(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. until October 24, 2021. 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.
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.
Art in the Atrium: Guest Curators: Gwendolyn Barrington Jackson, Nette Forné Thomas, Onnie Strother, and Wannetta Phillips. Leadership: Charles D. Craig, Co-Founder; Lauren LeBeaux Craig, Executive Director; Simone Craig, Board Director; and Aaron Shruby, ATA Operations.
Exhibition organized by Ronald T. Labaco, Chief Curator; Gillian Suss, Registrar; Sara O’Connor, Preparator; Michelle Graves, Curatorial Assistant; Ruth Zippler and Jackie Notch, Collections Volunteers; Alyssa Simmons, Exhibitions Volunteer; and Sonya Maizell, Graphic Designer.
Major support provided by Novartis.
Art in the Atrium, Inc. (ATA) is a non-profit tax-exempt volunteer arts organization that was founded by Charles and Viki Craig in Morristown, New Jersey in 1991. Since its inception, ATA has annually exhibited four floors of African American fine art at the Atrium Gallery in Morristown, New Jersey, becoming the largest exhibit of its kind in the state. Past exhibits have featured such artists as David Driskell, Willie Cole, Deborah Willis, Benny Andrews, Elizabeth Catlett, Bisa Butler, Janet Taylor Pickett and Faith Ringgold.
ATA awards scholarships to promising visual arts students, curates satellite art exhibits for corporate and government partners and has hosted "Artists in the Schools" programming. In 2001 and again in 2016, the organization was named "Arts Organization of the Year" by Morris Arts.
In 2020, ATA launched an online gallery format at artintheatrium.org and forged a partnership with the Morris Museum, culminating in a 2021 exhibit.
Founded in 1913, the Morris Museum is an award-winning, multifaceted arts and cultural institution serving the public through its exhibitions and performances which strive to interpret the past and discover the future through art, sound, and motion. The Museum is home to the historic and internationally-significant Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata. Changing exhibits of contemporary content further illuminate its Permanent Collection. The Museum’s Bickford Theatre is a 312-seat performing-arts facility, offering unique programming in film, jazz, and live performance through its innovative series, Live Arts at the Morris Museum. The Morris Museum has a proud tradition of meaningful educational programs and family events. During the pandemic this summer, the museum turned its Back Parking Deck into NJ's liveliest performance space, with Jazz, Live Theater and the acclaimed Lot of Strings Festival. Thousands of music lovers experienced world-class musicians like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, among others, performing live, in a unique and safely socially-distant environment.
New Jersey’s only Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, Morris Museum is also the first museum in New Jersey to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, it has been designated a Major Arts Institution and has received the New Jersey State Council on the Arts’ Citation of Excellence, among other awards.
The Morris Museum is a Blue Star Museum, offering free admission to active duty military personnel and their families, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
IMAGES: (TOP) Stephen Towns’ Crucifixion (2020)
OTHER IMAGES: Installation views of The Social Fabric: Black Artistry in Fiber Arts, An Exhibition in Homage to Viki Craig