Sunday, March 26, 2006

IP and Gender: The Unmapped Connections: Vicki Phillips

Vicki Phillips: How to Commodify an American Quilt: The Women of Gee’s Bend

Kathy Ireland now sells designs based on quilts from a remote rural community in Southwest Alabama, Gee’s Bend, where former slaves stayed on as sharecroppers. FDR declared it the poorest community in the poorest county in the country. His administration granted loans to many people there, who bought the land they’d been working. The women of Gee’s Bend quilted together – though the top was pieced together alone, reflecting a woman’s individual creativity, and then the rest was assembled communally.

Quilting was the only thing controllable in these women’s lives. Their techniques developed in isolation as a mix of African and American traditions, along with the crossword puzzles and comic strips tacked on to their homes as insulation. A civil rights activist came and bought many in the 60s, then sent an assistant to work with the women on improving the consistency of the quilts and on changing the designs to more recognizable “craft” patterns. This increased regional income 25%, and the women quilted according to contractual specifications. But they continued to make their own designs at night.

Cheap machine-made quilts made this quilting bee’s profits wane. The civil rights workers went home and the rural isolation returned. In 1998, an art scholar and collector came across a photo of a Gee’s Bend quilter and quilt. He went to Gee’s Bend and bought 700, from $100-$125 each. He also contracted for the IP rights to pre-1984 quilts (though it’s unclear what the contracts actually are).

In cooperation with the Houston Fine Arts Museum and the nonprofit to which he transferred the rights, he created an exhibition of quilts that traveled around the country. The NYT hailed them as miracles of modern art, like Matisse and Klee. A number of spinoff corporations sell books, CDs of the quilters singing spirituals, and documentaries. And there’s a marketing arm with an aggressive licensing program, including the deal with Kathy Ireland (which includes not just linens and rugs but candles). You can also buy replica quilts, along with rulers, scarves, ties, cards, and rugs. Ireland is committed to exploiting the designs both tastefully and recognizably. In the ultimate sign of commodification, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend also offers a Visa gift card with a quilt design.

The nonprofit pays a royalty on pre-1984 designs even though the collector allegedly purchased the IP rights, and also licenses post-1984 designs from the quilters. The collector is modeling his actions after the French droit de suite, so the quilters continue to benefit after alienating their rights.

So is it all good? In the novel How to Make an American Quilt, one character says that anyone who’d buy a quilt is immoral; quilts are the anti-commodity, made individually within the family and bound up in the women’s personhood. The quilters of Gee’s Bend never intended their products to reach the marketplace (though surely after the 60s they knew it was possible). Incentives came and went, but love created those quilts, a love that stayed invisible (at least to outsiders).

What do we want to be marketable/in the market? Phillips rejects the false dichotomy that something is either commodified or not. (Here I thought of Viviana Zelizer’s excellent work, particularly the recent The Purchase of Intimacy.) Does commodification come at too great a cost? Arguably the women of Gee’s Bend are alienating themselves, stripping away the personhood, meaning, and context of the quilts. Salman Rushdie says that those who lack the power to retell the story of their lives are the truly powerless – though it seems to me that the women of Gee’s Bend are doing a lot of retelling, especially to Kathy Ireland’s customers. It’s just a retelling that involves packaged nostalgia. Phillips suggests that incomplete commodification can be worthwhile, if it happens with appropriate restrictions; we have to look at the alternatives for Gee’s Bend, and there aren’t that many.

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