KunstWorks honors African-American art and history in Berkeley

Between 1940 and 1970, millions of African-Americans left the South, seeking employment opportunities in the North and West. Poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and rigid segregation and discrimination caused the move. Many families established communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially Berkeley, where they could find steady work in shipyards, steel construction, and other industries boosted by the wartime efforts and government job programs.They established businesses, churches, community centers, and city infrastructure, impacting Berkeley’s cultural, economic, and social makeup.

Many African Americans who moved from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas in this Second Great Migration had reached old age by the late 1970s, when artist Jeannie O’Connor taught photography classes at senior centers in Berkeley. Between 1979 and 1982, O’Connor documented the daily activities of the mostly black senior community, as they gardened, took art classes, exercised, and went on field trips. O’Connor also took portraits of the seniors, and made copies of their family photographs they had brought with them from the South. KunstWorks is working with O’Connor on placing this important visual archive in museums and libraries.

In the 1970s, a Berkeley psychologist Eli Leon (1935-2018) began purchasing quilts made by members of a large community of African-American quilt makers he met at Bay Area flea markets. Most of these quilt makers also belonged to the generation of the Second Great Migration and brought the quilting traditions from the South. Drawn to their irregular, improvisatory patterns, Leon devoted his life to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting this historically significant artwork. His groundbreaking scholarship connected the unique quilting patterns to West and Central African textiles. KunstWorks is working with the Eli Leon Trust to finalize the placement of the collection in major American museums, following Leon’s intent to make the collection publicly available for study and research.

Put-together , pieced by Rosie Lee Tompkins, Richmond, California, 1985. Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, Oakland, California, 1986. Velvet, velveteen, velour, panné velvet, chenille; backed with cotton sheeting, cotton-poly broadcloth. 74 x 82 inches.

Put-together, pieced by Rosie Lee Tompkins, Richmond, California, 1985. Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, Oakland, California, 1986. Velvet, velveteen, velour, panné velvet, chenille; backed with cotton sheeting, cotton-poly broadcloth. 74 x 82 inches.