Elevate Difference

The Skin Quilt Project

Without the preservation of historical text, artifact, and art, history can slowly fade from memory. Stories of survival can easily become short-lived memories as they are passed from one generation to the next before they are forgotten. For Black African American women, their history has been and continues to be woven together in quilting. The Skin Quilt Project is a documentary featuring various quilters, artists, academics, and historians discussing the necessity, purpose, benefits, and impact of Black African American women quilters and what their artistry does for their families and communities.

The film begins with the issue of skin color among African Americans and the discriminatory “trick down racism” that began with slavery and eventually bled into African American communities to set up its own caste system. Artists and quilters talk about the process and representation of creating images of Black women in their art and the significance or insignificance of the skin color of their subjects. As the documentary deepens, the topics become more complex and emotional.

There are two themes explored in the film: the process of quilting and the quilts themselves. The Skin Quilt Project goes beyond skin deep as it gains testimony about the relationship between the artist and community, artist and their work, artist and history, story and survivor. It’s more than just preserving cultural legacy; the quilts themselves are works of art, tangible testaments to the diverse life experience of Black women in the United States.

The process of making the quilts is binding experience, not just between the quilter and the quilt, but also between the artist and the community in which it is made. Many quilters find acceptance, camaraderie, confidence, and affirmation of their skill level by quilting together. It also provides challenge to take a project to the next level. This in-depth sharing of knowledge and craft is essential to many of the artists. The experience is not only for the artist’s physical artwork, but as many women attest, quilting feeds the soul and is part of the “visual, Negro spiritual” identity.

While the stories and commentary of The Skin Quilt Project are clearly important and interesting, the format of the documentary did not share the rich diversity of the quilts or the artists. No narrative voiceover to direct the film or text dividers to signal a new focus. The documentary relies heavily on the spoken word to engage the audience, but with a few audio kinks in the beginning, it’s difficult to phonetically understand what is being said. The ongoing and unbroken stride doesn’t offer much creative opportunity to appreciate the different insights of each interviewee.

For those interested in the role of African American women, quilters, and the critical role artists play in our social history, The Skin Quilt Project is a fine demonstration of the radical work that can be accomplished by needle and thread.

Written by: Lisa Factora-Borchers, April 14th 2011