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A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF HARRIET
POWERS'S LIFE AND HER ARTISTIC INSPIRATION

Jenny Smith knew little about the quilter who had surrendered her masterpiece, but in its outward circumstances, as far as we know, Powers's life was not highly unusual for a woman of her race and time. Powers had been born a slave on October 29, 1837, and often talked to her patron about the days before the Civil War—a topic undoubtedly common in conversations between southern whites and blacks at the time. Like most former slaves, Powers was illiterate but generally shrewd in her business dealings, as various deeds and contracts in her name show. After 1894 she and her husband separated, and thereafter she lived independently in the country, paying her own taxes and perhaps earning her living as a seamstress.

Unfortunately, with advancing age, her income so declined that when she died at age seventy-four, in 1911, her estate was much reduced from what it had been ten years before. Like most African Americans of her era, she had worked hard all her life and had done whatever was necessary to raise her family in a society that placed little value on the lives and fortunes of African Americans. Certainly she could never have expected that her world and her artful quilts would one day be the focus of so much attention.

The Bible quilt (Figure 10) that Jenny Smith purchased was an interesting and ingenious combination of Bible stories, African motifs, and meteorological phenomena like the spectacular Leonid Star Shower of 1833 that had become part of African American folk memory.


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The quilt was constructed using the appliqué technique, a quilting method popular during the period, in which precut figures are sewn onto a blank background. The quilt contains eleven panels, or framed narrative scenes, in which Powers captures the stories of Bible characters like Adam and Eve, Jacob, Satan, and Jesus. Over half the panels are devoted to the story of the Garden of Eden, and the life of Jesus figures in several others.

The African element in the quilt can be seen in its design, its construction technique, and its use of narrative. The work in fact resembles the tapestries of the Fon people of West Africa, who also used the appliqué technique extensively. The Fon tapestries feature figures sewn onto a black or gold background, many of them animals that were totem representations of eleven significant kings. Perhaps because they are not portraits of real animals, these figures are pictured in unusual colors like green, blue, purple, and white and at times have an abstract quality. At the same time, the Fon tapestries illustrate well-known stories or proverbs in the Fon culture. Powers makes extensive use of uniquely realized animal figures and, like the Fon with their stories of the kings, presents in pictorial form Old Testament stories that had become part of the African American oral tradition. Finally, the astronomical bodies in her panels have, along with their connections to the folk history of African Americans, distinct African associations. The sun, which figures prominently in both her quilts, for instance, is an African symbol for the concept of circularity and the omniscience of God.


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“A SERMON IN PATCHWORK”
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