Nora Renick-Rinehart and Nellie Kurz
The Code Quilt (2008)
Cotton bandannas, thread, yarn, hand and machine made quilting
Queen sized
Installation view (l-r) Wison, Rinehart/Kurz, Ahearn (background), Monday, Buitron (foreground).
Nora Renick-Rinehart and Nellie Kurz
The Code Quilt (2008)
Cotton bandannas, thread, yarn, hand and machine made quilting
Queen sized
Nora Renick-Rinehart and Nellie Kurz

The United States of America has a deep and secret tradition of codes. Of these codes, the history of the intricate patterns sewn into quilts by African slaves in the United States is one of the most intriguing.  Different patterns would communicate a different message such as what to bring, when to leave, even specific directions in which to travel and the locations of safe-houses.

The story of these quilts is fascinating and there is an undeniable comparison between the codes used by the Underground Railroad and those used by historically closeted Gays and Lesbians; yet another of our secret cultural histories.  Although the experiences of the slaves are by no means the same as those of a hidden queer community, the similarities are startling.  For example, fabric based codes were used for silent communication in both cultures.  Slaves used recycled fabric, often their discarded clothing, to create the quilts mentioned above.  When the appropriate time came, these quilts would be hung on a fence, windowsill or clothes line to "air out" signaling to knowing eyes an intentional and detailed message.  Similarly, gay men historically (and more recently gay women and gender queer individuals) utilized a nuanced "hanky code" to indicate both sexual preference and intimate details of sexual taste.

This quilt combines the quilt code used by the Underground Railroad and the Hanky Code used by the queer community in an attempt to jumpstart a conversation between two minorities that have both endured oppression and been forced to use alternative methods of communication.  By combining the information contained in the colors of the hankies and the structural patterns of the quilt blocks the quilt becomes a sort of sexual identity sampler for hypothetical queer individuals. For example, the top left corner of the quilt features a Monkey Wrench quilt square made out of mint green and cobalt blue bandanas with a black border. The Monkey Wrench pattern traditionally alerted slaves that they should gather all the physical and mental tools necessary for their long and arduous journey to freedom. We have reinterpreted this symbology to not only represent social and emotional tools but also sex toys. With the mint bandana representing transgender and the cobalt bandana historically representing a cop, one translation of this “identity” could be: “I’m a transgendered cop with the emotional tools to fight for my place in society.” The black border also indicates that this individual is a sexual “top.” (Artists will provide all material necessary to “read” the quilt to be included with the piece for display.)

The histories of queers and racial minorities have often overlapped- especially in cases of extreme oppression and acts of silencing. It is our belief that only by engaging each other conversations about those histories and by building cooperative communities that we will truly be able to move forward toward the end of oppression for all peoples.

Nora Renick-Rinehart and Nellie Kurz
The Code Quilt (2008)
Cotton bandannas, thread, yarn, hand and machine made quilting
Queen sized