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Quilting Bee 

Bringing to life Faith Ringgold's patchwork quilts showing the journey of African slaves to America

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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Non-sewers think of patchwork quilts as pretty textile hobbies or simple art projects, but African-American artist Faith Ringgold's intricate creations tell powerful stories. Her piece We Came to America, created in 1997 as a response to James Baldwin's 1963 nonfiction book The Fire Next Time, depicts a ship making its way toward the Statue of Liberty against the backdrop of a setting sun. It could be a picturesque scene -- except that the ship is transporting slaves, the waters are bloodied with drowning passengers, and Lady Liberty is a black woman with dreadlocks holding a small child on her left hip.

A piercing commentary on the forced immigration of African slaves to the United States, Ringgold's piece was the jumping-off point for The Quilt Project, a multidisciplinary conversation among black artists about contemporary African-American life. Out of this grew Pieces of Me, a performance that came together through a pool of local black talent, including choreographer Robert Moses, jazz musician Wayne Wallace, spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and a 10-piece orchestra.

Each of the choreographers created a segment of the production, which is set to live music and spoken word, to represent one of the quilt's main components: the statue, the drowning bodies, and the slave ship. Incorporating African influences -- traditional music and a griot (a native storyteller) -- as well as modern-day African-American elements like rap and jazz, Pieces of Me brings Ringgold's harrowing yet hopeful portrait to life.

"We're dealing with the trans-Atlantic journey of Africans to the Americas," says participating dance-maker Aisha Jenkins, "but we didn't come through Ellis Island. We came here as slaves." Like Ringgold, Jenkins was inspired by Baldwin, whom she knew as a child. Today she hopes to revisit the question he so tirelessly posed in his work: "How do we come out of bondage and into freedom?"

About The Author

Karen Macklin

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