No Two Alike African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern

No Two Alike – African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern

Improvisation is a defining and intriguing characteristic of the province of African-American quiltmaking that suggests its African roots. Only in the last quarter of the 20th century has this art form received scholarly and critical attention while much of the genre remains to be explored.  No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern featured 18 quilts from the extraordinary collection of Eli Leon, a quilt scholar and resident of Oakland, California.

African-American improvisational style is an overall approach to organizing visual space and elements such as color, line and shape – an approach based on cultural preferences and tradition infused with a sense of impromptu innovation. The artists in No Two Alike, 20th century African-American quiltmakers, speak of making the quilts “something of your own,” of piecing “something different from someone else.” Each quiltmaker is talking of style, of  the individuality and personality expressed through her work. Style as an individual expression was even more pronounced in this exhibit where the organizational focus was on specific improvisations in the “Square-in-a-Square” pattern.  The exhibition catalogue for No Two Alikeincluded an essay by Eli Leon which addressed the concept of improvisation, with careful analysis of the design and individual inventiveness of each quilter. His interviews with the quilters also informed the biographies he has written of each of the artists.

No Two Alike, comprised of exhibition quality African-American “Square-in-a-Square” quilts displaying varying forms and degrees of improvisation, was intended as both an exposition and a celebration of African-American improvisation. The quilts in No Two Alike were made in the 1960s through 1990s by 20 quilters, most of whom grew up in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Many of them currently live in San Francisco bay area, Texas, and Louisiana.

Beginning in 1988, Eli Leon has loaned works from his collection and curated notable exhibitions includingWho’d A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American QuiltmakingModels in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork, and Something Else To See:  Improvisational Bordering Styles In African-American Quilts.

Gladys Henry
Square in Square
Pieced by Gladys Henry, Freestone County, Texas 1993
Quilted by Irene Bankhead, Oakland, California 1994