TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brazilian Quilting: Culture Mirror

Next week Paducah lives up to its reputation of Quilt City USA when an estimated 40,000 quilters arrive from all over the world, almost tripling our local population. We scramble to get everything ready as this is our big opportunity to show off our wares to that world. Two years ago, one of my best friends from Brazil, Heidi was here. She was floored!

Me with Heidi, 2006
Then, last year, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of Brazilian quilters who have been here several times in the past.

Hila Leslie and Vanessa Lot from Atelie do Ponto Quilt offer classes and participate in quilt competitions in Brazil. What a wonderful group of women! They told me how quilting has become a huge movement in Brazil, how local manufacturers are catering to them with specialty batting, threads, and sewing machines and how the shows in Brazil increasingly draw more attention.

I grew up in Brazil (1962-1980) during a time when everyone was making something. Our church had an active group of women of German descent who held church bazaars with all kinds of things they made, mostly kitchen or dining accessories like aprons, pot holders, dish towels, table cloths and such. The women mastered the needle; they sewed, embroidered, crocheted and knitted. There was a tradition, "colchas de retalho" related to quilting where bedspreads were made out of scraps, but using no batting and with limited design elements. Quilting is a natural medium for these women, especially if specialty materials become available to them.

After the show, I visited Ponto do Quilt's website. I found that they indeed can compete technically with any veteran American quilter.

Hila Leslie's "Victoria" one first place in one of the competitions. Her "Madame P" (below), won second place in another.

Vanessa Lott's "Illusao" won a prize in 2003.

I could see that, yes, technically, these Brazilian quilters have come a long way and are making beautiful pieces. But, culturally, I felt disappointed. They did not speak to me of Brazil. They could have been made anywhere. I looked at a couple of other sites and found many more examples of quilts made in Brazil that had nothing to do with the culture there. Marias do Brasil is a group of women who make quilted accessories and bedcovers for sale. Their designs use American country patterns, many of which speak of cultural landmarks that would make no sense to Brazilians. Patterns of pumpkins, Fall, red barns, snowmen, and other American favorites make no sense in a country where there is no Fall or snow, except occasionally in the Southern tip. The example below even has text in English. Maria is the most common woman's name in Brazil, most of whom would not be able to read English!

The color palette and subject matter of all of these quilts do not mirror Brazil to me. I thought of my youth when I sold t-shirts I painted at a local artisan's market. Batik artists were big back then. They captured a certain Brazilian feel in their work.

I'm not saying that Brazilian quilters need to start quilting toucans and Brazilian market scenes. These themes often cater to the tourist market and don't necessarily reflect the artist's experience or voice either. But, I do think that any quilt that mirrors the artist and her or his environment has much more appeal and interest than ones that are inspired by another culture. Japanese quilts usually call me like a magnet at the shows. The fabrics, textures and designs are obviously non-American, but not necessarily Japanese. They just have something different that asks for a second look, for a pause. That is what I hope for Brazilian quilters, that they can find their own voice, their own expression, that mirrors who they are. Quilting is a new art form in Brazil and in time, as quilters master their techniques, they will deviate from the safety net of typical American quilts and find their Brazilian voice. I look forward to that day! Meanwhile, keep up the good work, Brasileiras!


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