African Quilts 6 CMYKIn celebration of African Heritage Month, UNB’s Memorial Hall is hosting The Secret Codes exhibition. The display of art is not the usual paint smeared across canvas kind of show, but rather a showboat of colourful hand-woven quilts.

When we think of quilting most of us can picture a grandmother sitting down to a cup of tea, spending the afternoon working on her favourite past-time—the end product resulting in a warm safekeep to lay lazily at the bottom of your bed. The Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia is lifting the quilting stereotype by using the forgotten art form as a vehicle for storytelling and community history.

In 2007, BANNS organized the Vale Quiltmakers Association, based in New Glasgow, N.S. The association aims to promote quiltmaking in Black communities across Nova Scotia. In lieu of this historical month, the quilters have teamed up with artist and curator David Woods, and have stepped outside of their home province as a means to encourage art and culture not only in Fredericton, but nationwide.

This show marks the first time that the textured art experience has toured beyond Nova Scotia.

African Quilts 11 CMYKThe title The Secret Codes refers to the alleged use of quilts as a secret means of communication during the time of slavery in the United States.

Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill or pinned on a clothesline passed on colourful encrypted messages to slaves. During the time it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write—making slaves rely on these quilts as symbolic instructions or maps to a safe location. These codes became important to slaves’ existence and their route to freedom, which eventually became known as the Underground Railroad.

The exhibit of 25 quilts by 12 quilters ranges from simple images to complex and diverse patterns. Some of the most common patterns during the underground operation were “monkey wrench” and “wagon wheel.”

There is no written proof the codes in the quilt patterns actually existed. What remains are the stories passed down through generations—much like the tradition of quilting.

The Secret Codes exhibition will be on display at Memorial Hall until the end of the month.