Harriet Powers

1834Near Athens, United States | 1910Athens, United States

American craft and textile artist.

Harriet Powers was a woman of African descent, born into slavery near Athens, Georgia in 1834. The majority of her early life was spent on the plantation of John and Nancy Lester in Madison County, Georgia. Sewing in Antebellum America was an essential skill most enslaved women learned at an early age from the other slaves, and sometimes from the mistress of the plantation. H. Powers married at nineteen, had nine children and lived to become free during an era of extreme challenges and often violent obstacles for African Americans and especially women. Very little is known about the specifics of the Powers’ life. However, her deft technical skills and visionary artistic brilliance created two extraordinary hand- and machine-pieced and stitched storytelling quilts: Bible Quilt (1886) and Pictorial Quilt (1898), now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, respectively. These two quilts remain as critical, unparalleled examples of works executed by a woman of African descent “telling” her stories of her very real African-American experiences that are crucial to a more authentic narrative of the whole history of America’s past, present and future through the artistry of textile creations.

H. Powers could not read or write but through her technical prowess with needle, thread, appliquéd fabrics and her innate observations of environmental phenomena and impassioned biblical beliefs, she visualised monumental artistic vision and storytelling that combined her witness of natural occurrences that she connected to the powers of an almighty God. These two quilts are the only known survivals of H. Powers’ creativity. They demonstrate how sewing became an act of “subversive stitching” – a metaphor for resistance, resilience and a means to express her artistic intent, intellect and agency. These extraordinary quilts reveal the masterful genius of an enslaved woman having to negotiate the extremes of a harsh and brutal existence. Historians, critics and curators have classified H. Powers as a “folk” artist given the too often male-driven biases of America’s attitudes and practices towards poor, undereducated, citizens of colour. Researchers are realising that she was an intellect who most likely learned her craft from enslaved Africans who came to the Americas with generations of technical knowledge and complex aesthetic traditions embedded in their memories.

African oral transmission of knowledge prevailed, leaving indelible artistic imprints that transcended the fact that reading and writing were forbidden for enslaved persons. The artistry of H. Powers, when compared to the ceremonial textiles of the Benin and Dahomey civilisations of West Africa reflect the distinctive impact of cultural diffusion and stylistic similarities in H. Powers’ artistry. African aesthetic and oral traditions are not “folk” idioms. African cultures have been established through centuries of complex practices and belief systems, grounded in those ancient and ancestral legacies. H. Powers was an agent of change, hidden in plain view, inscribing with needle, thread and scrapes of fibre the tenacity and brilliance of an aesthetic that continues to survive through innovation, improvisation and invention against all odds.

Leslie King-Hammond

A biography produced as part of “The Origin of Others” research programme, in partnership with the Clark Art Institute.


© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Harriet Powers — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, detail, 1895-1898, cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted, 266.7 x 175 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Harriet Powers — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Harriet Powers, Bible Quilt, 1885-1886, padding, cotton, 191 x 227 cm, National Museum of American History

Harriet Powers — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Harriet Powers, Quilt, detail, 1885-1886, padding, cotton, 191 x 227 cm, National Museum of American History

Harriet Powers — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Harriet Powers, Pictorial Quilt, 1895, cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted, 175 x 266.7 cm, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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