view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA

Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective showcasing never-before-seen works

On February 19, 2020, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) opened a massive retrospective of nearly seventy works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, drawing on a historic bequest of African American quilts.

A fortunate gift

An internationally renowned artist based in Richmond, CA, Tompkins (1936-2006) contributed more than five hundred quilts to the collection of Eli Leon, a scholar and advocate for African American quiltmaking traditions who donated his entire collection of nearly three thousand works to BAMPFA. Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective marks the first exhibition at BAMPFA of Tompkins’s work since this transformative bequest, and it includes dozens of quilts that have never been exhibited previously.

view of the exhibition,  ©  Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA
view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA

An Oakland-based psychologist, collector, and art scholar, Eli Leon (1935-2018) spent more than thirty years assembling his collection of African American quilts, which encompasses the large majority of Rosie Lee Tompkins’s total body of work. Leon was a close friend and early champion of Tompkins, organizing at the Richmond Art Center one of the first exhibitions to feature her quilts. He also worked with BAMPFA in 1997 to organize the first solo exhibition of Tompkins’s work; that exhibition was curated by BAMPFA’s current director and chief curator Lawrence Rinder, who is co-organizing the exhibition with Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Elaine Yau. The exhibition features sixty-seven works by Tompkins, making it the largest retrospective that the artist has ever received.

view of the exhibition,  ©  Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA
view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA

BAMPFA learned of the bequest only after Leon passed away in 2018, having willed his African American quilt collection to the museum. Since receiving the bequest, BAMPFA has undertaken an extensive process of research and condition assessment for these holdings, which has never been comprehensively cataloged until now. A subsequent exhibition showcasing the broader collection—with works by Tompkins as well as by many other important artists, including Sherry Byrd, Willia Ette Graham, and Arbie Williams—is planned for early 2022.

view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA
view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA

Born Effie Mae Howard in 1936 in Arkansas, the artist later adopted the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins. She learned quilting from her mother as a child but did not begin to practice the craft seriously until the 1980s, when she relocated to the Bay Area. Often inspired by her belief in God, Tompkins made quilts directed toward her own healing and spirituality and to honor family members. She employed a wide variety of traditional patterns, including half-squares, medallions, and yo-yos, exploring and adapting these approaches through her individual sensibility and integrating such favorite fabrics as velvet, artificial fur, and various types of glittery material. She also frequently incorporated embroidery—stitching words and citations of Christian scripture—as well as printed images on recycled clothes, which suggest the artist’s commentary on contemporary social, political, and cultural events.

view of the exhibition,  ©  Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA
view of the exhibition, © Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective BAMPFA

Rosie Lee Tompkins was an astonishingly original and visionary artist whose work delivers a powerful visual, emotional, and even spiritual experience. “Drawing on the rich history of quilting in the African American community, Tompkins’s formally and technically innovative work also defies conventions and expectations. Overlaying references to personal experience with an evocation of cosmic grandeur, Tompkins combines the personal and the universal in works of sensual richness and aesthetic grace.”

Rosie Lee Tompkins © Rosie Lee Tompkins
Rosie Lee Tompkins © Rosie Lee Tompkins
Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective
BAMPFA
From February 19th to –
2155 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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About the author

Oceane Kinhouande

After graduating with a law degree from the University Panthéon-Assas Paris II, I joined ICART Paris to pursue an MBA in International Art Market. I am passionate about contemporary art from Africa and Afro-descendant cultures. I believe it is vital and important that contemporary art from Africa informs us about the multiplicity and nuances of its realities. It is also very important to me that this artistic expression be a vector of African and Afro-descendant history, identity and innovation.

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