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Africans in India reveal their histories in quilts

August 17, 2005 By Barbara Wolff

Monday is the regular market day in Mundgod, India. On this particular Monday, Dumgi has a lot to buy: cotton sari cloth, white cotton thread, assorted needles.

When she gets back home, she and some of her friends and relatives will gather on the shady veranda of her house and begin a new quilt. The sari will serve as a backing for the pattern created from pieces of used clothing, lovingly gathered from family and friends.

Dumgi is a member of the Siddis, descendants of Africans enslaved by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and Americans, and brought to India. Today, about 20,000 Siddis live scattered in the forests and high plains of northern Karnataka on the west coast of India.

“The Siddis have adapted, adopted and integrated many cultural aspects of the Indian peoples with whom they have lived for generations,” says Henry Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts in the Department of Art History at UW–Madison. “They also have retained and transformed certain cultural and artistic traditions from Africa. The performing arts are the strongest – drumming, songs and dance – but one tradition in the visual arts stands out: the art of patchwork quilts known as kawandi,” he says.

Madison will get a sampling of these quilts in exhibition in the Gallery of Design at the university’s School of Human Ecology. “Stitching History: Patchwork Quilts by Africans of India” will feature about eight large quilts and a dozen crib-sized quilts, all done by members of the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative, which Drewal founded in 2004.

“I lived with a Siddi family while documenting some of the performing and visual arts of the region,” he says. “I noticed especially the beautiful quilt I was given to sleep on. Then, as I visited other Siddi communities, I began to see quilts hanging out in the sun to dry, and women sitting on shaded porches beside bundles of old clothes, sewing them into marvelous creations. I began to wonder if these family quilts could become an income-producing activity, especially for women who were unable to work in the fields or who stayed at home to raise the family.”

Siddi quilt making can either be a communal or solitary activity, Drewal says. “The quilters start at one of the corners of the sari and work their way around it, usually in a counterclockwise direction,” he says. “They fix patches made from the family’s old clothing to the sari with a running back stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt, both patchwork top and sari bottom. Some quilters create small, close-spaced stitches, others spread them further apart. The stitches exhibit a distinctive rhythm that is part of the individual quilter’s visual signature.”

He adds that other signature elements include the artist’s use of color, sizes, shapes and design arrangement of the clothing patches.

“Some women incorporate parts of the garment uncut, like the neckline of a child’s blouse. Others cut small pieces of brightly colored cloth to place on top of larger patches. Others decorate their corners with a series of parallel chevrons that end in detached squares. One woman favors a step-pattern of squares descending diagonally across field of multicolored rectangles,” he says.

Finished products generally wind up as mattress covers or blankets. Bright-colored crib-sized quilts fill wooden cradles suspended from the rafters of Siddi homes.

“Quilts for three or more people are seen as auspicious, for they imply progeny: a prosperous, growing family with children,” Drewal says. “The quilt is a visual history of the family. Summarizing the fortunes and styles of the family members as well as the artistic sensibilities of the quilters.”

Photo of Drewal

When Drewal visited the Siddis in 2004 he discovered that the master quilter Dumgi was a member of his host family. He asked her to make a quilt for him. She and two close friends, Flora Introse and Mary Mariani, created a large, colorful piece with vibrant flourishes in the middle, Drewal says. While that one will not be part of the “Stitching History” exhibition, others by this trio of master quilters will be. All the quilts are for sale, ranging in price from $500-$1,500, depending on size and construction. All proceeds return to the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative.

The exhibition, free and open to the public, will open at the SoHE Gallery of Design in the Human Ecology Building, 1300 Linden Drive, on Friday, Aug. 26, and remain on view until Sunday, Sept. 25. Drewal will talk about the exhibition and the quilting cooperative on Sunday, Sept. 18, at 2 p.m. in Room 21, Human Ecology Building.

Tags: arts, research