a work from 1973 in this exhibition, is still quilting today.

The first major museum exhibition dedicated to the Quilts of Gee’s Bend was presented in 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2006, the book Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt was launched at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; that same year, the U.S. Postal Service issued ten commemorative stamps featuring images of Gee’s Bend quilts. More recently, works were shown in History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation at the Metropolitan Museum, New York (2018). The quilts of Gee’s Bend are now in many prominent museum collections including Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

1. Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960), daughter of Qunnie Pettway (1943–2010), granddaughter of Candis Mosely Pettway (1924–1997)

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Works

Loretta Pettway Bennett, Work-Clothes Strips, 2003

Denim
200.7 x 152.4 cm (79 x 60 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Loretta Pettway, Two-Sided Work-Clothes Quilt: Bars and Blocks, c.1960

Two-sided quilt: cotton, denim, twill, corduroy and wool blend
210.8 x 180.3 cm (83 x 71 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Delia Bennett, ‘Diamonds’ Variation – ‘One Patch’ With Contrasting Center, c.1975

Cotton and corduroy
195.6 x 185.4 cm (77 x 73 in)
Courtesy: © Delia Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Loretta Pettway, ‘Log Cabin’ – a Single Block ‘Courthouse Steps’ Variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), c.1980

Cotton, cotton and polyester blend
254 x 228.6 cm (100 x 90 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Essie Bendolph Pettway, Two-Sided Quilt: Blocks and ‘One Patch’ – Stacked Squares and Rectangles Variation, 1973

Two-sided quilt: cotton, polyester knit and denim
223.5 x 203.2 cm (88 x 80 in)
Courtesy: © Essie Bendolph Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

America Irby, Center Medallion, c.1940

Corduroy
210.8 x 193 cm (83 x 76 in)
Courtesy: © America Irby / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Annie E. Pettway, ‘Housetop’ – Nine-Block Variation, c.1930

Cotton
195.6 x 180.3 cm (77 x 71 in)
Courtesy: © Annie E. Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Stella Mae Pettway, Big Wheel, 1986

Double knit, cotton and polyester
218.4 x 193 cm (86 x 76 in)
Courtesy: © Stella Mae Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Loretta Pettway Bennett, ‘Z’ and Chinese Coins, Pink, Navy, Blue and Multi-Color, 2004

Cotton, cotton blend and twill
177.8 x 152.4 cm (70 x 60 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Candis Mosely Pettway, Coat of Many Colors (Quilting Bee Name), 1970

Cotton and cotton-polyester blend
200.7 x 170.2 cm (79 x 67 ins)
Courtesy: © Candis Pettway

Qunnie Pettway, Housetop, c.1975

Corduroy
208.3 x 188 cm (82 x 74 in)
Courtesy: © Qunnie Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Rita Mae Pettway, ‘Pig in the Pen’ – Block Style, 2019

Cotton and polyester blend
210.8 x 210.8 cm (83 x 83 in)
Courtesy: © Rita Mae Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

  • Loretta Pettway Bennett, Work-Clothes Strips, 2003
  • Loretta Pettway, Two-Sided Work-Clothes Quilt: Bars and Blocks, c.1960
  • Delia Bennett, ‘Diamonds’ Variation – ‘One Patch’ With Contrasting Center, c.1975
  • Loretta Pettway, ‘Log Cabin’ – a Single Block ‘Courthouse Steps’ Variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), c.1980
  • Essie Bendolph Pettway, Two-Sided Quilt: Blocks and ‘One Patch’ – Stacked Squares and Rectangles Variation, 1973
  • America Irby, Center Medallion, c.1940
  • Annie E. Pettway, ‘Housetop’ – Nine-Block Variation, c.1930
  • Stella Mae Pettway, Big Wheel, 1986
  • Loretta Pettway Bennett, ‘Z’ and Chinese Coins, Pink, Navy, Blue and Multi-Color, 2004
  • Candis Mosely Pettway, Coat of Many Colors (Quilting Bee Name), 1970
  • Qunnie Pettway, Housetop, c.1975
  • Ethel Young, ‘Crosscut Saw’ – (Quiltmaker’s Name) – Five Diamond-Pieced Rows With Bars, c.1970
  • Rita Mae Pettway, ‘Pig in the Pen’ – Block Style, 2019

Installation

Press

Review: The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers, Alison Jacques Gallery

Veronica Simpson, Studio International

January 2021

A Pool of Talent in Hard Times

Melanie Gerlis, Financial Times

January 2021

US National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists

Gareth Harris, The Art Newspaper

December 2020

National Gallery of Art Acquires 40 Works by Black Southern Artists

Zachary Small, The New York Times

December 2020

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers are Masters of Their Craft

Tanya Harrod, Apollo

December 2020

The Alabama Quiltmakers Who Shook America

Claire Armitstead, The Guardian

December 2020

Southern Comforters

Amy Sherlock, The World of Interiors

November 2020

Quilty Pleasures: The Art of the Blanket

Victoria Woodcock, Financial Times: How To Spend It

September 2020

The Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make Facemasks

Taylor Dafoe, Artnet

April 2020

Can Gee’s Bend Rival Marfa?

Julia Halperin, Artnet

January 2020

Fabric of Their Lives

Amei Wallach, Smithsonian Magazine

October 2006

Gee’s Bend Modern

Richard Kalina, Art in America

October 2003

Crossing Over

J.R. Moehringer, Los Angeles Times

August 1999

Video

Exhibition walkthrough