Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm shocked! Shocked!

Today the Quiltart list is in a tizzy over reports that the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest, a big show in Hampton VA, displayed a quilt that portrayed -- gasp -- a naked, pregnant, homeless woman sitting cross-legged in a cardboard box, displaying her privates.  Seems that a couple of women visited the show, saw the quilt, and apparently were upset enough to call the local TV station, which of course showed up, eager for a hoohah. 

Fortunately for the cause of decency, these women, rather than move their scandalized eyes along to more comforting works, forced themselves to stand there until the TV people got there.  And apparently while they waited they raised enough ruckus that the show managers asked them to leave the premises.  The show guys left when the TV folks arrived (good move) but the ladies proceeded to tell all.

You can imagine the comments.  "Disgusting doesn't even cover it!" one woman told the camera. (Do you wonder what is even worse than disgusting?  Read on...)  "It's embarrassing!!"

"It shouldn't be pornographic and it is!" another one said.  "We come and we see this where a woman's body parts are exposed and I'm highly offended."

A third woman played the trump card: "There's children that come in here."

Well, now you want to see the quilt, don't you, and not with a big gray oval concealing the good parts, as on the TV station's site.  (Funny, isn't it, that they didn't feel obliged to gray out the woman's breasts or fetus?  Guess those impressionable children are OK with some exposed body parts, just not all of them.)

The artist is Kathy Nida and the shocking quilt is called "One Paycheck," as in one paycheck away from total ruin.  It's part of a SAQA exhibit on homelessness that has been traveling for several months already.  You'll find it halfway down this page at her website.  Process note: you'll have to type in the words "I am over 18" to get on the site.  And if you scroll one quilt past "One Paycheck," you'll find "Sediment," which is on display in "Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie," which I have been writing about this week.

The big quilt shows such as the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest haven't always been known for their willingness to display controversial art, probably because they know there will always be some prudish person eager to be shocked in front of the TV cameras.  Several years ago the big Paducah show gained more notoriety than it wanted by refusing to accept a quilt entered by the guy who had won best in show the previous year.  In keeping with the theme of holidays, that year's chosen "special topic," the quilt showed happy skeletons dancing around in a Day of the Dead celebration.  Apparently what was so shocking was that the quilt was about people who had died of AIDS.

But it's not just nicey-nice quilt shows that sometimes try to avoid anything that could remotely be considered as controversial; big-time art venues do too.  In December the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, yielded to pressure from various conservative politicians and groups and removed a video by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling over a crucifix.  Again, the subject of the video was people who had died of AIDS. 

So my hat goes off to the Mancuso brothers, proprietors of the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest and several other big annual shows in other parts of the country, who (a) accepted the SAQA exhibit and (b) kept this quilt on display even after the TV crew started looking for controversy.  "It's textile art," Peter Mancuso explained to the reporter.  Good for him.


  1. What a beautiful post. I think you just summarized what I often think at shows. Quilt artists should be able to show the "dark underside" of the world including war, child abuse and homelessness.
    Sybil Winfield

  2. I love the fact that the work is controversial as no one expects controversay at a quilt show. Good for the Mancuso brothers. They are good businessmen to boot.

  3. Thanks for this post, Kathy. Of course it is ridiculous that women should find the sight of their own female anatomy "embarrassing" and "disgusting." It is heartening to see however, that quilt artists such as Kathy Nida are serious about being contemporary artists first and foremost. I went to Nida's website and when I saw "One Paycheck" alongside her other works I was reminded how important CONTEXT is for understanding almost ANY artist's work, especially the work that is not immediately beguiling and transparent. In a world saturated with sound bites and visual images we too often expect artworks to be grasped and understood instantly. It doesn't work that way.

  4. hmmm... I think a sad case of those that can't, criticise

  5. Yeah, I saw it. The piece made the art therapy rounds and I thought to myself, how great that someone is considering this topic. Then, when I heard about women calling female anatomy "offensive" and getting their pants in a wad, I thought hmmmmmmm......

  6. Children see far more explicit things in their Health and Sex Education classes - thank God. I wouldn't want children to think that pornography is all that sex is about.

    This quilt is NOWHERE even vaguely near pornography. This is an educational quilt depicting the reality of life for many homeless women.

    Why aren't those disgusted women out on the street taking homeless women into their homes, hearts and churches ? Why aren't they remembering Christ and Mary Magdalen ?

  7. I was at the show yesterday and if not for the buzz about it, I would have never noticed it. Honestly, walking by it just doesn't really make an impression except of being busy and unfocused in the middle with lots of space around the edges. IMHO, It was nothing to get excited about from any point of view. I think it was all just some good publicity for the show and that's about it. Much ado about nothing.

  8. I agree! It is textile art..we aren't hanging our bed quilts on the wall...we are creating different than other master paintings or sculptures! Folks don't have to look at the piece..just walk on by!

  9. When I heard about this, I immediately thought about your post bemoaning the "prettiness" of quilt art. (I thought the brief new clip I read was a bit sarcastic in that regard, frankly.) The whole thing is a bit predictable: savvy business promoters and narrow-minded viewers producing fodder for the news cycle.

  10. I agree that the culprits in this story were the TV twinkies, always ready to report controversy whether it's there or not. I am frequently embarrassed to recall my previous employment in the news media.