Harriett Powers Film Project



This project, intended for broadcast, non-theatrical distribution, and DVD tells the remarkable story of Harriett Powers of Athens, Georgia, a 19th-century religious artist who expressed herself in an unusual form: appliqué quilts. Only two of these masterpieces are known to have survived—one in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and the other in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The power of the artistic and religious vision underlying these rare works and the formal brilliance of their execution have made Harriett Powers the best known 19th-century African American quilt artist.

In her work, knowingly or unknowingly, Harriett Powers unites West African and Southern American traditions and cultures, reveals a profound understanding of religious thought, demonstrates the persistence of West African culture despite the crushing effects of slavery, and offers us insights into cultural expression and resistance during the reconstruction period in the post-civil-war South.

We do not know if there were direct historical or cultural connections between Harriett Powers and the masters of West African pictorial traditions in textile appliqué and bas-relief - the best known of which are the extraordinary works of appliqué and bas-relief visible today in the restored royal palaces of Abomey, Benin. To understand her work, it is not necessary to believe that she was aware of these traditions as Powers could have learned the crafts required and created her work without knowledge of the various, old West African traditions. But the similarities of form and craft allow us to marvel at the beauty, complexity, and continuity of culture and belief systems. (See the information provided by Prof. Joseph Adandé of the Université Nationale du Bénin at the Historical Museum of Abomey’s website for insights into the traditions of Benin.)

Harriett Powers’s artistic and religious work has caught the eye of tens of thousands of visitors to the museums where then they have been on view. And they have been an inspiration for writers as diverse as Alice Walker (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ) and Whitney Otto (How to Make an American Quilt), for scholars from Gladys-Marie Fry to Regenia Perry, Kyra Hicks, and Catherine Holmes, for authors of children’s literature (Mary E. Lyons’s Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers), for essayist/performers like Lucine Finch who wrote for the prestigious national weekly, The Outlook, and for dramatists like Grace Cavalieri (Stitching the Sun).

Since the 1880‘s, Harriett Powers’s artwork has captured the eyes and inspired the dreams of countless people who have come into contact with it by choice or by chance. With this project, we bring the story of Harriett Powers and her remarkable art to a broader public.



A project in honor of one of the great African American artists of the 19th century, Harriett Powers (1837-1910), whose surviving quilt works are national treasures in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To be directed by Charles Burnett

and produced by William Gilcher

Upper right:

Bible Quilt or “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. This image commissioned by Lorene Curtis Diver, early 1896, as it appeared in “A Sermon in Patchwork,” an article by Lucine Finch, The Outlook, October 28, 1914. an original print of the photograph is held by the Smithsonian.

Left from top to bottom:

Quilt block showing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as photographed by the Smithsonian after acquisition of the quilt in 1968 (image 75-2985) and (black and white) in a photograph commissioned by Lorene Curtis Diver in 1896.

Harriett Powers, in a carte-de-visite photograph (2 1/4 x 3 3/4”) by Charles F. McDannell, Athens, Georgia, ca. 1896/97. Copies survive in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Lee County Historical Society, Keokuk, Iowa.