Contemporary Craft in Focus: Portrait of Resilience

Media - 2021.35 - SAAM-2021.35_1 - 142805

Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Portrait of Resilience, from the Flag Series2020, dye discharge fabric, antique quilt fabric, vinyl, flag fabric, and African print fabric, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Kenneth R. Trapp Acquisition Fund, 2021.35, © 2021, Sharon Kerry-Harlan

Sharon Kerry-Harlan’s Portrait of Resilience pieces together materials and symbols from the past and present to create a portrait of a Black American in this current moment. In this large-scale, mixed-media quilt, Kerry-Harlan depicts a girl with a youthful bubble braid. Each bubble is haloed with the crownlike appearance of a COVID-19 particle. Her blouse is constructed of an antique patchwork quilt, and she wears a golden necklace made with faux leather that notes the year the piece was made, 2020. She stares directly at us with large, dark-brown almond-shaped eyes outlined with eyelids of sparkly gold. Her lips and nose are made of a commercial cotton American flag, and the bows accenting her braid are made of African kente cloth. 

My large-scale quilts and paper collages pay tribute to the longstanding practice of sewing together disparate scraps to form a cohesive whole—a quilting tradition present in both West African and modern African American communities.

Reflecting on current events—including the effects of the pandemic—that have affirmed structures of racism in American society, Kerry-Harlan writes, “despite these dire situations, resilience remains among African Americans and their allies to realize a better future.” The artist’s process, quilting, inspires a way forward rooted in generational togetherness, empowering the young girl with the strength of the community. The stitches carry the stories of pain, but they also mend and bring comfort.

Kerry-Harlan grew up learning art and participating in art competitions and exhibitions. Her mother was a skilled quilter and her uncle, Marion Sampler, was an educator, artist, and leading African American graphic designer, known for his collages and geometric abstractions. Her own work integrates collage, textile, photography, and painting, often using the same materials in a series of interconnected works. Portrait of Resilience, is part of her Flag Series.

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World marks the 50th anniversary of SAAM’s Renwick Gallery by celebrating the dynamic landscape of American craft. The exhibition explores how artists—including Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and women artists—have crafted spaces for daydreaming, stories of persistence, models of resilience, and methods of activism that resonate today. In order to craft a better world, it must first be imagined. This story is part of a series that takes a closer look at selected artists and artworks with material drawn from exhibition texts, the catalogue, and artists' reflections.