Recently published IU Press book Quilts of Southwest China is currently being featured as part of an exhibit at the Mathers Museum of World Culture in Bloomington, Indiana. To learn more about the book and the unique quilts presented at the exhibit, IU Press recently spoke with co-editor Lijun Zhang about the quilts, the art of quilting, and what quilts represent in Chinese culture.
IU Press: Quilts are often broadly understood or thought of as a sort of an “Americana”-type thing, but this book and display show that quilts are a worldwide phenomenon. What makes them so accessible?
Lijun Zhang: Quilts, especially those quilted multi-layered textile used on bed, are thought of as typically Western. However, the techniques associated with the textiles known as quilts such as piecing, patching, and appliquéing fabrics together as well as binding layers of fabric together exist in different cultures around the world. In China, the techniques of quilting have been practiced in different locales for centuries. Nowadays, the commonly used word for quilt in Chinese is pinbu although many communities in China where quilting is practice may not use the term in their culture. For instance, people in a lot of Han communities make bedcovers or clothes for a new born child out of pieces of fabric contribued by relatives and friends. Such items are called baijiabei, or “one hundred families” bedcovers and baijiayi or “one hundred families” clothes. A quilt, as a distinctive form of textile, perfectly combines function with art. Quilts, with the patterns made by the quilting techniques I introduced above, is highly decorative while being functional in our daily life. I think this is one of the major reasons that contribute to its accessibility around the world. In addition, a lot of quilts convey important meanings and symbols in different cultures. For instance, grandmothers makes baijiabei or baijiayi for their new born grandchildren to show their love and protection towards the babies. There are similar practice in the United States. Now quilting became a form of intangible an tangible cultural heritage both in China and in the United States.
IUP: What will people who come to see the quilts at the Mathers Museum recognize? What will surprise them?
LZ: Most of our audience would be American who are more familiar with Western style of quilts. I think the exhibition would broaden their conceptions of quilt. For the displayed items in the exhibition, the quilted bedcovers are different from traditional American quilts. They are single-layer comforter cover with blocks of pieced patchwork and appliqué on the top layer, mostly for design and decoration purposes. I think what will surprise them is not only the very different style of quilting but also the very rich cultural meanings and symbols express quilt artists expressed through the displayed items.
Many quilt artists incorporate auspicious designs in their work that reflect their tradition and beliefs. Auspicious designs include patterns representing wishes for happiness, prosperity, longevity, high social status, fruitfulness, protection from evil, etc. Some designs are also intertextualized with folk literature; the quilt artist sometimes conveys myths, legends, and folk tales through her choice of symbols.
On the exhibition panels and in the book, we have introduced representative design motifs of ethnic quilts in Southwest China with illustrations of these motifs from the exhibited quilts. It is important resource for the audience to learn the aesthetic style, folk beliefs, and folk literature relating to quilts.
In the process of curating the exhibition, we try our best to convey the message and meaning the artists try to express. The Chinese curator and the American curator as well as the partner museums worked together to make sure that the labels and the layout of the exhibition are appropriate to help US audiences understand the style and the cultural meaning of the quilts, and the context in which the quilts of Southwest China are made.
IUP: What have you learned in your research and preparation for this book?
Quilts of Southwest China as a bi-national and bilingual project is a process of long-term cultural communication and cultural collaboration, which includes academic forums and conferences, fieldwork and collections-based research, professional exchanges, curating exhibition, and joint publication. Curating the exhibition and preparation for the book is a process of communication, mutual understanding, sharing, and mutual learning. As a cross-cultural project, language and terminology presented some challenges in our collaborative work. We not only need to translate the language, but also need to translate the culture. Another important feature of the exhibition project is our ling-term ethnographic field research in many different ethnic communities. The field research helped us gain a wide, in-depth, and in-person understanding the natural and social environment where the art is created. We experienced both the traditional and changing landscapes of the communities and reveal new insights about China’s intangible cultural heritage in contemporary world. We build personal and interactional contact with local artists and really get to know the person who creates the art and understands the use and meaning of the art in their daily life. The field research also enables us to provide the audience with more precise and richer interpretation of the arts.
IUP: Do you consider quilts art?
LZ: Yes, quilts are art that is highly functional in daily life. It represents quilt artists' creative ideas through the form of patterns and motifs. In the process of making a quilt, the quilt artist not only needs to master the knowledge and skills of quilting, but also has a preliminary sketch and design in their mind what the quilt is look like. And like other artists, quilt artists tries to tell people something through their art work.
IUP: Do you have a favorite quilt in the book or display?
LZ I like all of the quilts. If I have to pick one, I would highlight the quilt with triangle patterns and dog's teeth edge collected from Huang Biyu, a Zhuang quilt artist from Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in Southwest China. Not like most of the other displayed quilts that have duplicated or similar patterns, this quilt is formed with 60 triangle-shaped pieces with 60 unique design motifs, including phoenix, butterflies, coin, and flower building which refers to the style of buildings constructed on stilts in Zhuang communities. The artists creative combine the different motifs on one quilt with beautiful presentation.