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Patching together culture and art

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By Laura Drinan
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Blankets evoke a sense of comfort. From infancy, their warmth and softness have soothed us and embodied the idea of safety. For Siddi quilt makers, blankets do more than provide a feeling of coziness - they symbolize a family’s history.

At Wellesley College’s Davis Museum, several African quilts, known as kawandi, hang on display for community members to see their amazingly vibrant colors in the exhibit “Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India.” As the exhibit’s title suggests, the quilts are sewn using scraps of fabric, and because they are handmade, no two quilts are alike.

Descendants of the enslaved East Africans who were brought to the Northern Karnataka region of India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Siddis use old pieces of clothing to create the artful and sentimental quilts.

One kawandi, created by Khatumbi Muzavar, features a remnant from an embroidered sari as the center of the quilt. Around it, vibrant rectangular patches overlap larger cuts of fabric and are stitched in place and framed by the border around the edges of the quilt. Although many viewers look at the quilt with a focus on the center, the Siddi quilters actually begin the quilt at the outer edges, stitching their way towards the middle.

The size of the quilt appears to be massive when it’s hung on the wall, and the didactic panel informs visitors that such a quilt is meant for three or more people and shows that it belongs to a large and growing family.

However, the exhibit also features smaller quilts, like Shanta Mingel’s kawandi made for a baby’s crib. This quilter explains that each kawandi requires a folded square patch on the corners to be considered a proper Siddi quilt. Her quilt features red and pink squares, known as phula, on the corners, which tie together the warm tones throughout her quilt.

Many of the kawandi also incorporate eye-catching details. Many of them have glittery threads on the patches, shiny sequins sewn on, and include shimmery fabrics.

With such detail poured into each quilt, it is clear to visitors that the Siddi quilts are true works of art, while simultaneously offering culture and function.

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