Berkeley museum names curator for African American quilts
By Lou Fancher
When good fortune arrives, it’s always best to have talent on tap to take care of it. Dr. Elaine Yau’s appointment as BAMPFA’s first associate curator for the Eli Leon Living Trust Collection of African American Quilts proves the point.
When the monumental treasure trove of the late Eli Leon’s collection of nearly three thousand African American quilts was bequeathed in 2018 to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, everyone knew a master curator was needed to take charge of the artwork. Yau was in the wings, having curated a retrospective in 2019 with former BAMPFA Director Lawrence Rinder of quilts by Richmond’s Rosie Lee Tompkins along with other items drawn from Leon’s collection.
“It was as the co-curator of our Rosie Lee Tompkins retrospective that Elaine truly demonstrated her mastery of this material,” says Julia White, BAMPFA’s senior curator for Asian art. “In assembling the exhibition, she brought not just scholarly rigor but a deep sensitivity and thoughtfulness to the task of illuminating the complicated story of Rosie Lee Tompkins and her remarkable body of work.”
White makes special mention of the introductory essay Yau wrote for the exhibition catalog, “The Craft and Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins,” calling it “one of the most meticulously crafted biographical essays ever written about this understudied artist.”
Yau has a bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree and doctorate in the history of art from UC Berkeley. She has taught at UC Berkeley and Azusa Pacific University. Before her graduate studies and work in the Bay Area, Yau was a curatorial research assistant at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Elaine Yau is the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive's first associate curator for the Eli Leon Living Trust Collection of African American Quilts.
In her new position at BAMPFA, Yau will curate the first major exhibit of Leon’s collection, scheduled to open in August 2023. The collection includes work by more than 400 artists and quilt-making practices that extend across the United States from the Mississippi Delta to the West Coast. Artists represented include Tompkins, Willia Ette Graham, Johnnie Wade, Arbie Williams, Angie Tobias, Gladys Henry, Laverne Brackens, Sherry Byrd and, importantly, many lesser-known artists whose work has never before been featured in a prominent museum.
“There are several generational lines of quilters,” says Yau, highlighting one possible approach to exhibiting the collection. “Gladys Henry, Laverne Brackens and Sherry Byrd are a grandmother, a mother and a granddaughter. There’s an opportunity to think about how quilting as a tradition typically passed down through generations.”
Other enlightening perspectives might focus on Leon’s Bay Area collection story. He lived in Oakland, and his art collecting forays were often in Oakland and Berkeley flea markets and throughout the Bay Area African American quilting community. Yau says BAMPFA’s history of presenting abstract work makes the museum well-poised to reframe quilts as a form of abstract art and quilt-making as craft.
“There’s excitement about how the collection can enrich the strict way of thinking about abstract expression that is narrowly defined by painting, collage, sculpture. Quilting as a different medium — what does it add to that conversation?”
In collaboration with other UC Berkeley departments and rich resources such as the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Yau imagines folklore programs with students gathering oral histories or partnering with the digital humanities program to conduct research, create mapping and otherwise mine the work for data.
“A smart group of students could reveal new truths about how these quilts have moved across the country from where they were made to California,” she suggests. “A material scientist might collaborate with conservation students. That might be fascinating.”
Museum training for graduates who wish to practice collection-based research in sponsored internships to assist with the cataloguing process and to combine Leon’s meticulous slides and data into a searchable, digitized file are just two initiatives Yau is considering. Critical to the planning process is community outreach and inclusion of members of local African American quilting guilds, the Women of Color Quilters Network, Black essayists and living, contemporary quilters.
“Quilts are such a significant part of the Black experience, so the cultural history is important,” she says.
In the collection are quilters Leon nominated for National Heritage Fellowships. Most immediately, the quilts will stretch the paradigm for cataloguing art at BAMPFA. Typical fact-gathering for the museum’s 28,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, ceramics, mutlimedia artwork and artifacts includes each artist’s birth and death dates and locations, training, physical descriptions of the artwork’s dimension, medium and its exhibition history. Quilts are multifaceted, which introduces the fabric content and even the thread: Is it silk, cotton, rayon or polyester?
“The fabric could be silk taffeta, or a denim cotton or a polyester double knit,” Yau says.
Materials hold cultural and geographic significance, as do the quilts’ makers and intended recipients.
“Was it given to a family member, a church or organization? These layers of meaning follow quilts and require our consideration.”
To make the cataloguing useful for quilters today, descriptions might include quilt construction.
“A category new to me was stitches-per-inch that is of technical interest,” she says.
Handed what is projected to be a three-year endeavor culminating in a major exhibit — an ambitious undertaking made exponentially more complex by the pandemic’s screening and distancing restrictions — Yau is strategizing.
“Even rolling out and looking at some of the quilts is a huge physical process,” she says.
White expresses only confidence and says Yau has already “done incredible work to bring this collection to life” and that BAMPFA is excited to witness the expansion and future advancement of the Leon collection.