Author’s note: In light of the recent assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Carolyn Mazloomi’s words in this interview are ever more relevant. Since the event, many have drawn contrasts between the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests that occurred across the country in 2020 with the overtly destructive and racist actions of the violent extremists who sought to overtake the Capitol. Prior to publishing this article, we reached out to Mazloomi and asked for her thoughts on what occurred. Here is her response:
“Last week, white supremacy was on full display for all the world to see. As I state at the beginning of this interview, I am an elder African American woman born and raised in the Jim Crow segregated South. Nothing surprises me. I know well the faces of the people who stormed the Capitol. They are the same white people that beat, killed, and lynched African Americans during the civil rights movement. Long after Washington, D.C., is calm, the artwork created as a result of seditionists storming the Capitol will live on to bear witness to that moment in American history. I am already at work drawing images of what I saw on television. Stay tuned.”
It’s the tactile nature of a quilt. Everyone finds comfort in quilts…You can feel the warmth of fabric—it’s living! And it’s something where I can tell a story, too. I don’t think I’m any different than anyone else within my culture: we are folks with a lot of stories to tell. I can’t think of a better medium through which to tell them other than using quilts.
In the spring of 2020, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN) sponsored the pioneering “Unmask Your Creativity Contest.” For months, members had been making face masks for friends, family, hospitals, and funeral homes. Some had fallen ill themselves from the virus, and all, as women of color, were and continue to be disproportionately and profoundly affected by its toll.
At around the 20,000 mark, these artists felt weary of making masks.
“So many quilters were involved in mask-making, and we needed a respite from making PPEs,” or items of personal protective equipment, said Carolyn Mazloomi, the WCQN’s Ohio-based founder and president. “We needed something different, something fun, something that was not so gloomy.”
As an alternative, Mazloomi came up with the idea for an art mask contest. To enter, quilters sent in images of their unique works, and a jury selected three winners and awarded their makers with small cash prizes.
Much to Mazloomi’s surprise, entries came in from all over the world. She and I discussed this competition in November 2020 after I had viewed the final results on the Network’s website. Scrolling through the submissions, I was impressed and delighted by the range of forms and materials that the quilters had used. Batiks, printed fabrics, prairie points, and fringes were all used to their greatest potentials. Many pushed the boundaries of what a mask could be.
L.A. Kingsley, for example, submitted a clear plastic garment that covers the wearer’s entire head and neck. The mask’s molded eyes, ears, brows, and nose make it a dramatic image to behold. Linda Asbury created a beautiful fabric parrot, whose head falls across its wearer’s nose, and whose wings reach around to their ears. Each submission was thought provoking; each showcased their maker’s individual voice and reflected their lived experience.
In our discussion, I asked Mazloomi what she sees when she looks at these works.
“I see people’s creativity and people’s frustrations. Some of the masks have political and social overtones. You see a lot of everyday frustrations, but it’s also a way to stretch the creative imagination, and to still have some input into what happens in our lives every day.”
Through this competition, Mazloomi’s goal in part was to continue her work demonstrating that quilters’ practices have value on multiple levels.
“Quilting is significant to the culture. I want the quilters to know that it’s seen as artwork and it’s beautiful, so it has value culturally and monetarily as well. Most of them have come to see that these works should be shared and that people are interested in them. And their masks are truly great works of art, made with great intricacy.”
These masks also showcase the centrality and vibrancy of storytelling to quilting.
“When I curate a [quilt] show, I’m not looking for technique,” Mazloomi said. “I don’t care about technique. As long as the quilt doesn’t fall apart during the tour, it’s okay!” she laughed. “I’m looking for storylines. I don’t care how you put it together. I want the story—I want you to give me a story that’s going to touch the hearts of people!”
In the case of the competition masks, part of that story is a commemorative one. “This work honors the people close to us who have lost someone. No one wants them to be anonymous. We want to celebrate them in our artwork. They lived wonderful lives in this earthly realm.”
