Discovering Myself in the Kawandi Quilts
By Dr. Tony Jean Dickerson, January 6, 2022
I started quilting because of my mother. I have sewn all of my life, receiving my first working sewing machine at the age of 6 years old. Having been brought up in Central Indiana, I was the product of my home, 4H, and Home Economics. My older sister Connie gave me my first grown-up sewing machine in my teens and it carried me through to my early 40’s. I wore that machine out! Yet, up until the age of 50, I had only made one quilt.
My mother started to quilt at the age of 50. I had been out of the home for some 20 years at the time. She did not own a machine and stitched everything by hand. From what I was told, she was churning out these beautiful works of art! I was able to witness this first hand when she moved in with me some years later. Sadly, by the time she was 75 signs of dementia started to show and stole her desire to create. It was at this time that I off handedly decided to make a quilt for a colleague, and I realized that my mother wasn’t going to be able to create such beauties for her future grandchildren. As was my dutiful nature I decided to take up the challenge. I began to churn out quilt after quilt, after quilt! I was hooked!
In 2018, I helped to launch a quilt guild in my hometown of Indianapolis, IN. My dream is to create quilts full time once I permanently retire from education. I dedicate as much time as I can to learning about my craft and honing my skills. Each day I seem to learn more and more about the quilting world. As I explore artists and art, I am drawn to those that speak to who I am as a quilter: a little Black girl brought up on the East side of Naptown.
I once heard Toni Morrison—who just happens to be my favorite author—talk about creating Black art under a White gaze. She spoke many times about what and to whom she choose to write. I recall her discussing the fact that when she wrote she didn’t feel the need to explain: those who know, know. This is where I believe the vast majority of the Sister Artists I know are headed with their craft: using African prints and themes unapologetically and with such fanfare and celebration it makes one’s very soul sing! I’m not talking about the Sister artists that are selling out tickets to major museums and venues throughout the country and setting precedent by gracing the country’s finest magazines and demanding top dollar for even the smallest potholder. I’m talking about the ones I have met via Facebook chatrooms and Zoom sew-alongs; those who churn out charity blankets, baby blankets, and one-woman shows in their local community centers. Those of us who know that grandmomma’s quilt is a priceless heirloom even if no one but her family ever sees it.
This sense of ownership and “belongness” is what has drawn me to the Kawandi quilts of my Siddi sisters from Karnataka, India. As collective members of the African Diaspora, the Siddi people are the descendants of both early African immigrants to South Asia and enslaved Africans brought to Goa on India’s west coast by the Portuguese beginning in the 16th century (Drewal, 2005). As descendants of the Bantu populations of East and Central Africa, they have been a part of the Indian culture since about the 7th century (Reddy, 2021). While most believe that the Siddi escaped enslavement and moved southward into the remote Western Ghatt mountains of Northern Karnataka in order to create free, independent African Diaspora communities, others believe that some probably arrived as independent merchants/traders, or soldiers in Arab armies. It is believed that there are some 40,000 – 50,00 Siddis currently living in India.
Reddy found that historically, circumstances and discrimination led many Siddis to practice social and self-exclusion by remaining in the forests that they escaped to after they were freed from bondage. Today, some Siddis still live in physical isolation in forests while other Siddis have physically integrated in towns and villages.
In the quilt world we have seen what social isolation has been able to manifest in quilters. In 2021, it was announced that the incomparable quilters of the Gees Bend Collective, renowned for their hand-sewn quilts considered “a crucial contribution to the history of American art” would now have their work available for online purchase via Etsy. Because most of the former enslaved peoples of Gee’s Bend (Boykin, Alabama) did not participate in the “Great Migration” of the over 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and West in the early 1900’s, the somewhat isolation of Gee’s Bend residents created by the water surrounding them on three sides in the bend of the Alabama River, found that the women in the area created a style of quilting uniquely their own. Photographer John Reese and writer and storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham visited Gee’s Bend in 1980-81 as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities project to document the community (Stevens, 2007). In the late 1990s, William Arnett, a folk-art collector from Atlanta, Georgia, came to the area and bought hundreds of quilts after seeing a photograph by Roland Freeman of a quilt draped over a woodpile. Heralded as brilliant pieces of modern art, a collection of quilts from Gee’s Bend was shown at the Houston Museum of Art before traveling to the Whitney Museum in New York City, where it again received high recognition. While highly acclaimed, the exhibit also proved to be controversial and initiated academic discussions on the definition of art and concerns about the exploitation of the quilters.
Fast forward to 2004 to an exhibition known as Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India by Henry J. Drewal. Dr. Drewal has been the Evjue-Bascom Professor Emeritus of Art History and Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2019. He has an extensive resume outlining his work and interest in African studies. In his own words, Dr. Drewal states “I am interested in all the arts (visual and performance) created by Africans and their descendants scattered in diasporas around the world. I believe that such arts are vital, powerful expressions of their identities and aspirations. Such arts have shaped (and continue to shape) culture and history. They have played crucial roles in matters of survival and empowerment.” Dr. Drewal’s website states that while the Siddis women (mostly grandmothers) create wonderful Kawandi quilts and they can be seen draped over fences, hung on lines, or spread on low roofs to be aired in the sun, they are practically unknown outside Siddi communities, even within India.
I personally had never heard of Kawandi until October 2021. I stumbled across them on Pinterest as I sought out examples of hand sewn quilts. Most of the examples pointed me to a quilter named Margaret Fabrizio. Being new to quilting, I had never heard of Ms. Fabrizio. Her bio states that she has been an artist of one medium or another since the age of 6 years old. She is a prize-winning quilter who first studied quilt making with Grace Earl, designer at the Chicago Art Institute. She states that after viewing a quilt exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco in 2011, she was compelled to find the women who created the quilts and visited India to learn from them. Upon her return to the US, she created some 20 Kawandi quilts. Her website states that she has returned to India some 8 times.
What is the connection I have found between Morrison, Gee’s Bend, and Kawandi and my personal journey as quilter? Morrison states that most Black authors created work not for the communities from whence they came, but for the “explanation” and consumption of White audiences. She was not concerned with “the White Gaze” and openly worked to avoid it. I find it ironic therefore that it was the isolation of the Gee’s Bend quilters and the Siddis of India that allowed them to create some of the most beautiful and unique quilts ever seen. It is not lost on me that the work of these artists were uncovered by those of another culture, aka the “White gaze” if you will. My personal thoughts have me considering that 1) the area of both places are so impoverished that they would unlikely call attention to themselves in the art world; and 2) those of us who are part of the Diaspora rarely have opportunities to travel to expose such work even if we knew it existed.
Excuses? No. Just reality. As a publisher Morrison understood that she was in a very unique position to create spaces for those artists (Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara) to be thrust into the mainstream. While many of us are not in the position of power such as Morrison, it is now our opportunity, every Black quilter, curator, and collector to help expose our Sisters’ work and to advance our understanding, appreciation, and mastery of it on our own terms. Our Kawandi may never make it into the San Jose Quilt Museum, but that’s not the end all, be all of our journey anyway, is it? Our journey should be to work collectively to do what Teresa H. Clarke says is to “bridge the African Diaspora” the “Diaspora Divide” if you will. Even as creatives that is our job. That is our challenge. That will be our victory. We are all Siddis Sisters. Kawandi is ours!