The Secret Language of Quilts: Harriet
Powers: Bible Quilt (her second one, made around 1897)
Harriet Powers' Bible quilts are
a unique blend of both European quilting traditions and African textile
arts. Both centralize the use of repeated decorative patterns which
incorporate symbolic meaning, although that meaning may not be readily
apparent to someone who is unfamiliar with either the language of quilts
or the tradition which produced the work of art. The influence of
African strip weaving can be seen in the borders which Powers uses on her
quilts and around the boxes; the box format itself seems to be directly
related to quilting traditions. The pictorial images have more in
common with African applique arts although some north American quilts also
have pictorial images, though generally not as many as Powers used on hers.
two examples of European style,
19th century American quilts:
family quilt (top half), 1842-3
quilt, c. 1861
examples of different African textile
costume, strip weaving
Powers was influenced by the applique
traditions, although her quilts are both hand-stiched and machine-stitched.
Analysis of the quilts shows that she pieced them together vertically,
rather than horizontally, which relates them to the strip weaving tradition.
Although the first level we may respond to in Powers’ quilts is the biblical
image, she united a range of symbols from Fon, Kongo, Christian and Masonic
systems. A system of Masonic codes existed in this country and there
is some evidence that Harriet Powers and her husband were members of a
Masonic society. The quilts can be read as multiple stories,
on which symbol system you interpret. The Fon sun-god is represented
by a cross (X) but also by a chameleon. Yet in the two bible quilts,
the chameleon also seems to be the serpent in Paradise. The Kongo
diamond signifies the movement of the sun. Powers’ mixture of symbols
appears to have no precedents, although it does relate her work to artistic
traditions found in other diasporan societies (such as Haiti or Brazil).
But it does make it difficult to interpret the work. We can identify
some of the shapes as either being Fon, Kongo, or Masonic, and we can put
stories to the scenes (because Powers did and she told them to the woman
who bought her quilt). The shapes of the figures resemble Fon
applique and the lack of a ground line does as well, but the division into
boxes does not. The box-like organization relates her style more
to European-American quilting styles than to African. Also unique
is her mixture of events related to weather or meteorological events with
Old Testament stories. Some people interpret a great deal of
the patterning on her quilts as being related to cosmological symbolism,
rather than biblical. The question, of course, is where did Powers
get her knowledge of either the Old Testament or Kongo or Fon symbolism,
since she was not born in Africa and she did not read. The answer
is that she probably received this knowledge through oral traditions and
may have become familiar with symbols without knowing precisely what they
meant. In other words, her visual decisions may have been aesthetic
rather than an attempt to be true to the meanings of the symbols.
A brief synopsis of the stories, based
on what Powers told the woman who bought her quilt, and preserved in the
Bible quilt (first one, ca. 1886)
the first panel (beginning in the
upper left) depicts Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, at the moment
when the serpent is about to tempt Eve. As someone in class suggested,
this may be why the serpent still has feet--it didn't lose them until after
the fall. 2: Eve has given birth to a son. Some interpretations
see this as a combination nativity/Eve-Abel-Cain, and it seems reasonable
to assume that both meanings are intended. 3: Satan and seven stars.
4: Cain kills his brother, and blood pours from his neck. 5: Cain
is looking for a wife. 6: Jacob dreams about the angel on a ladder.
7: The Holy Spirit is present in the brown bird-like object; the scene
is the baptism of Christ. 8: the crucifixion, with the sun and moon
turning into blood. 9: Judas and his silver. The large star
at the bottom refers to a star that was seen in 1886 for the first time
in 300 years (according to Powers). 10: the Last Supper, seen from
above. Judas is dressed differently from the others who are all in
white. Not all the disciples are shown. 11: the Holy Family
and the star of Bethlehem.
enlarged details from the first
The second bible quilt is larger
than the first and is the one which seems to include a broader range of
stories and symbols. It also appears to demonstrate a greater ease
with the quilt format as well as enough consistency to suggest that Powers
knew how she wanted things to look and that she definitely was trying to
tell a story which people would "read."
The other question about her quilts
concerns their use. They're too small to serve as blankets or bed
covers and the horizontal orientation to the pictures makes it an unusual
orientation for a bed. What seems most likely is that Powers intended
these to be displayed in her home and to serve as pictorial gospel lessons.
Given that she learned her stories by hearing them told, and given the
universal tendency to preserve oral traditions in pictures, it makes sense
that this is what Powers likewise intended.