What is it?
Sharon Kerry-Harlan (b. Miami 1951)
Dye-discharged and screen-printed cotton twill
46 1/2 x 82 3/4 in.
Gifted 2020, Claire Rolfs
About the Work
Like countless generations of young girls, Sharon Kerry-Harlan learned to quilt from her mother. As a folk art learned and practiced in a domestic setting, quilting is imbued with memories of home and childhood. Even for an internationally exhibiting artist like Kerry-Harlan, a quilt offers an opportunity for personal associations. The human face figures prominently in her work with a mask-like quality that refers both to the metaphorical masks people wear in everyday life and the tradition of West African masks, which serve a ceremonial role in channeling the spirit world. Kerry-Harlan’s faces suggest there is more to her subjects than meets the eye.
Her quilt Locks is a case in point. It depicts a young Black girl with jutting pigtails. She looks self-conscious. Her unruly hair is not the type that society celebrates as beautiful, and she is surrounded by a barrage of slogans advertising products that promise perfect hair. Like this fictional girl, similar messaging overwhelms young women in our contemporary world.
The ochre-toned fabric is Kerry-Harlan’s signature. The effect is achieved through two separate processes. First, she ‘discharge dyes’ the fabric by using diluted bleach to remove color from the quilt, blanching it to an earthy hue, and then screen printing directly onto the quilted fabric. This piece started with black cotton twill fabric, a choice that subtly underscores the quilt’s subject and larger social context.
Kerry-Harlan’s quilts have been exhibited at the Nelson Mandela Gateway Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York.