Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans in IndiA


Quilter at Mainalli village

The Siddis of Karnataka, India are the descendants of both early African immigrants to South Asia and enslaved Africans brought to Goa on India’s west coast by the Portuguese beginning in the 16th century. Gradually, they escaped slavery and moved southward into the remote Western Ghatt mountains of Northern Karnataka in order to create free, independent African diaspora communities.

While they have adopted, adapted, and integrated many aspects of Indian cultures, Siddis have also retained and transformed certain African traditions. In the visual arts, one tradition stands out: the patchwork quilts known as kawandi.

Used as both mattresses and covers, kawandi are made by women for their children and grandchildren. Walking through a Siddi village, kawandi are seen draped over fences, hung on lines, or spread on low roofs to be aired in the sun. Yet they are practically unknown outside Siddi communities, even within India.

Mixing together a vibrant array of well-worn clothing fabrics, Siddi quilts are highly individualistic, yet quilters share many clear and precise opinions about quality, beauty, and the need to “finish properly” the corners with triangular patches called phulas, or flowers. Catholic and Muslim Siddi women sometimes incorporate crosses or crescents in their designs, and baby quilts in particular are often bejeweled with lots of small, colorful patches called tikeli.

Call them art, crafts or textiles, these quilts are among the most extraordinary aesthetic objects to be seen in any New York museum right now.
— Roberta Smith review of Global Africa Project, New York Times, Dec 2, 2010

This exhibition is co-curated by Henry J. Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who first saw kawandi while documenting Siddi expressive culture in 2004 and Sarah K. Khan. All of the quilts in the exhibition are by members of the nonprofit Siddi Womens’ Quilting Cooperative, which is keeping this tradition alive and vibrant.

exhibit Contents:

  • 15 quilts
  • wall text panels
  • field photos
  • a film introducing Siddi history
  • culture and arts
  • print-ready brochures

(Larger versions of the show are available upon request.)


100-200 running feet

Fee: $6,000 plus shipping

Tour begins January 2010.

Quilter examining sari backing, Kendalgiri village