As a 19-year-old college student, Arroyo Grande quilt artist Denise Sheridan traveled to South Africa to witness injustice in action.
“What (the trip) allowed us to do was to … learn things about South Africa, about apartheid, about the people who were subjugated under that type of government,” Sheridan, 58, said. “What was important to them? How were they resisting, struggling against this?”
That March 1975 trip is the inspiration behind Sheridan’s latest hand-appliquéd, hand-quilted work of art.
“In the Fortress of the Enemy, You Inspired Us” will be displayed at the International Quilt Convention Africa in July in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of an exhibition honoring the life and legacy of late Southern African president and activist Nelson Mandela.
The quilt is the latest in a series of high-profile quilts by the Compton-born artist, who grew up in Los Angeles.
Her quilt "From Kenya to Kansas the World Rejoices" was displayed in Washington, D.C., in 2008, as part of the exhibition "Quilts for Obama: Celebrating the Inauguration of Our 44th President."
Other artworks include a series of jazz-inspired quilts (“Fruit of the Spirit,” “Second Line King”) and a meditation on breakfast food icon Aunt Jemima, "Will the Real Jemima Please Stand Up and Claim Her Inheritance?”
“For me, quilting has always been a very cathartic experience,” said the retired Cal Poly administrator, now an Africana studies lecturer with the school’s ethnic studies department. “It’s a very healing, very self-reflective process for me, and a very spiritual process for me.”
Sheridan described her new quilt as her most personal project to date. It’s the first she’s made since the death of her first husband, Chris Campbell, five years ago; she has since remarried.
Visit to South Africa
Sheridan was studying psychology at UC Irvine when she took a leave of absence in the spring of 1975 to participate in the study abroad program World Campus Afloat, known today as Semester at Sea.
She and about 500 other students, most of them American, spent about four months visiting approximately 15 African and Asian countries. A key stop was South Africa, then controlled by laws prohibiting people of color from living, working and socializing in the same places as whites.
Although some of the traveling professors and students called for boycotting the country in protest, Sheridan and her fellow black students — about a dozen in all — chose not to participate.
She said the students decided to go ashore so they’d be prepared to answer “our families and our friends and our community members when they asked us, ‘What it was like to be in South Africa under apartheid as a black person?’ …’”
“We didn’t want to come back home and say, “I don’t know. I can’t tell you. … We chose to boycott, so we don’t have any stories to tell you,’” Sheridan explained.
As Sheridan’s quilt reveals, she and her peers discovered gross inequality during their weeklong stay with South African host families.
Carefully stitched scenes based on old photographs show black students posing in front of a taxi sporting a “White Only” sign, and marveling over what Sheridan jokingly called “black propaganda”: copies of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines and albums by The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder.
In turn, South African students gave their visitors poetry and political writings to publish abroad.
“We had representation and documentation of what black people could do if they were allowed and given the opportunity,” Sheridan said. “We understood how significant it was that these young people were trying to figure out a way to have a different life.”
Sheridan’s quilt also pays tribute to South Africa’s civil rights leaders, depicting the Robben Island prison where Mandela was held for 18 years as a political prisoner.
South African activist Ela Gandhi, who spent nine years under house arrest during apartheid, can be seen posing with a portrait of her grandfather, Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Sheridan said Mandela’s death in December made her quilt even more meaningful.
“In the Fortress of the Enemy, You Inspired Us” will be one of 68 quilts featured in the exhibition “Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela,” organized by Michigan State University Museum and the Women of Color Quilters Network.
Author and quilt scholar Carolyn L. Mazloomi, who founded the network, said the exhibition will tour South Africa for a year, then spend two years traveling the United States. In addition, the quilts will be featured in an upcoming book of the same title.
Sheridan plans to celebrate the exhibition’s opening in person at the International Quilt Convention Africa. She’s eager to see how South Africa has changed during her nearly 40-year absence.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel to be there after oh-so-many years,” she said. “I’m trying to get emotionally ready for it.”