Saturday, June 15, 2024

Afrofuturism and Quilts: Artists tell stories of a Black, liberated Future in MSU Union Exhibit

June 1, 2024
Quiltmakers and quilt scholars' work on display for the Afrofuturism & Quilts exhibit at the MSU Union on May 17, 2024. Each piece in the exhibition highlights different aspects of the quiltmakers' identities.
Quiltmakers and quilt scholars' work on display for the Afrofuturism & Quilts exhibit at the MSU Union on May 17, 2024. Each piece in the exhibition highlights different aspects of the quiltmakers' identities.

The MSU Union Art Gallery, in collaboration with the MSU Museum, The Quilt Index and the MSU African American and African Studies (AAAS) Department, has created an exhibition dedicated to Afrofuturism, exploring the past and envisioning the future, and different stories told through quilting.

From now until July 19, the MSU community has the opportunity to view pieces in the exhibit that tell a story of a Black-liberated future through theoretical connections between Afrofuturism and quilt making.

Olivia Furman, a post-doctorate and AAAS associate professor at MSU, is the creator of the “Afrofuturism and Quilts” exhibition, a project that stems from their passion for quilting.

Furman said they learned quilting from their grandmother, Mary Francis Furman, at a young age and used it as a tool for therapy and to express themselves and make art.

“When I was growing up, she used to teach me all kinds of things that was kind of her way of having some personal one-on-one time with her grandkids,” Furman said. “Quilting is one of those things that she taught me along the way. And as we quilted, I loved that time with my grandma, just talking or watching TV in the background as I'm sewing."

Furman said as they grew older, they have gotten more into quilting, especially prior to entering college.

“I was getting older and I had friends I wanted to give gifts to, but I didn't always have money, I grew up kind of lower class,” Furman said. “I started making quilts for my friends because I wanted to make them something that was meaningful and beautiful, and I found that quilt making was a great tool for that." 

Furman said their inspiration for creating the exhibition was from their work with The Quilt Index, a digital humanities research project through MSU about quilting, and in finding more Black quilters for the website, along with their work with the Black Diaspora Quilt Project.

Furman said along with other people in the project, they decided a collaboration of all of their interests would be a great idea.

Prior to planning the exhibition, Furman made sure to have theoretical concepts of Afrofuturism to help explain what it is to those visiting the exhibit.

“We set up for the panel and the exhibition basically came out of that,” Furman said. “I had just started talking to different quiltmakers and telling them about the exhibition and so many people told me that they were interested and that they already had pieces.”

In their own words, Furman says different people have their own definition of Afrofuturism due to it, and Blackness, not being a monolith.

“I feel like Afrofuturism is kind of like an aesthetic," Furman said. "It's a genre, a story and music and many other things that could connect black people, our ancestral past, our connection with land and Community with themes of technology, the future and other things like that. There's a way of envisioning forward dreaming, otherwise making sense of the past, present, and future."

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Furman said a lot of Black speculative artists like Octavia Butler and Janelle Monaé use Afrofuturism to make sense of their life, express themselves and resist the "especially White Western capitalist culture many of us are in.”

Furman said quilting, which tells a story in each variation, is heavily connected to the core value of Afrofuturism and gives them hope in continuing their work.

Specifically speaking about each piece of art in the exhibit, Furman said they all tell a story through the quiltmaker or artist.

An example of this includes quilter April Shipp’s “Lieutenant Nyota Uhura” quilt and “Harriet Tubman: Jedi Warrior” statue, the two honoring Black Women who have been very impactful in representation in Black sci-fi culture.

Furman said the work of Dr. Elka Stevens, Carole Lyles Shaw, and Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye each tells a different story based on their own lives and experiences, but all have a pattern of acknowledging the past and representing the future.

Explaining their own art in the exhibit, Furman said “The Black Futures” quilt is an embodiment of their own idea of what they desire for a Black future.

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“It stories together all the names of people who have been influential and how I think about the people whose footsteps I'm walking in, as well as visually showing some things that are necessary for my Black queer future,” Furman said.

Furman hopes the exhibition will eventually travel around different Black spaces and end up in the Smithsonian Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“My goal is the exhibit is for people to just basically appreciate the beauty and wonder of Black quilt making, especially Black women quilt making, the tradition, Black Fems and gender nonconforming folks like myself,” Furman said. 

Furman also hopes the exhibit sparks the minds of people to make their own art.

"I think it's important for this, for us in this day and time to be thinking about the knowledge of our elders, that things that they use sustain themselves or communities to make a way out of no way," Furman said. 

Furman said it’s amazing that the exhibition is on a college campus like MSU because it will teach students that quilting is a tool used by every age, wanting the tradition to pass down generations and not stop with the older folks they usually make quilts with. 

Chiquita Whitfield is a military veteran. During her time being stationed at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in rural Colorado as a nurse, Whitfield attended her first quilting show around Christmas of 1980.

“It really blew my mind seeing all the beautiful quilts," Whitfield said. 

Whitfield said one of the vendors at the event offered to teach her how to quilt but by hand. However, Whitfield said she has needed to quilt with a machine since 2014, dealing with the pain of carpal tunnel and arthritis. 

Whitfield describes Afrofuturism as an “Afrocultural and conceptual guide that pays homage to our ancestors by us productively working on the present and navigate people to a positive, purposeful and prosperous future”.

