The Secret Language of Quilts: Harriet Powers

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:

Pennock family quilt (top half), 1842-3 Freedom quilt, c. 1861

examples of different African textile traditions:

Benin applique Nigerian costume, strip weaving NIgerian strip weaving

Harriet Powers

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, depending 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.
Powers: Bible quilt (first one, ca. 1886)
A brief synopsis of the stories, based on what Powers told the woman who bought her quilt, and preserved in the Smithsonian institution:
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 Bible quilt:

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.