Qunnie Pettway was an acclaimed quilter of the close-knit community of African American women living in rural Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Gee’s Bend is part of the Black Belt, a narrow peninsula by a bend in the Alabama River, whose name is derived from both the color of its soil and its historically African American population, descendants of slaves.
Quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend goes back to the 19th century, perhaps influenced by native American or patterned African traditions when slave women sewed pieces of cloth together for blankets. The women of Gee’s Bend continued this quilting tradition through post-bellum years and into the 20th century. For over a century these women have been making powerful abstract compositions that would hold their own with the artists of Abstract Expressionism.
The women quilters of Gee’s Bend first gained national attention in the 1960s for the quality of its quilts which were shown in a traveling exhibition in Houston and then at the Whitney Museum in 2002. The large-scale, bold designs, and geometric blocks of fabric in various colors caught viewers by surprise as they were introduced to a new concept of abstraction in quilting. Many compared these works most favorably with abstract art.
There are more than four dozen Pettway women who have made and who continue to make quilts, the oldest of these women having been born in 1894. Annie E. Pittway (1904-1972) has her 1935 “Flying Geese Variation Quilt” on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the exhibition, “Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African-American South.” Annie Mae Young (1928-2013) and Mary Lee Bendoph (b. 1936) have had their work shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” 2019. Qunnie Pettway’s daughter, Loretta Pettway Bennett, is among the fifth generation of Gee’s Bend quilters.