In February of last year, mere weeks before the pandemic sent Americans into lockdown, an exhibit opened at BAMPFA in Berkeley, California. A retrospective of the work of Bay Area-based, Arkansas-born quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins, who passed away in 2016, the show’s breadth was considerable thanks to Eli Leon, a friend and avowed quilt collector and scholar, who had bequeathed thousands of pieces to the museum. Leon’s intention, with his posthumous donation (he died in 2018) was for more people to appreciate quilting as an art form; one in which Tompkins’s work, which was created with an almost spiritual abandon, stands as a towering achievement. Though she was fiercely private, her quilts, beloved for their vivid colors, motley fabrics, flexible patterning style devoid of classic symmetry, and range of cultural touchstones, have earned a place in the permanent collections of The Whitney and Oakland Museum of Art. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote of her work in 2002: “Unerring and intuitive in their sense of color, shape and scale, Tompkins’ quilts are formidably joyful visual events that ignore the usual boundaries between cultures, histories, and mediums.”
Tompkins’ creations were a more radical incarnation of the historic quilting tradition of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which has, since the early 1800s, produced generations of gifted quilters and an innumerable amount of staggeringly beautiful creations. Souls Grown Deep, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting African American artists from the South says that Gee’s Bend is, in fact, in a league of its own: “In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family… the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity.” A number of Gee’s Bend quilts were recently acquired by the prestigious National Gallery of Art in Washington, and they are also the current subject of two other museum exhibits and a London gallery show. The fact that quilts have often served as a form of cultural record or significant social commentary is what makes them feel more vitally important than ever right now.
It was the quilts of Gee’s Bend, along with Kantha quilts, which have been produced for centuries by women in India and Bangladesh, that provided the spark for Anaak’s Summer 2021 season, a tightly edited collection designed to be an indispensable addition to your wardrobe, pieces as reliable, as they are versatile. Ease is, as ever, first and foremost in Anaak’s creations, with outsized house-dress silhouettes and breezy separates dominating. Quilting’s credo of re-imagining a second life for old fabric and sari scraps is nodded to in Anaak’s assemblage-style details, on floor-grazing skirts, cushioned jackets, and swingy, peasant mini dresses with wide ‘70s dolman sleeves. And the prevailing color palette of black, white, flax, masala brown, azalea and mango, while a pointed departure from the usual summer brights, serves, as quilts so often have, as a reflection of the times: a bit more staid, but also deeply grounding.
The quilts dreamt up by Tompkins and the artists of Gee’s Bend transcended their initial, more utilitarian purpose of simply keeping someone warm. While the pieces in Anaak’s summer collection are themselves a thing of beauty, they’re also, like those quilts designed to offer something more practical, and right now, perhaps more important: a sense of comfort and joy.