This eye-catching piece of textile art with its bold red and white geometric shapes is a quilt. Three layers of fabric have been joined together with running stitches, which create a three-dimensional decorative fan design across the surface.
The quilt – which now resides at the American Museum & Gardens in Bath, Somerset – was made around 1860 by women and children who were enslaved on the Mimosa Hall plantation in Texas, for use by the Anglican bishop of New Orleans. Each year, he would tour the region's cotton plantations to perform baptisms and marriages. After the bishop left, the quilts made for him were usually handed over to house servants to sleep under.
There are many legends associated with American quilt-making and quilt patterns. One of the more enduring narratives is that some motifs were used as codes and strategically hung along routes of the underground railroad (a network of places and people that helped enslaved people in the American south escape to the north). While the truth of this continues to be debated, many designs are chosen because of hidden meanings known only to the quilt-maker and recipient – just as the chalice motif that covers the surface of this quilt was probably chosen because of its religious connotations.
The joy of this piece of work is that it is not only a striking piece of art, but also has a practical use as a bed cover. Quilts and quilt-making have long been overlooked by the traditional art world as merely craft items made by untrained women: the phenomenal level of skill needed to design and assemble these pieces has only recently been recognised by the establishment.
Exhibitions of works by the black community of the hamlet Gee's Bend, in Alabama, have found international acclaim and toured multiple major American museums. Their work was originally intended for practical purposes – to provide warmth on cold nights – but today the quilts of Gee's Bend are hailed as great works of art, once again raising the question of art versus craft. Is there really a division between the two and why are they valued differently?
Katherine Hebert, Chief Curator at the American Museum & Gardens