Explaining her quilt, “Wakanda Forever,” inspired by the 2018 Marvel film “Black Panther," Whitfield said inspiration for the quilt came from seeing the movie and the aesthetics throughout the film.

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“While I’m looking at the movie, not only I’m pulling up the African pride and Afrofuturism parts, but I also pull out the steam part for all of the technology,” Whitfield said. “I saw all of the different areas of steam, from the nursing and medical aspect to the technological lab. It moved and inspired me to make the quilt.”

In addition, Whitfield said personally seeing how the movie represented Black pride throughout the Black community, along with the message of the film of learning from the past to grow in the future, made her realize that even though the movie was sci-fi, the concept can be realistic.

Whitfield describes working with Furman and the other artists as a “very elevated experience." 

“They’re awesome,” Whitfield said referring to Furman. “Working with them has been an experience and it really helps me feel more proud because it’s someone that looks like me that’s over this." 

Whitfield said she didn't know how much of a sculptor other artists like Shipp were, inspiring her to increase her skills in the collaboration on the exhibit.

Whitfield expressed how the culture of quilting is the purpose of passing it along to other generations. Her passion is not only teaching younger generations how to quilt, but that quilting is not just for older people.

“It is a plethora of men that quilt and I find that to me, their eye on colors and combination, and I really like the way they do their quilts as well,” Whitfield said. “It’s not just an old ladies club.”

Whitfield expressed her willingness to work with the MSU Museum in the future after the exhibition, one that she hopes young people on campus take the time and explore.

“It has been a positive and good experience for me to work with MSU,” Whitfield said. “I’m manifesting that the exhibit will end up at the Smithsonian Museum one day." 

Rebecca Lipker is the owner of James Lauren Beauty, LLC and said she too found her passion for quilting at an early age, thanks to her grandmother and her mother, Janda Lipker, who is also part of the exhibit.

 “She always fostered a love of the arts with me," Lipker said about her mother. 

Lipker said she started a company focusing on hair care and body care while still in law school, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for her.

“Like many other people, we have found our way on TikTok and we have started making face masks for charities and for ourselves,” Lipker said. “As the mask guidelines changed, we still had a bunch of cotton fabric and batting,”

Lipker said with the materials left over and her mother gaining inspiration from Facebook, the mother-daughter duo started making quilts and has been ever since.

“We started documenting this journey of us getting into quilting and trying different patterns, until you finally see the method that's in the exhibit of quilted panel painting, and the rest is history,” Lipker said. 

With over 16,000 followers on TikTok and having their art featured in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, Lipker said the work helped kick off a journey of finding what resonates with her when it comes to quilting.

“We didn't realize plenty of others are interested in quilting too, but just are a more modern take as something they didn't see as possible,” Lipker said. “It's just been this documenting of a journey of us finding what resonates for us and what resonates for others until you see what's in the exhibit.”

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Lipker said she was introduced to Afrofuturism by her parents, who are described as “Trekkies,” or Star Trek fans.

“We’re big into that,” Lipker said. “I really didn't have my term for it until Janelle Monae's album started dropping and she had this whole thing with like the arc Android and I was like 'What on Earth is this?’”

In her own words, Lipker describes Afrofuturism as an opportunity for creativity.

“When I think of Afrofuturism, I think about Blackness in the future and then the rest is open to creativity and opportunity of this ‘Hey if you like labels? Cool, do that. If you don't like labels? Great, let's do that,’” Lipker said. “It's this limitless place of opportunity for Black Americans or just Black people across the diaspora in a way that we don't see it currently." 

Lipker said an example of Afrofuturism becoming more mainstream is Black Panther among other things in pop culture.

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Lipker said while working with the other artists part of the exhibit, she describes it as having sisterhood discussions in Black spaces with other Black women. 

“There is this sense of family almost like a cousin type of thing where I don't get to see you guys all the time, but I’m maybe familiar with one person's work more than another or just saying like, ‘Hey, that's the cousin who does this thing in a very unique way’ so when you see their work, you're like, ‘Yep. That's such and such’,” Lipker said. “It's really awesome to see them develop over time with their work.”

Lipker said the longer timeframe given to the artists allowed them to be more creative with their work

Explaining her piece in the exhibit, “Mr. Somebody” and “ Mrs. Sunshine," Lipker said the art is meant to be companion pieces, a blend of Afrofuturism's goal of looking towards a Black liberated future.

“It was really easy to find a lot of Black female characters to kind of get inspiration from, but we didn't see a lot of male figures or just masculine figures,” Lipker said. “So that was something worth keeping in mind because when we wanted to think about the future, we wanted to have a more inclusive future with what would Blackness look like for feminine-presenting people versus masculine-presenting people.”

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Reflecting on the demographic for the exhibit and being centered on a college campus like MSU, Lipker said she realized people would want to see themselves represented through the art, not only in the present, but in the future.

“Whenever we get another invite, we will work with the MSU Museum in the future,” Lipker said. “Our big thing is always inspiring the next generation of crafters. We do a lot of work with our local library system to teach kids crafting basics, how to work a long arm, how to build blocks. We just want to show that if you love more traditional quilting, great. You’re more than welcome to join.”

Sharing her final thoughts, Lipker said if there’s anything anyone likes to do, continue doing it.

“Our biggest thing is just reaching out to other people to be much like an agriculturist,” Lipker said. “You see Blackness in the future. We want you to know, you can see Blackness anywhere that you have an interest in.”

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