Atlantic Canadians are no strangers to turning adversity into art – and none more so than our black communities.
Using needle and thread, black Maritime artists have turned ordinary quilts into ancestral tableaus and messages of aid. In The Secret Codes: Contemporary African Nova Scotian Narrative and Picture Quilts, the new exhibition running at the UNB Art Centre for the entirety of Black History Month, these works of art grant us an enigmatic yet vivid glimpse into the lives of ordinary black Maritimers.
While the quilts on display are newly made, their inception can be traced back to the 19th century, when the underground railroad of escaped American slaves fleeing to Canada was at its height.
According to folklore, black quilters would sew clandestine messages into their quilts, frequently hung outdoors to air. These secret symbols or codes would help direct escapees to safe homes or warn them of dangers ahead. Taking these stories as inspiration, Trinidad-born Nova Scotian artist David Woods designed a collection of quilts that echoed the lives and struggles of black Maritimers.
“This collection shows that even among everyday families of the 18th and 19th centuries, quilt-making, painting, woodcarving and the like were all ways our people used to express their creativity and their individual and communal visions,” said Woods in a statement read by event director Marie Maltais because he was not in attendance.
The quilts themselves, sewn by the Vale Quiltmakers Association of New Glasgow, N.S., are gorgeous to look at – a multitude of textures, patterns and colours working together to tell the story of a people who have often sadly been relegated to the fringes of Maritime history. Using only textiles, these artists create images of work, worship and celebration, combining the bright colours of their ancestral homeland with the pastoral imagery of the Atlantic provinces.
Darrell Butler, the chief curator and material historian at Kings Landing Historical Settlement, praised the tradition of quiltmaking amongst black communities as a unique combination of art and utility.
“Their prime objective was to keep their family warm. But look at them – there’s an expression of colour and texture and form that’s alive and functioning in the quilts,” he said.
“Their hands formed them, and used them. They connect us directly to these people.”
Butler spoke of The New Brunswick Connection, an adjunct show that details Kings Landing’s Leek-Taylor Collection – unique artifacts which belonged to early black settlers in New Brunswick. Begun in 2007, it took years to acquire the scant number of relics that survive today. It contains, among other pieces, the only known portrait of an ordinary black man, by a black man, in this province.
“We had slaves here in New Brunswick,” said Butler solemnly. “At some point along the line, that whole way of life got glossed over. It’s important that we never forget that.”
Woods praised the artistic community in Fredericton, and the UNB Art Centre in particular, for their efforts in bringing The Secret Codes to a wider audience. While the black community here is smaller than that of Nova Scotia, Woods said that many black people in Dartmouth have family roots in Fredericton.
“We welcome the chance to share [The Secret Codes] with another city, another province, another group of people who take pleasure and inspiration in the artistry of women of black communities in Nova Scotia,” he said.
“I hope that Secret Codes is a beginning and not an end, and I look forward to bringing other exhibitions to Fredericton and working with the New Brunswick Black History Society to further knowledge of African-Maritime heritage.”
The Secret Codes/The New Brunswick Connection runs until Feb. 28 at Memorial Hall. The galleries are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and admission is free.