Mozell Benson Quilt Exhibition

1934-
Opelika, AL

MOZEL BENSON (1934-  ) was taught to quilt by her mother, Cleo, but was not interested in sewing until later in life.  Raised on a farm in Alabama with nine brothers and sisters, her quilting reflects the thrift and industry of her rural southern life.  She creates about twenty quilts a year, piecing them during the spring, summer, and fall, and in the winter quilting the year's tops and linings together.  Although she will sometimes give them away, she makes quilts mostly for the use of her family.

Benson allows a quilt top design to evolve while she is piecing, and rarely uses patterns.  She selects, cuts, and sews her scraps to make something new and original.  Her wide strips, wider than in typical African-American quilt strips, and her bright colors, show off her quilt top designs.  Her multi-colored patterns often look like modern art.  In another generation, she might have gone to art school and become a painter, as her quilts often come across as paintings in cloth.  Her quilts are the visual equivalent of jazz or blues, because she often takes a basic pattern idea and then creates variations on it just as a musician will do with a jazz piece.  Many people give scraps of cloth to her because they admire her quilts.

Benson¹s quilts also reflect the African aesthetic of multiple patterning, and the African traditions of small, square, red protective charms, called mojos  in African- American culture.  Mozell comments, "Black families inherited this tradition.  We forget where it came from because nobody continues to teach us.  I think we hold to that even though we're not aware of it."

In 1985 the U.S. State Department sent my exhibition of African-American quilts to Africa and Benson traveled with it, speaking about and demonstrating her quiltmaking skills in Nigeria , Senegal , and South Africa . In June 2001, Mozell Benson was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Yellow strip

Pink Strip

 

Log Cabin 2002

 

Wild thing 2002


Log Cabin 2002

Log Cabin

Blue Plaid Quilt 2002

Booking Information

Mozell Benson: African American Quilter, National Heritage Award Winner A Traveling Exhibition, Curated by Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman Dorothy and Dale Thompson/ Missouri Endowed Professor of Global Arts, The University of Missouri-Kansas City     

  The visual equivalent of jazz - cool, rhythmic, and unexpected - describes  this traveling exhibition of 20 African American quilts created by award winning Mozell Benson from Alabama .    

This dazzling display presents an indigenous American art, an alternative aesthetic tradition quite different from widely known European-American quilts. Many African American quilts are characterized by strips, bold colors, large designs,  asymmetry, multiple patterns, and improvisation. African American quilts are unique in American arts because they show a combination or creolization of African textile ideas and American technical and functional ideas.  This exhibition identifies: 1)those ideas which have been consciously and unconsciously handed down by generations of women who trace their ancestry to Africa ;  2) technical and aesthetic ideas also known in Euro-American quilting traditions; and 3) unique African American innovations. The nation's strongest tradition of African American quilting survives today in the Southern United States , practiced by women like Mozell who have pursued their art in face of difficult economic, social, and political odds.  The exhibition honors a living artist and promotes an active art.  African American quilting should be recognized and celebrated now so that it can be preserved and continued in the future.    

Mozell Benson: African American Quilter was organized by Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman after extensive fieldwork in Africa , and throughout the South and New England , where she discovered, interviewed, and documented African American quilters.  Her prize winning Yale dissertation, African American Quiltmaking: Origins, Development, and Significance, is the basis for exhibition materials.  Dr. Wahlman has organized ten other exhibitions, written five books and over thirty five articles on African and African American arts, and lectured widely in the United States .

The second edition of Dr. Wahlman¹s, book, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts, is available from Tinwood Books, Atlanta , GA ( tinwood@mindspring.com, warnett@tinwoodmedia.com) or from Amazon.com. Mozell Benson¹s quilt is featured on the cover.     Initial research on this exhibit was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Southern Arts Federation, and the University of Mississippi .  The first exhibition opened September 6, 1982 at the Folklife Pavilion of the Knoxville World's Fair. After touring the United States for two and a half years, in 1985 it was sent on a tour of American Embassies in Africa by the United States Information Agency. Mozell Benson went with the exhibit and spoke in three African countries.

The basic exhibit includes introductory text panels, African textiles, a men¹s loom, African scripts, African and African American charms, as well as portraits, a biography, and 20 quilts by Mozell Benson. Four notebooks come with the exhibit, with information for publicity, installation, teachers and docents. Mozell Benson, African American Quilter, opened at the Allentown Museum of Art, in Pennsylvania in July, 2003, and is available in 2007, 2008, and 2009. 

Rental cost is $6500 for 6 weeks plus shipping. Mozell Benson is available for workshops for $700 a day, plus travel and expenses. Dr. Wahlman is available to lecture on "Religious Symbols in African and African American Textiles," for $900 plus travel and expenses. Contact: Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman, Art and Art History, 5015 Holmes, UMKC, Kansas City , MO 64110   Phone: 816 235-2986    Preferred: Email: wahlmanm@umkc.edu.