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Michigan State University

MSU Museum, Smithsonian partner to preserve work by African American artists

For textile artist Diana Baird N’Diaye, there’s not a strict way to classify the work she and other Black creators make.

“African American crafts are obviously crafts made by African American artists or makers ranging from textiles to ceramics to woodworking to metalsmithing, but rooted in African American history and identity,” she explained.

N’Diaye is the senior curator and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage. In the past few years, she realized how few of her Black peers were being recognized.

Smithsonian curator Diana Baird N'Diaye and MSU Museum curator Marsha MacDowell are longtime colleagues who are partnering on this new project preserving the legacy of African American crafts.

“We’d noticed that there are around six people who, for every craft exhibition, every award, every time that they were mentioned, it was the same six to 10 people.”

N’Diaye says it’s part of a larger problem for older African American crafts artists who do not have the shared resources or knowledge to catalogue their pieces.

“If they pass on, many times the families may not know what to do, say, ‘Oh, you know, we knew that Aunt Betty made these wonderful quilts, but we don’t know what to do with them,'” she said.

We're working to train museums to work with communities to interview and help elder artists to learn to archive their own work, to document their own work.
Diana Baird N'Diaye, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

During the pandemic, N’Diaye helped organize a series of virtual meetings with dozens of Black artists to create a database of their work. Those conversations led her to help create the African American Craft Initiative within the Smithsonian.

“We’re working to train museums to work with communities to interview and help elder artists to learn to archive their own work, to document their own work,” N’Diaye said.

The Michigan State University Museum is among those selected to participate, particularly for its extensive collection of African and African American quilts.

“What we’re doing now is following up on some of those quilters that we have worked with in Michigan,” said Marsha MacDowell, the museum’s curator of quilts and folk arts.

Those include artists whose work is catalogued through the Black Diaspora Quilt History Project at MSU’s Quilt Index, a digital database of information on quilts and their makers which has been active for two decades.

As an example of the type of pieces she works with, MacDowell points out a quilt made by a Remus, Michigan-based mother and daughter duo, Ione Todd and Deonna Green.

The "Todd Family Quilt" tells the story of Deonna Green and Ione Todd's ancestors, including an escape from slavery and their family's resettlement in Michigan
Deonna Green handstitched recreations of family records like this death certificate.
Some quilt blocks include names of relatives while others depict parts of daily life like a flock of chickens kept by the Todds.

“They undertook a family documentation project. They visited archives. They interviewed relatives, gathered stories about their own Todd family history, and this quilt visually documents the results of their research,” MacDowell said.

Each quilt block contains something important to their family history from names of relatives to maps of plots of land they owned as well as depictions of the lives they lived like a homestead and a flock of chickens. Green also carefully stitched her ancestors’ handwriting to recreate important documents.

“It emanates out from the first couple who came from Kentucky, formerly enslaved great-great grandfather, and then the next set of blocks is the next generation and the next generation and then out,” MacDowell explains.

Documenting and exhibiting pieces like the Todd Family History Quilt in museums is one of the ultimate goals of the project.

“Now we’re going into spaces that where African Americans were not seen, and places like, you know, galleries and museum exhibitions and so on,” N’Diaye said. “We are able to see the impact of this project.”

The final phase of the collaboration which will wrap up by the end of the year includes developing community programing to give more of these artists the tools they need to present and archive their work.

Listen to the interview at

By Sophia Saliby, originally published by WKAR.

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