The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts

11 May – 6 August, 2023

Installation view of The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts. Photo by Steve Farmer. 

Virtual Exhibition Tour: EnglishFrançais

The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts is a collaboration between the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS), and the Vale Quilters Association, a group comprised of mostly Black women from the Vale Road area of New Glasgow, and Nova Scotia’s only incorporated guild of Black quilters. 

The Secret Codes  explores the unique tradition and evolution of quilt making in Nova Scotia’s Black communities over the past century. Presenting works by more than twenty-five quiltmakers and painters, the exhibition highlights the ways that quilts have functioned as decorated blankets, as coded communication for people escaping slavery, as documentary records of community and family history, as a celebration of Black women and Black culture, and as a foundation for other art forms.  

This multifaceted exhibition features traditional quilts and contemporary designs based on the motifs of the Underground Railroad “secret code” patterns. Quilts with these patterns were believed to have been draped in windows and over clotheslines to convey certain messages. Their simple geometry and recognizable forms veiled vital information and warnings about the refuges and dangers along the journey. 

Expanding on quilt making’s narrative potential, and evoking the tradition of the itinerant storyteller, Curator David Woods travelled throughout the province to collect stories that reflect on the experiences of life in African Nova Scotian communities. He created a series of drawings inspired by his journeys, and has encouraged local quiltmakers to interpret these images in their own way. Each quilt conveys the maker’s individual sense of design and detail, collectively imbuing the scenes with the many voices of community.  

Quilt making traditions evolve to reflect the changing needs, interests, and contexts of the makers and their communities, and can define how and why communities come together. Many quilts in the exhibition are examples of patterns that have been handed down for generations, and they share a space with contemporary picture quilts and paintings by artists inspired by the common language of quilt making: pattern, colour, shape, texture. Other quilts have been made by multi-generational families and collectives who have gathered together to create communal projects. All can be understood as codes that signify the stories and histories that weave through African Nova Scotian culture, the vital role of community and shared experiences, and the persistence–and evolutionof traditions. 

Quiltmakers: Myla Borden, Marilyn Brannan, Robyn Cain, Anja Clyke, Edith Colley, Heather Cromwell, Sara Donovan, Frances Dorrington, Marlene Dorrington, Laurel Francis, Rosella Fraser, Debra Jordan, Susan Lawrence, Shirley MacKenzie, Frances 'Fanny' Miller, Melinda Clayton Patterson, Andrea Tsang Jackson, and Annie Whalen

Painters: Ibe Ananaba, Justin Augustine, Letitia Fraser, Shawn Skeir, and David Woods

From the communities of Dartmouth, Digby, East Preston, Halifax, New Glasgow, North Preston, Ottawa, Pincher Creek (AB), Toronto, Upper Big Tracadie, and Winnipeg.

The Secret Codes Education Guide

DAG gratefully acknowledges the funding contribution from the Museums Assistance Program with the Department of Canadian Heritage.