On July 15, the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco inaugurated the exhibit “Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India.” Curated by Henry J. Dewal, professor of African and African diaspora arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sarah K. Khan, director of The Tasting Cultures Foundation, New York, the exhibition displays 32 quilts, or kawandi, by members of Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative, a nonprofit in Karnataka, India.
Siddi is a term used to describe various South Asian communities of African origin—their presence is as far-reaching as Balochistan, Pakistan, and Junagadh, Gujarat. The collection at MoAD, however, comes specifically from descendants of Africans enslaved by the Portuguese in the 16th century and brought to Goa. Fleeing most notably during the Inquisition (1560-1812), the runaway slaves set up free communities in nearby Karnataka, which still exist.
Kawandi visually embody the interraciality and syncretism that occurred over centuries between Africans and Indians in Goa and Karnataka. Pieced together from saris and other fabric, the quilts may bear crescent-shaped ornamentation to signify the maker as a Muslim woman, while the works of Catholics incorporate cross motifs. Interestingly, Dumgi Bastav’s 2004 quilt, featured in the exhibition, bears both icons.
What is common to all kawandi is that they are considered incomplete if not embellished at the corners with layered triangular pieces. These are called phula, which in Konkanni, a language spoken in Goa and Karnataka, means flowers. The incorporation of this arguably vestigial adornment, both linguistic and artistic, alongside other cultural signifiers, emblematically bears witness to historical hybridity and contemporary culture in the everyday use quilts provide in Siddi households.
“Soulful Stitching” bills itself as the first exhibition of quilts by Siddis outside India. However, this legacy is little known within India itself. Generally, the cultural imaginary associates India’s experience with Africa through the British colonial-era diasporic presence of primarily Punjabis, Goans, and Gujaratis in the now free nation-states of East Africa. It was also from Africa’s east coast, ironically, that the Portuguese trafficked slaves and where, too, an Afro-Asiatic commerce existed prior to European contact.
MoAD’s exhibit here in the United States—a nation itself no stranger to the African slave trade—offers an opportunity to rethink Afro-Indian diasporic cultural heritage through the symbolic quilting together of these identities and their markers in the patchwork of kawandi.
Runs through September 18. Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD), 685 Mission St., San Francisco, 94105. (415) 358-7200. http://www.moadsf.org.