An artist and Black historian says he hopes an exhibit of African Nova Scotian quilts inspires a new generation to take up “a dying craft in the Black community.”

David Woods is the curator of the exhibit titled The Secret Codes, which is currently on display at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax. The exhibit features works from over two dozen predominately African Nova Scotian painters and quilters.

While the exhibit runs until Aug. 6, the gallery will host other events on Emancipation Day on Aug. 1. Those events will include a curator’s talk, a guided tour with Heather Cromwell of the Vale Quilters Association whose work is featured in the exhibit, and a “family quilts gathering” where people are invited to bring in their quilts to share stories about them.

“We tend to talk about our culture in very specific ways, but here we have art, craft being created by women of our community,” Woods said in an interview. “None of them profess to be any great artist, but yet they have a show that, it’s the biggest [art] show in Halifax this summer, in terms of attendance and buzz, and it’s going across the country.”

Many of the quilts are what Woods calls “picture quilts” based on sketches he drew depicting Black community members and Black community settings throughout Nova Scotia.

“David has been doing these sketches on the road — he’s like a traveling curator or artist — for the last 20 years or more,” said Dalhousie Art Gallery director and curator, Pamela Edmunds.

“There’s a section of the show that is those picture quilts, he calls them, but then there’s also contemporary quilts, abstract patterns, and then also a series of quilts that are also influenced by the secret codes.”

Three vibrant quilts hang on the walls of an art gallery. One quilt features a Black girl in a yellow dress holding a purse and surrounded by squares of flowers. Another quilt features two Black people sitting at a table, and a third quilt shows a Black woman in a blue dress with her arms outstretched.
Quilts from The Secret Codes exhibit at Dalhousie Art Gallery. Credit: Matthew Byard

Quilts and the Underground Railroad

The Secret Codes refers to the secret messages sewn into the patterns of the quilts that were then hung on clotheslines. The messages in the quilts provided directions to help Black people navigate the Underground Railroad. 

“When you’re thinking about emancipation and our histories related to slavery and about freedom, this show is about that,” Edmunds said. “It’s about the techniques and tools that were used to lead to freedom for folks that were the freedom runners.”

Woods said the exhibit also speaks to the essence of emancipation and freedom in many other ways.

“It’s also the idea of freedom in terms of the ability to see yourself in a different way,” Woods said. “The quilts are very autobiographical in terms of search for identity [and] reflecting community. When we first began, this kind of a show was not possible, or not even a thought.”

“Quilt making before did not have this content in our community. So, the very act of creating this show was an exercise in freedom, in that more metaphorical sense.

Exhibit touring across Canada

When Woods first started drawing his sketches he said he had no idea they would one day turn into picture quilts. He said his friend, Myla Borden, asked him if she could use one of his sketches to design a quilt.

Borden is the president of the Vale Quilters Association, the province’s only predominantly Black incorporated quilters guild. Members of the guild are mainly Black women from the Vale Road area of New Glasgow.

Around 2008, Woods said the Vale Quilters Association was looking for a new project to create custom-made traditional quilts. 

“That became the core of The Secret Codes show,” Woods said.

The very first Secret Codes show debuted at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in April 2021.

Since then, the exhibit went on to the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Woods said the exhibit will then move to Toronto where it will run at the Textile Museum of Canada from Oct. 28 to Mar. 31, 2024.

Three quilts hang on the walls of an art gallery. One quilt shows a Black woman in a white dress and a Black man in a black suit and top hat, another quilt shows two Black women sitting in a church pew listening to a Black preacher. A third quilt shows Black woman flying.
The Secret Codes exhibit at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Credit: Matthew Byard

‘A craft that is embedded in our culture’

Wood said quilt making was one of the “universal things” that many women in the Black community took part in and a tradition that was passed on through generations. The oldest quilt in the exhibit is 100 years old.

“It’s the essence of women whose works, whose lives were kind of circumscribed by working in homes, but yet they always found time to create these things. Partially for use in the family, but also partially to express themselves as women,” he said.

“It’s a show that features their grandmothers, their aunts. It has the past, it has the present. And it’s also a craft that is embedded in our culture.”

Woods said quilting is “a dying craft in the Black community” and he’d like to see younger generations take up the tradition.

He said he’s also been inspired by the more than 1,000 visitors to the exhibit at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, and that more galleries and museums across Canada want to book the exhibit across Canada.

“For some reason, this show speaks to people of all backgrounds and all ages,” Woods said. “We have seniors groups that are coming to visit [as well as] day camps of young people. So, that’s another kind of neat [thing] that it’s kind of cross-transgenerational in that it seems to speak to more than one group of people.”

The Emancipation Day event will take place from 1pm to 5pm on Aug. 1 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.

A graphic that says Funded by Canada

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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