But our conversation that day stretched far beyond the mask-making contest, particularly as we discussed the WCQN and how its members responded to the myriad challenges of 2020. Mazloomi shared how grateful she and the organization are to the National Endowment for the Arts for its support over the years. She also discussed how network members, through their art, are dealing with countless tragedies—many of which began long before the pandemic.
“We are living in a nation filled with turmoil,” Mazloomi said. “We are dealing with systemic racism that’s adversely affected the African American community, and it should not go unnoticed in artwork. We are telling the story of our people, telling the story of our nation. What we’re making now will be shared with scholars and museumgoers. These artworks are historical documents. They are testaments of what’s going on.”
And no one can achieve this like a traditional artist, Mazloomi pointed out.
“Traditional artists put our heart and spirit into our work. You can’t separate us from the artwork that we create. The work becomes an extension of the artist. Every pulse point, every heartbeat is in the work. Traditional arts are truly the art of the people. They are simple but heartfelt. We are not detached from our artworks. We are not detached from the essence of our being. And that’s the specialness of it.”
Mazloomi told me that African American quilters are griots, or historians and storytellers, and, looking back at our conversation, I know that Mazloomi herself is an exceptionally talented one. Quilter and author Dr. Denise M. Campbell recently described Mazloomi as someone who is “unmatched in her knowledge of and contributions to the African American quilting community.”
So, for the remainder of this article, I relinquish the metaphorical floor to Carolyn Mazloomi, to her poignant and stirring words about her experience and creative works, and to her words about the experiences and works of the other women in the Women of Color Quilters Network during an unforgettable year. I hope that these words and the spirit behind them will resonate with readers as much as they did with me.
What stories have you seen quilters tell in 2020?
We’re witnessing great changes, and we’re using these changes to make quilts. We’re documenting all of it in our quilts. We have this pandemic that has truly affected the Black community. [As of November 2020,] we have lost eighteen of our members due to the pandemic…and this is represented within the body of work that is now being created.
You don’t know when some white person out of the blue will verbally attack you. You don’t know if, while you’re driving, you might be pulled over by a bad cop and harassed. And I just purchased a quilt that was in a show I did two years ago that was about the history of the Green Book. It’s time to bring the Green Book back! I am afraid. I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want to be harassed by somebody on an isolated highway, because I don’t know what is going to happen.
And a lot of quilters that have grown up in the South—we’ve seen times like this. We have lived it. We have survived these times. Ugly times. And we thought life was getting better, but now we’re in reverse! And it’s like we’re living in the 1940s and the 1950s again. And it is frightening for old Black folks. It is frightening!
So all of this is on people’s minds, and they are afraid, and as such it adversely affects your work. Because you don’t—and I hear this a lot—people don’t feel like working. They don’t feel like creating. They’re kind of stagnated. They’re depressed.
So that’s not lending itself for good mental conditions to create your work. Because you’re worried about life. You’re worried for your life. You’re concerned for your life. So you become a prisoner. And I’ve talked to many of our network members who have not left their homes since March. They’ve not left their homes since March because of the pandemic, and now you’ve got this racism happening. It’s too much mentally. It’s too much for most people to handle.
So it’s making life difficult. It’s making their artistic life difficult, because you can’t really concentrate and enjoy the creative effort. That effort to create art. So, it sometimes becomes problematic. It’s hard right now. It’s very difficult. Artists can’t work when the conditions around them don’t lend themselves to contentment and peace, and harmony within their environment. You can’t work. You’re just trying to survive.
And that’s another thing about traditional artists—they’re very sensitive to their environment, mentally and physically. There’s no separation.
How have the events of this year affected you personally?
I draw a lot, and I’m in the process of drawing out two new series, two new bodies of work, and they deal with what’s happening in our nation now with racism. I’m very much involved in the curation of shows. It’s become a central part of what I do. I curated seven exhibitions that opened simultaneously in Minneapolis in honor of George Floyd and that incident—his murder. It’s something that is very difficult for me to think about. When that happened, seeing that video of his very slow death, it was horrifying. And when he called out for his mother, that literally brought me to my knees. And honestly, it felt like if I were Superwoman, if I were there, I swear I would have pushed that cop off of that young man and saved him.
