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UMKC art professor Maude Southwell Wahlman
uncovers quilts' mysteries

To the Southern Black women she met, the red squares and hands in their quilts were merely designs they learned from their mothers.

But to Maude Southwell Wahlman, professor of art and art history at UMKC, the symbols reflected African influences unconsciously preserved from previous generations.

Most of Wahlman’s work published over her 30 years of teaching global art sheds light on African and African-American art. The red squares and hands – called “mojos” – present in many traditional quilts represent protective charms in the Kongo culture.

Symbols in the quilts and other traditions in the South indicate the African Diaspora (http://www.moadsf.org/), the movements and cultures of Africans and their descendants that have been dispersed throughout the world.

Many symbols represented a secret language from African culture, Wahlman said. In the circle of many traditional quilters, the key to the symbolism and mystery has been lost. 

“If you ask them why they made certain decisions or included certain designs, they respond, ‘That’s just what my grandmother did,’” Wahlman said.

Practical use

Art is in eye of the beholder, particularly when it begins with a practical purpose.

Traditional quilters are trained at home and learn quilting from the women in their families. The purpose for their sewing often differs from contemporary quilters, who may study quilting in art school.

Mozelle Benson, one of the women profiled in Wahlman’s book, “Signs and Symbols: African Image in African-American Quilts,” had 10 kids.

“She was just making quilts to keep her kids warm,” Wahlman said. “She didn’t consider herself a great artist.”

Since being introduced to the world by Wahlman, Benson has won a National Heritage Award and her quilts are seen in an international traveling exhibit. Wahlman often lectures at the exhibits.

African influences globally

Wahlman has taught at UMKC since 1998. She was on sabbatical from the University of Central Florida doing a fellowship at Harvard when she learned of the opening at UMKC.

“It was what I had been doing for 20 years, teaching global arts,” Wahlman said. “UMKC had an awareness of the need to look at art from a global perspective that I found refreshing and still do. Nowadays, more and more universities offer endowments in nonwestern art, but back then it was rare.”

In the course “The Art of the African Diaspora,” Wahlman teaches students about the African cultures whose influences are most noticeable in the Americas. Students learn to recognize African influences in art from Brazil, Suriname, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and other countries.

Even Southern gravesites become art when Wahlman reveals to students that the clocks, trees and black cauldrons in the cemetery aren’t what others see as clutter, but are references to spirituality in African cultures. Some of the older graves are covered with items made out of kaolin – a fine white clay used in the manufacturing of porcelain and a Kongo symbol for the world of ancestors.

“The courses give students an awareness of the value other cultures provide and of their way of doing art,” Wahlman said. “They gain an awareness of different cultural systems that can be seen through art.”

An exhibit of Wahlman’s quilt collection is on display at the Belger Arts Center, and can be seen there through Oct. 3, 2008.  For more information, visit http://www.belgerartscenter.org/



Detail of quilt showing a mojo or hand