The National Gallery of Victoria – Australia, (the one in Federation Square, not St Kilda Road), is showcasing The Australian Quilt – 1800-1950. By now, if you’ve been visiting here a bit, you know I’m not a hard-core cyber punk biker goth, but neither am I the ultra crafty capable arm-knit your own bespoke tree-beach house in a weekend type either. (I wouldn’t be here if I was). No. I’m the type of person who wants someone else to make a quilt for me with all the spare bits of material I’ve been hoarding. My skills, sadly, don’t run to sewing much. However, just as with painting or sculpture, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the work of other people. And so should everyone, not just me with the quietly roaming women in their 70s in the gallery when I was. This is art people.
What struck me was how monumental each quilt remains. Each dominates as a gallery display in a way they might not in a private bedroom. If you think about it, a double or a queen size or larger size quilt when hung up, is a huge picture for a wall and each did deserve their own wall.
From the carefully protected Rajah Quilt (just like any art it is titled) made by the convict women of the First Fleet to the equally carefully constructed quilt made by World War II POWs, each was vibrant, personal and deliberative.
For the second time in one day – just like with The Nightingale and the Rose at ACMI – I was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the colours and their variety and the hours of work put into each quilt. But unlike the work of Del Kathryn Barton, there was white space, on some quilts, patch work shapes drifted off into their individual pieces across ivory expanses like poems petering into ellipses.
Speaking of poetry, some were actually didactic, explaining in embroidery, the history and purpose of the work, while others were abstract. Still, in one, the ‘tatting’ was left in tact, the paper cut outs that form the pattern. I could read newspaper articles about Ireland that were more than 100 years old or make out the spidery handwriting (see above). It was an interesting juxtaposition, the male dominated political press of the day recycled as a backing material for something many once, and clearly still do, perceive as ‘women’s work.’
It shouldn’t need saying, but I will anyway: this is art but this is the first time a collection such as this has happened in Australia. Items like these should be valued, for their beauty, craft-work and history. They are another way ‘into’ understanding the history of Australia: from the possum skin quilts made as acts of cultural appropriation from the Indigenous peoples to ‘waggas’ made from scraps and cut offs by people who clearly didn’t have anything else, to clothes for weddings, to a quilt made from seconds from old suits. They tell of relationships, class, and colonisation. It’s all pieced together like Australia is now. Fit for purpose, long-lasting, made from bits and pieces from everywhere, by design or imagination, and now here for everyone to enjoy.
Go see the exhibit and take it as seriously as any ‘blockbuster art show’ – which is to say, as seriously as it deserves. It’s on until November 2016.