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Stateside Podcast: Afrofuturist quilts stitch together tradition and imagination

When you think about Afrofuturism, what pops into your head? Is it the sci-fi novels of writers Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, or N.K. Jemisin? Or perhaps you’ve tuned in more recently to the representation of Afrofuturism on the big screen in movies like Black Panther.

What about quilting?

While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Afrofuturist art, a new exhibit at Michigan State University showcases the Black artists using fabric and Afrofuturist themes to create unique works of art.

Liv Furman is one of the co-curators of the exhibit Afrofuturism & Quilts: Materializing Black Futures & Black Womxn’s Quilt Legacies, on display now through July 19 at the MSU Union Art Gallery. They are also a postdoctoral scholar in MSU's Department of African and African American Studies, and the assistant project director of the Black Diaspora Quilt History Project.

Furman's interest in African American quilting tradition is personal. Their grandmother Mary Furman taught them to quilt as a child. They said that time spent piecing quilts together was about more than the finished blanket.

"She taught me as a way to, you know, spend time with me and to talk. Because when you quilt, it's hours of doing repetitive motions, so you often talk," Furman explained. "And I think that that also has to do with the quiltmaking praxis that is particular to African-American communities. The quilt making also has that community building aspect."

Furman said that the explicit aesthetics of modern Afrofuturism have been making their way into quilt artists' creations for decades now. But even before then, Furman said, the historical function of quilting was very much in line with the liberatory philosophy of Afrofuturism as it's understood today.

"And I think that many, especially, black women and femmes folks who use quilt making to liberate themselves by like, earning money for their families, literally making quilts to keep their children warm, to keep them safe and cared for. And as you mentioned earlier, as gifts, you know, as an outpouring of love. I think that the function of quilts for many quilt makers has already been serving the same function of Afrofuturism."

For Furman, quilting has been a way to connect to their own past while also focusing on what they want their future to look like. Furman's own quilt in the exhibit "Get Free" features black footprints representing the Black women who have influenced their path in life so far. One thing that they hope visitors to the exhibit take away is the inspiration to try quilting themselves.

"[Quilting] is an accessible medium that folks can use to imagine their own futures, especially if we're thinking about it in terms of Afrofuturism... It is something that will allow you to connect with the ancestral past, but also carry that into our future."

Hear the full conversation with Liv Furman above.

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Aaron Bush is a production assistant with Stateside and a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan's joint program in English and Education.
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.