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112 lg price 03

On Femmage1

Sally Price

112 sm price 05Sewing a quilt. Gees Bend, Alabama, 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In what now feels like the pre-history of feminism (1978, to be exact), artists Melissa Meyer and Miriam Schapiro boldly declared women to be the inventers of collage... and that, long before Picasso or Braque ever put scissors to paper. Pointing to all the scrapbooks, photo albums, appliqué’d textiles, patchwork quilts, and even valentines that have long been classed as female activities, they proposed that an hommage was in order to the makers of these works of femmage. Indeed, Schapiro has, since 1977, described herself as a “femmagist.”

The label would apply well to African American women, who have always been creative about turning scraps into works of art through aesthetically motivated juxtapositions. In the 1960s and 70s, Saamaka Maroon women in the Suriname rainforest kept sacks filled with trimmings from the wrap-skirts they made. When the time came to compose a narrow-strip cape (the height of male fashion at the time, and thus a prized gift for a husband or lover), several women would spread hundreds of these residual strips on the ground, trying out different combinations and discussing the aesthetic merits of alternative arrangements before tacking them together to sew into full garments. Early generations, they showed me, had worked with small squares and triangles of fabric rather than strips, but in much the same spirit of creating aesthetic wholes from the detritus of earlier sewing projects.

112 sm price 03Saamaka Maroon shoulder cape, sewn early-20th century by Peepina (Suriname). Collection of Richard and Sally Price. Photo by Antonia Graeber.

During her time as a civil rights worker in Alabama in the 1960s, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes almost literally stumbled upon other African American examples of textile rasanblaj. The “harlequin blankets” made by the women of Gee’s Bend, where she was based, were “audacious...bright, zig-zagging razzle-dazzle geometric designs in deep red, blue, green and brown stair steps or black and dark yellow stars or pink and green spirals.” Only many decades later did the official art world open its eyes to the aesthetic accomplishment of these recyclings of old denim overalls, flannel work shirts, and other worn-out scraps, hanging them on the pristine white walls of the Whitney Museum in New York. Critics of mainstream modern art called on their full repertoire of superlatives, describing them as “brilliant, bold, and dynamic ... innovative and minimalist,” and declaring that “the quilts pulsate with a disciplined beauty that is rooted in both symmetry and a conscious decision to deviate from that order.”

Faith Ringgold’s acrylic paintings, framed in patchwork and assembled together with written texts often provided by her daughter, cultural critic Michele Wallace, are also striking examples of femmage. And the art of countless other African American women (Betye Saar is an obvious example) exemplify the spirit of rasanblaj through mixed media art using found objects, from African amulets to computer chips.

112 sm price 04Betye Saar, The Couple. Collection of Tobey C. Moss Gallery. Copyright: The Artist Betye Saar.

Derek Walcott, commenting on the art of Romare Bearden, marveled at the way he drew on the tools of a woman to construct his collages: "You don’t tell the story with a pen and a pencil, you tell it with that phenomenal thing of using the scissors. Now, the scissors is the weapon and the tool of a matriarchal society. Scissors cut cloth. So what the paintings represent is the same as if a mother or an aunt or a grandmother had cut fabric to make a utilitarian object. I mean, this is staggering! Because what Romare did is that he made himself like a woman, ... he made a matriarchal thing of a painting."

I once declared that my own approach to writing about collectors of non-Western art owed a debt to the aesthetics of femmage in that it juxtaposed multiple small comments made by collectors in the course of their conversations with me in order to produce the overall picture of their world that I was trying to convey. And in a book about ethnographic collecting (a form of rasanblaj, if ever there was one), Richard Price and I took this approach even more literally, devoting the verso of every page-spread to snippets from diverse sources (together with my own pen-and-ink sketches) to underscore the nature of collections like the one that we discussed in more conventional prose on the rectos—causing Marshall Sahlins to complain in the New York Times Book Review that he felt “jerked around” by this sort of rasanblaj.

112 sm price 01Saamaka baby cap sewn for James George Beck, born 1 April 2015 to Karla and Rich Beck, London.

Now, fifty years after I first discovered the patchwork textiles of the Suriname Maroons, I still keep a bundle of colorful remnants—cloth originally intended for wrap-skirts, shoulder capes, and loincloths. Every once in a while, I sew pieces into a bed cover, a cushion, or some other object that reminds me of life in the villages of the rainforest. The most recent one was a patchwork cap for my first essential item, Saamakas say, in the ceremonial launching of a newborn’s life.

Sally Price is an American anthropologist who has taught at several universities in the United States (e.g., Stanford, Princeton, the University of Minnesota, and William Mary), as well as the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil) and the Sorbonne in Paris, and conducted field research in Martinique, Spain, Mexico, French Guiana, and Suriname. She is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fifteen books, some of which have been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Much of her writing has focused on the Maroon populations of Suriname and French Guiana or on other aspects of the African Diaspora, from Harlem and the U.S. South (a book on Romare Bearden) to the Amazonian rain forest (Enigma Variations, a novel about art forgery). But she is best known for two critical studies of the place of “primitive art” in the imaginaire of Western viewers: Primitive Art in Civilized Places and Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly. In the Netherlands, she is an elected member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences and in France, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. For more details, see


1 Bits and pieces of the following works have been reassembled to form this text: John Beardsley et al., eds., Gee’s Bend: The Women and their Quilts (Atlanta GA: Tinwood Books Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts [2002]); Neal Conan, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” (National Public Radio, 4 February 2003); Melissa Meyer Myriam Schapiro, “Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled” (Heresies 4, pp. 66-69 [1978]); Sally Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1989/2001] and “Seaming Connections” (in Kevin A. Yelvington, ed., Afro-Atlantic Dialogues: Anthropology in the Diaspora, Santa Fe NM: School of American Research, pp. 81-112 [2006]); Richard Price Sally Price, Equatoria (New York: Routledge [1992]); Sally Price Richard Price, Romare Bearden: The Caribbean Dimension (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 35 [2006]); Marshall Sahlins, “Anthropologists Go Home” (New York Times Book Review, 13 December 1992, p. 20); Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Anatomy of a Quilt: The Gees’ Bend Freedom Quilting Bee” ( Anthropology Today 19/4, pp. 15-21 [2003]).