Harriet Powers: Artist, Quilter & Prophetic Storyteller

Harriet Powers: Artist, Quilter & Prophetic Storyteller

Black women's art in America

Black women have been speaking to us throughout the centuries in America through their art.

Through art we see a first hand expression of a woman's lived experience, a reflection of the artist’s views of herself, of her place in the world, her relationship to God, and her relationship to her faith. What comes through most profoundly from black women’s art in the 19th century is faith. As well as trust in the promise of God’s redeeming power. Both old testament and gospel stories provide examples of God’s covenantal promise and preference for the oppressed. These biblical stories provide an understanding of eternal life that for some offers up enough prophetic hope and to imagine a better future. And enough faith to endure the sinful and brokenness of current reality.  

Fig. 1. Harriet Powers Pictoral Quilt, 1895-98.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. African American Art: The Long Struggle. By Crystal A. Britton. New York: Smithmark, 2006. Page 9.

Christian black women have been creating profound and important art in America from the earliest days of slavery. Art created by black women has had many uses, however, early in American history it primarily functioned as story-telling tools, to remember African heritage, to record the struggles of everyday life, and to illustrate stories from the bible that could be told and taught visually.

Similar to how stained glass windows in Europe were constructed in the middle ages to tell Bible stories to those who could not read, black women sewed patchwork designs onto aprons and quilts to remember the liberative and good news of Jesus as they worked and struggled through the daily abusive grind of slavery.

One of these women was Harriet Powers.

Harriet Powers' the artist

Harriet Powers, now an artist whose work resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC, was not nearly as well recognized in her day. Her patchwork quilts that have survived, (likely commissioned by white women), have become a treasured piece of American history. She was born in Georgia as a slave and after gaining her freedom in the late 1800s she created a series of quilts that illustrated stories from the bible. Her focus was primarily on biblical heroes that showed great faith and overcame great obstacles such as Noah, Moses, Jonah and Job. After working to become literate and read the bible for herself, she found it incredibly important to continue to teach the bible’s stories and to express faith-related themes through her quilt work.

Fig. 2. Harriet Powers Pictoral Quilt, detail.

Harriet employed a technique of appliqué that was brought over from Western Africa that had been used as a storytelling device for generations, (although in Africa it was traditionally a craft mastered by men and not women).

Harriet also included important astronomical events and marked significant stories that related to faith and included them as part of her storytelling. In her Pictorial Quilt, Harriet included a key that explained each panel. On one panel she tells of a significant and curious story from her life, one that seems could be part of her testimony:

“...rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.”
Fig. 3. Harriet Powers Pictoral Quilt, detail.

Additional patchwork pieces, (mostly quilts and aprons), that use this style of appliqué have been discovered and preserved as important pieces of art from the nineteenth century. These quilted pieces of art are a treasured piece of history that not only shows technical skill and aesthetic beauty, but records the interpretation of biblical themes and stories through the lens of black women. Harriet Powers' skills of interpretation from her own first-hand reading of the bible translates onto patchwork quilts to bring alive the liberating stories of the bible and encouraged and taught and convicted those who encountered her work.

Fig. 4. Harriet Powers Pictoral Quilt, detail.

Harriet Powers is recognized today as one of the best quilters of the nineteenth century, although only two of her pieces have been recovered, we know she created several more. Harriet led, taught and used her gifts of storytelling for the liberation and encouragement of others. She continues to teach us today through her prophetic imagination, and we are invited to learn from her interpretations of biblical stories and stories from her heritage in Africa, as a woman made in God’s image, a gifted artist, teacher and prophetic storyteller as an American Christian mother.

Fig. 5. Harriet Powers Bible Quilt, 1885-86. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.