Art

Kenyan quilts exhibited at Washington University Textile Museum

Zebras

Zebras quilt by Alice Wairimu Kihiu of Kangemi and Rhonda O'Keefe, New Hampshire at The Advocacy Project, March 12, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

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Summary

  • Quilting is not commonly regarded as an art form in Kenya. Neither is embroidery. They are generally classified as crafts, primarily practiced by women.
  • But that perception is changing rapidly, particularly when one finds quilts being exhibited in prestigious art galleries like the George Washington University Textile Museum in Washington, DC.
  • That is where a joint exhibition of quilts from Kenya and North America entitled ‘Sister Artists 2’ went on display this past weekend.

Quilting is not commonly regarded as an art form in Kenya. Neither is embroidery. They are generally classified as crafts, primarily practiced by women.

But that perception is changing rapidly, particularly when one finds quilts being exhibited in prestigious art galleries like the George Washington University Textile Museum in Washington, DC.

That is where a joint exhibition of quilts from Kenya and North America entitled ‘Sister Artists 2’ went on display this past weekend.

The exhibition coincided with an online art auction of all 41 animal quilts created jointly by Kenyan and American women that opened on International Women’s Day, March 8, and is culminating today, March 19.

Feathers and Flowers

Peacock Feathers and Flowers by Diana Adeya, Kangemi and Diane Clapers, Georgia at The Advocacy Project, Washington, DC, March 12,2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

“The idea is that the funds raised from the sale of the quilts will come back to the Kenyan women so they can continue working and earning from making their quilts,” says Gillian Rebelo.

She is the Nairobi-base quilting teacher who’s served as liaison between the North American quilting ‘sisters’ and the Kenyans since 2019.

That is when she was contacted by The Advocacy Project, an NGO based in Washington, who asked her to start an embroidery project with women from Nairobi’s informal settlements.

Her task was to help the women create the first ‘Sister Artists’ quilt to be shown in Nairobi at the UN Summit on Women and Girls in November 2019.

“It was a formidable challenge,” admits Gillian who nonetheless rose to the occasion.

Inside Page Embroidery

Embroidery quilt by Kenyans and Americans, at The Advocacy Project, Washington, DC, March 12, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

She made contact with two women groups, the Kangemi Avocacy Self-help Group and the Shield of Faith/Tandaza Trust based in Kibera, and then got to work with training.

“Most of the women had never stitched before,” says Gill who found an East African embroidery teacher in Christine Kibuka who trained both groups of women in a matter of days.

“The Kenyan sister artists were introduced to storytelling through embroidery,” says Bobbi Fitzsimmons, a quilter with The Advocacy Project who came to Kenya in 2019.

Her task was to create several Women’s World Quilts, appliqueing the Kenyan women’s embroidered stories onto large tapestry-like quilts.

What was so compelling about the women’s stories was that they were encouraged to embroider their hardships and struggles, including everything from domestic violence to child pregnancy.

So successful was ‘Sister Artists I’ that the Kenyan women were encouraged to work on a new project.

“It was Iain Guest [founder of The Advocacy Project] who proposed our embroidering animals next,” says Stella Makena, the leader of the Shield of Faith women group.

That is how 41 embroidered animal stories, created by the Kangemi and Kibera women, were completed and shipped off to Washington where Bobbi Fitzsimmons sent them out all over North America to be appliqued, embellished, and finally prepared first for last week’s exhibition and the current online auction.

The animals represented in the quilts are everything from the lion, rhino, elephant, and water buffalo to the hyena , zebra, gazelle, and warthog to so many birds, the ostrich, crested crane, peacock, eagle, and flamingo.

Each embroidery went out to a different volunteer quilter. Remarkably, the quilters’ network stretches all the way from Salem, Oregon an Piedmont, California to Princeton, New Jersey, College Park, Georgia, and Manitoba, Canada.

Bidding on the quilts continues through today with the minimum big being USD155 or around KSh17,515. Already. X number have been bid upon and the minimum of what will be made is around.

According to Gill, all the funds raised will come back to Kenya to be used by the next projects undertaken by the women groups.

In the case of Shield of Faith, Stella says they have already started a vermiculture project, creating organic fertilizer using earth worms and organic compost.

Meanwhile, both the Kibera women (who have since been joined by more women from Kayole, Riruta, Kawangware, and Kilimani) and the Kangemi women are getting set to start up a bucket hat embroidery project aimed at providing protection from the sun for people with Albinism.

“The mothers who have children with albinism will also be taught embroidery so they can also learn a skill that will enable them to both build capacity and ideally earn them something in the process,” stella adds.