Morris Museum announces new partnership with Art in the Atrium to present annual exhibitions of Black art

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Morris Museum announces new partnership with Art in the Atrium to present annual exhibitions of Black art
Stephen Towns’ Crucifixion (2020), an imagined historical narrative drawn from the poetry of African American spirituals, from A Songbook Remembered quilt series that was created during the COVID-19 pandemic as an act of remaining present during a time of chaos, guided by songs of joy, hope, resilience, and protest.

MORRISTOWN, NJ.- The Morris Museum is presenting an exhibition of contemporary art exploring the medium of fiber by Black artists whose practice is based in the U.S. The Social Fabric: Black Artistry in Fiber Arts, An Exhibition in Homage to Viki Craig features 62 works by 26 established and emerging artists, and includes quilting, embroidery, tapestry, sculpture, and mixed-media assemblages. This inaugural exhibition announces the joint venture between two Morristown organizations—the Morris Museum and Art in the Atrium, Inc. (ATA)—to present annual exhibitions that investigate the diversity of Black artistry. This year’s theme of fiber arts honors ATA co-founder and avid quilter Viki Craig (1947–2018) with a special installation within the exhibition, titled A Quilted Legacy, showcasing 13 of her quilts.

Today’s fiber arts combine conventional textile skills with art and design practices. In the United States, fiber art by Black practitioners is deeply rooted in African American quilting tradition. As an art form, contemporary quilt making was popularized in the 1970s and 80s, continuing traditional techniques such as appliqué, embroidery, and tatting. Multiple transformative developments opened the field to further experimentation. Black fiber artists began to incorporate printmaking, painting, and collage-like appropriations, as well as design considerations of line, shape, and color. Works became more conceptual and enriched with content, as found in the quilted narratives of Faith Ringgold and Michael Cummings that not only capture storytelling, but also convey societal and cultural statements at the intersection of racial identity and struggle. The addition of such dimensional materials as beads, feathers, raffia, and found objects reflect assemblage art practices, as seen in the works of Bisa Washington, Shervone Neckles, and Katie Commodore. Diverse in scale, concept, and execution, Black fiber art today captures a spirit of individuality, celebration, and pride.

The Social Fabric was conceived by ATA guest curators Gwendolyn Barrington Jackson, Nette Forné Thomas, Onnie Strother, and Wannetta Phillips, and is organized into three different sections. It begins in Bickford Gallery with “New Approaches.” These fiber and textile works range from finely detailed quilts, embroidery, weaving, and tapestries to textile creations that are sculptural in their dimensionality. Some are unapologetically political as they address social issues and injustices. Others delve into the wider realm of fiber arts through various techniques and other media, pushing the envelope by using unexpected materials and manipulations, such as plastic strips cut from shopping bags to create pictorial narratives.

The exhibition continues in Bush-Compton Gallery with “Narrative and Representation.” These quilts and embroideries tell a story, akin to illustration. Some artists work in the tradition of Faith Ringgold’s story quilts, combining painting, quilting, and storytelling. Some elements may be symbolic representations of emotions the artist wishes to convey. They may envision or re-envision historical events, or they may celebrate people important to the artist.

The exhibition resumes in Burger Hallway with “Tradition.” As a historical textile art form, quilting is indelibly linked to the past. Under slavery, Black quilt makers sometimes encrypted messages in their work. They communicated with one another using signs and symbols both ordinary and supernatural. It was a language that community members understood. The patterns include: log cabin (patterns with stripes), flying geese (patterns with triangles), and wedding ring (patterns with circles).

A special focus exhibition on the artwork of ATA co-founder Viki Craig, titled A Quilted Legacy, is featured in Tregenza Gallery. Born Victoria LeBeaux Clark (1947–2018). Viki was taught to sew at age five by her mother and her grandmother, who was a quilter. As a young adult, her affinity for sewing and working with fabric continued, with her first large textile pieces created in the years following her marriage to Charles D. Craig in 1970. From the beginning, Charles, an attorney, and Viki, a teacher, shared a deep passion for community and education, and a pride in their heritage as African Americans. The young couple moved to Morristown in 1978. Soon afterwards Viki became a member of the artist collective Black Women in Visual Perspective in Newark, New Jersey. In 1992, the two built a circle of like-minded friends, colleagues, and art enthusiasts that would become Art in the Atrium. Motherhood and work as a third-grade teacher forced Viki to put her work with fabric on hold. It was not until she retired from teaching in 2013 that she returned to daily quilt making. As a schoolteacher, Viki’s empathy for educating and exciting audiences drew people to her. Her natural interest in textiles forged lifelong relationships with fiber artists. It is to her talent and championship of Black artistry that this exhibition is dedicated. This focus exhibition includes 13 quilts, and will remain on view through January 2022.

The complete list of featured artists includes Sharela May Bonfield, Jeanine Bowen, Tina Williams Brewer, Katie Commodore, Viki Craig, Michael Cummings, Gladys Barker Grauer, Janet O. Green, Kianga Jinaki, Maureen Kelleher & The Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project, Beverly McCutcheon, Minnie Melvin, Clara Nartey, Shervone Neckles, Wannetta Phillips, Ellaree Pray, Faith Ringgold, Aminah Robinson, Carole Robinson, Theda Sandiford, Sherry Shine, Glendora Simonson, Toni Thomas, Denise Toney, Stephen Towns, and Bisa Washington.

Highlights include:

Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach 2 (1990), a quilt that tells the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, an African American girl exploring the world, imaginatively flying high above the “tar beach” rooftop of her family’s apartment building, overcoming adversity and obstacles, based on Ringgold’s own memories and experiences growing up in Harlem.

Michael Cummings’s Haitian Boat People #2 (1987), from a series of quilts with innocent, childlike renderings that capture the vulnerabilities of Haitians fleeing their country on homemade rafts destined for the Florida coast. It depicts the helplessness of the refugees surrounded by the unknown, with a mermaid representing the Yoruba deity Yemaya attempting to guide and protect them on their perilous journey.

Stephen Towns’ Crucifixion (2020), an imagined historical narrative drawn from the poetry of African American spirituals, from A Songbook Remembered quilt series that was created during the COVID-19 pandemic as an act of remaining present during a time of chaos, guided by songs of joy, hope, resilience, and protest.

Bisa Washington’s War Dress Moremi Leads the Battle (1979), a sculptural assemblage that addresses historical, political, and religious traditions, honoring the folkloric Yoruba heroine Queen Moremi Ajasoro from the medieval kingdom of Ife who freed her people from oppression.

Maureen Kelleher and the Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project’s Ona Move! & Ona Groove! (2021), made by Zulu, Tex, Teresa, Agna, Kalia, Jill, Madhu, Mora, Claire, and Maureen, a group of quilters involving free citizens and incarcerated individuals at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, though which inmates can express themselves creatively and build friendship and community with free persons.

Tina Williams Brewer’s Diaspora Series: Struggle, Friction, Rebirth, Sankofa (2014), an exploration of the physical movement of peoples and cultural blending throughout the African Diaspora, drawing upon symbols from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, with an overlay of ocean current and migration patterns.

Viki Craig’s Gees Bend Sampler (2012), capturing the lively improvisational quality and geometric simplicity associated with the quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, that received international acclaim in the early 2000s.

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