Signature Cloths

Signature Cloths
International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA
September 5, 2014 – May 31, 2015

Nebraska is smack in the centre of America: flat agricultural land exposed to bitterly cold winters. Putting the climate aside, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska is still something of a surprise. The Center opened in 1997 with an endowment and donation of nearly 1000 quilts by native Nebraskans Ardis and Robert James. Today it occupies an enviable 37,000 square foot (3,437 square metre) purpose built site with three galleries and dedicated storage. This summer will see a further expansion of the premises doubling the museum’s gallery and storage space.

What all this adds up to – once you have found yourself in Lincoln, Nebraska – is a place where quilts are taken very, very seriously. It is a rare but pleasant surprise to see galleries, with ample space, fresh paint and appropriate lighting, displaying textiles with all the professional attention to detail we find more often bestowed on mainstream art. Admittedly, context may not fundamentally alter an art work. But our perception of value is certainly done no harm when the quilts on display are treated seriously.

British artist and guest curator of the exhibition Lynn Setterington (with Quilt Study Center Curator Carolyn Ducey) first visited the Center on an International Fellowship in 2010. For this exhibition Setterington brings together historical examples from the Center’s collection alongside a number of projects she has led in communities as far flung as Manchester, England, Sreepur, Bangladesh and Ahmedabad, India.

While the exhibition makes great leaps in both time and geography, content is united in its inclusion of signatures. Many of these signatures are stitched – in older works with hand embroidery that captures the distinctive penmanship of the past – and more recently written on cloth. As the exhibition text reminds us “at the most basic level” a signature is “evidence of the signer’s existence”.

In some, the content is deadly serious. Using the colours of the Union Jack, WW1 Signature Quilt (circa 1915) contains nearly one thousand sewn signatures made as a fundraiser by the Rehoboth Welsh Methodist Chapel in North Wales. Villagers in Coedpoeth near Wrexham would have paid for their signatures to be embroidered into the cloth, which was then auctioned to raise money for the war effort.

Others take on a lighter tone, such as Setterington’s hand embroidered Who do you think you are? (2011) that references the recent BBC television series of the same title and the “new” relatives that emerged from the artist’s own family tree when her son joined Facebook. Authenticity, Setterington explains, is not the primary goal here. “‘Autographs’ are made up by friends, family and work colleagues… Like Facebook itself, what we see, is not always what is going on underneath the surface.” Setterington also toys with viewer’s ideas of the handmade in Self Portrait (2010). The quilt borrows its pinwheel composition and white and red palette from several historical quilts exhibited nearby but creates a contemporary version of digitally stitched signatures.

Several other contemporary works are the outcomes of community workshops. The patchwork of bold colours in Rainbow Heaven (2011) was made with the Manchester-based organization supporting asylum seekers and refugees. Regular drop-in workshops encouraged participation with individuals from China, Eritrea, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Bangladesh as well as support workers, cooks, general volunteers, Red Cross and Jesuit volunteers, English language teachers and even the local vicar who provided space for the workshops to take place. Further afield, the hand-sewn Sreepur Quilt (2011) and Who Cares? (2012) were made with women in Sreepur, Bangladesh and artisans in Ahmedabad, India, respectively. In both cases Setterington contributed to the assembly of the finished quilt.

Like so many exhibitions that bring the historical and the contemporary side by side, the historical here reveals a level of skill and commitment of time no longer familiar (and often simply not viable) for our contemporary lives. Setterington courts this challenge further with her community-focused practice, which is reliant on public donation of time and expertise. The outcomes record groups and individuals who were willing to sit and stitch, but not necessarily because they were skilful or experienced. While tempting to compare the historical and the contemporary, comparisons are unfair. In fact Setterington focuses not on the objects she has curated but their makers, observing, “The exhibition is about people; it is about documenting ordinary individuals and things and people that are overlooked.”

review in Selvedge Magazine (May 2015: 90-91)