Artist Carolyn Mazloomi cried for days after seeing the video of George Floyd calling out for his mama while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I was shaken,” she said. “It was very unnerving. I think any woman who is a mother would be called to do something.”
Mazloomi didn’t waste time. She called Karl Reichert, executive director of the Textile Center in Minneapolis, and asked him to find her a space so she could blanket the city with quilts about race in America.
As a founder of the Women of Color Quilters’ Network, the Cincinnati-based artist is accustomed to organizing large groups. She did two years’ worth of work in just two months, putting together six quilt exhibits plus a pre-existing show under the umbrella “We Are the Story.”
The first three open in Minneapolis this month, followed by solo exhibitions later in the year in Pittsburgh, Boston and Brooklyn. The series will conclude next spring with a show at the Textile Center marking the anniversary of Floyd’s death.
First up is “We Who Believe in Freedom,” a touring show originally staged in 2016 that features works by Quilters Network members about the African American experience. It opened Thursday at the American Swedish Institute.
The other two are at the Textile Center: “Gone But Never Forgotten: Remembering Those Lost to Police Brutality,” a group show opening Tuesday, and “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free,” by Dorothy Burge, a Chicago-based police accountability and reparations advocate, two weeks later.
“Everybody can relate to quilts. Everyone is familiar with quilts,” said Mazloomi by phone. “The stories are a soft place to land with very difficult topics. That’s the objective, to talk about these issues of race and brutality against African Americans in hopes that people will be enlightened.”
She put out the open call for quilts in mid-June. By the July 31 deadline she had received 423 quilts from around the world. She picked 89 for the two juried exhibitions being hosted by the Textile Center. (The second, “Racism: In the Face of Hate We Resist,” opens in March.)
“I was moved by people’s concern,” Mazloomi said, “and especially people overseas who told me: ‘Your story is my story, the story I go through living as a person of color in Brazil or London or Paris.’ ”
Not every artist in the two juried shows is African American, either, she noted.
COVID-19 made the process even harder. Her photographer, who is 70, and her younger assistant got the virus. She had to quarantine and do everything on her own.
A sense of urgency
Quilting has a long history in African American culture, serving as modes of self-determination and community support.
During pre-Civil War times, enslaved Black women made quilts requiring great skill. They marked migration and settlement, and told tales, as they continue to do today.
At the same time, Mazloomi believes that all quilts communicate important messages.
Carolyn Crump’s quilt “Cracked Justice” tells the story of Minneapolis in the wake of Floyd’s death. In the foreground, a Black woman with an Afro sits on top of newspaper sketches of Black people killed by police, including Breonna Taylor. She holds Black Lives Matter signs in her left hand and raises her right fist in the air. Behind her, people of various races wear yellow BLM T-shirts and get teargassed by white police. Looters walk through broken windows; an iconic mural of Floyd watches over the scene.
Crump said this was the biggest quilt she’s ever made, measuring 6½ by 5½ feet. It was framed with 2-by-4’s, and she had to quilt while on the ground.
“I had to work flat,” she said. “I got scars on my legs. I felt like I was in Minneapolis, fighting!”
Crump, 60, grew up in Detroit and now lives in Houston. Seeing what happened in Minneapolis brought back memories of growing up amid racial tension and riots. She recalled being a kid and having to walk through a white neighborhood to get to school. She remembered white people helping her get there safely.
“I wanted to do the quilt with all kinds of nationalities and people who were trying to help the cause,” she said.
For Textile Center director Reichert, the exhibitions feel urgent for Minneapolis and the nation as a whole, especially with the approaching election and continued conversations about racism in America. He also praised the organizational work of Mazloomi, who is a member of the Textile Center’s National Artist Advisory Council.
“Carolyn Mazloomi has such energy,” he said. “In one e-mail she said to me: ‘This is emotionally draining as a mother of two Black sons and three Black grandsons.’ I called her and said, ‘I can’t even relate to that, I can’t imagine handling all these quilts and going through all these processes.’ ”
Reichert hopes the shows will bring about change and help people think more deeply about their connections to systemic racism.
“Carolyn felt that Minneapolis was the epicenter for all of this,” he said. “She had a calling, and that calling is a gift to us.”