Quilts As the Fabric of Life

Artists as Activists

Saad Ghosn

Carolyn Mazloomi uses her art and Quilters’ organization to keep quilting potent and alive.

Quilts and quilting changed Carolyn Mazloomi’s life. A Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, Mazloomi, taken and mesmerized by a quilt exhibit she visited in Dallas, TX, promised herself to learn the art. Her decision stayed with her and led her a long way, completely removed from her initial profession. Mazloomi became instead a highly skilled and talented professional quilter and an ardent life-long advocate for African-American women quilt-makers.

Carolyn Mazloomi in her studio. Source: Bill Howes

Born and raised in New Orleans in a segregated Southern society, the double burden of being black and woman accompanied her all along. She experienced directly and early on the subjugation of women and their 2nd class role in a male dominated society, along with the prevailing racial discrimination of the early 60’s. Growing up she would always ask questions, challenging the status quo and the injustices she was seeing; she also constantly felt the need to express her concerns and communicate her thoughts and ideas. Thanks to their potential narrative pictorial quality, quilts appealed strongly to her. They seemed to be a natural and fitting vehicle for her social commentaries and messages; she, as well, liked the touch and feel of fabric.

“We humans have a love affair and a privileged visceral relationship, from birth to death, with the cloth,” she says. “Quilts serve as a tactile link to visual sensual memory, also as metaphors for covering, protecting, warmth and security.”

Convinced that women had one of the most, if not the most, important job on earth, being mothers and first teachers at the same time, she felt the need to empower them and call attention to their status and rights. As a result, most of her quilts, from the start, dealt with some aspect of their condition.

“I am a woman; I am a mother; I am a concerned citizen of the world,” she says. “My quilts depict my concerns about the world I live in and how we treat each other. And women, who represent 50% of humankind, are often mistreated.”

In Forever Faithful, she tackles the issue of female circumcision still practiced in many parts of the world. Her quilt shows the silhouette of a naked woman lying down in the center of what represents a sharp blade. At the bottom is written “A lifetime of pain” alluding to the painful and violent procedure forced on a woman’s body, detrimental to both her health and well-being.

The Peace Keepers’ Gift is about the fate of West African women who have been raped by UN soldiers. It portrays an African girl holding a mixed race baby with sandy hair and, under her, white UN peace keepers. It points to the vulnerability of the woman and the uncertain destiny of the child.

Seeking Comfort Finding Pain refers to the Korean “comfort” women who, during WW2, were forced into prostitution and used as sex slaves by the Japanese military were forced into prostitution and used as sex slaves by the Japanese military, abused, abandoned, and ignored.

Bride Burning in India, prompted by a young Indian girl brought to Cincinnati for burn treatment, stresses the ongoing problem of Indian widows forcefully placed on the pyre of their dead husband and burnt to death.

A series of black and white quilts pertaining to grandmothers and great grand mothers who, nowadays, have often the added responsibility to take care of their grandchildren, reflects on the increasingly dysfunctional family structure in our society.

In addition to women issues, race also found its way into Mazloomi’s quilts. Strange Fruit, inspired by the song of the same name about lynching, depicts images of hangings and burnings, of pointed hoods symbols of the Ku Klux Klan, of a screaming woman. Mazloomi meant it as a sacred offering to those African Americans who have been lynched and homage to the many who, from slavery to present days, have heroically fought for racial justice. One of her quilts comments on the racially- biased immigration policy of our country; it represents Haitians standing next to the Statue of Liberty holding in her hand a stop sign, and at her feet, a quotation saying ‘Certain people do not need apply’.

Strange Fruit, mixed media hanging quilt. Source: Quilt and Photo by Carolyn Mazloomi

In 1985, Mazloomi founded the Women of Color Quilters Network, an organization that supports and empowers women quilters, maintains quilts’ artistic and cultural tradition, keeps alive their heritage, and helps the economic development of the artists through selling their work and protecting its monetary value. The organization, in addition, plays an important educational role, informing about quilts, promoting their cultural and historical value, offering technical workshops and recruiting newcomer youth to the craft.

“Quilts are very important historical documents,” says Mazloomi. “They provide glimpses into people’s lives and serve as cultural windows. They reflect the fabric of life, and inform about material, dyes, and ways of expressions, customs and events of a given period.”

The organization, now international, includes close to 2000 members, primarily but not exclusively African American women. It has been honored by the International Labor Department, also by the United Nations, in recognition of its programs to help advance women. It owed Mazloomi, in 2003, the first Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award.

Through her role as a founder and president of the organization, Mazloomi was led to curate exhibits to showcase the works of the members and also to write books relating to the art form. Six of her books have already been published dealing variably with Contemporary African American quilts, quilts inspired by Religion and Faith, quilts related to Jazz, reflecting on African American Women’s history, celebrating Obama’s election to the presidency… Touring exhibits traveled throughout the USA, and as far as Central America, Africa, Japan museums hosting many of them, also acquiring some of the work for their own collections.

“Quilts need to be included in permanent museum collections,” says Mazloomi. “Our children and grand children should be able to see how we, African American women, contributed to culture in America.”

Mazloomi wants her art and quilts to educate, inform, make people reflect and think. She intends them as transmitters of her cultural, political, social, spiritual values and beliefs. Through her organization she also aims at keeping the quilting tradition vibrant and alive as an artistic, cultural and historical tool; and at giving recognition and power to the many African American women who, for centuries, have used it in the shadow of their lives.