I think that was like a clarion call to every mother who saw that. You couldn’t not see that and not be affected by that. Every piece that I’ve done in my artistic life has focused on women as mothers. There’s no more important job on this earth than being a mother. Because the mother is the first teacher of her child, she is the first teacher of humanity. It’s the most influential position on the planet, because we influence every human being on earth. Because they come through us, and we are their first teachers. Mother. Mother. And that importance was personified in George Floyd’s death. With his last breath, who did he call on? He called on his mother. Because that’s the role of the mother, to protect. That was powerful.
I felt I had to do something. I’m on the board of the Textile Center in Minneapolis, and I called the director and told him that I wanted to blanket the city with quilts about police brutality. I wanted to memorialize the victims of police brutality. I wanted to educate viewers about race in America, in hopes that people will see the quilts and they’ll make a difference.
Artwork makes a difference. I’ve seen it. For forty years I’ve seen how art can affect the spirit of people, how art can change the way a human being thinks. Even if you can touch just one or two people at a time, it’s still a step in the right direction. So, that’s my purpose as an artist: to create work, to educate people, and to take the viewer to another place in the hope that they’ll be educated and learn.
This is the purpose and essence of creating art and of putting that out in the public. It’s not only about the beauty of the art, but what the art has to say and how it affects the spirit, the human spirit. And that is also the essence of a traditional artist—this is what we do. We affect the spirit and soul of humankind.
Can you tell us more about your current shows in Minneapolis, the We Are the Story exhibition?
I put out a national call for contributions to the exhibit, and people saw it outside the country. I was really surprised. People from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Japan answered. The one commonality they had was they said, “your story is my story—the story of people of color dealing with racism wherever we are, whether we’re in Africa, or Brazil, or London, or Tokyo. So you’re not alone.”
George Floyd’s death precipitated an international outcry about racism. And people around the world marched in his name against systemic racism. They did it in England, countries in South America—it was extraordinary how this man’s death touched so many people around the world. So I was happy to curate these exhibitions because, as I said, seeing that death, that murder, was so traumatizing. I had to do something.
How has the WCQN and its members adapted to all the challenges presented by the pandemic?
Adjustments have been on two levels: organizational and individual. First of all, as an organization, we lost all of our exhibitions. Museums canceled exhibits. We had no way to show our work. I had to figure out another way to do this, and museums are now doing it virtually, so that’s what we had to do.
It’s also a two-fold issue, economically. When shows travel, I would say eighty percent of the quilts within those exhibitions are sold. So the exhibitions are a way for quilters to sell their work. Museum gift shops will also purchase work from artists to sell. All of that is gone now, so we’re dependent upon the internet and our website to show our work and sell our work.
We’ve also been holding workshops, and it’s been a big adjustment doing them online. Let me tell you, we are Zoomed out! [She laughs.] Quilters had to learn how to teach their workshops using Zoom, so I encourage them—“this is a new learning curve, and this is a good thing!” We’re educating ourselves, and it’s necessary.
I don’t think that these new ways of doing business online are going away, I think that these things are here to stay. I see many people who are working at home now, and I think this is a new way of doing business… I say, it’s a new way of life, so we might as well take the bull by the horns and learn! This is the new America. This is a new way of life. This is what we’ve been dealt, and we have to learn how to deal with it.
The We Are the Story exhibition is a multi-venue project in Minneapolis, currently open through June 12, 2021. It includes solo exhibitions and two juried exhibitions, Gone but Never Forgotten: Remembering Those Lost to Police Brutality and Racism: In the Face of Hate We Resist. For more information and to explore its virtual exhibits, please visit the exhibition website.
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a researcher of American textile traditions.
Carolyn Mazloomi is the founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network. She has been at the forefront of educating the public about the diversity of interpretation, styles, and techniques among African American quilters as well as educating a younger generation of African Americans about their own history through the quilts the WCQN creates. Her quilts have been exhibited extensively across the country, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. In 2020, she participated in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s virtual African American Craft Summit. As a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, she is also featured on the Center’s Masters of Tradition story map.