July 17, 2014
Written by Vernon Clark, Inquirer Staff Writer
Growing up in West Philadelphia, Betty Leacraft was drawn to the look and feel of fabric and its many creative uses.
"I've been sewing since I was a child," said Leacraft. "My maternal grandmother put the first needle and thread in my hand."
At Overbrook High School and Cheyney University, Leacraft developed a keen interest in African culture. Over the years, she combined those passions to create bold and colorful artwork as a fabric mixed-media artist.
Later this month, Leacraft will visit South Africa, where one of her works will be part of an exhibit of art quilts in tribute to the late President Nelson Mandela.
Artists invited to display quilts were asked to submit works honoring Mandela, the freedom fighter who became the country's first black president. He died last year at age 95.
The exhibit, titled Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela, features works by 90 artists, including 37 from the United States. It will be displayed from July 26-28 at the Emperor's Palace Convention Center in Johannesburg.
The exhibition will tour South Africa for about a year, officials said. It is organized by the Michigan State University Museum of Art and the Women of Color Quilters Network, a national organization.
Leacraft's work is called Amandla!, which in the Xhosa and Zulu languages means "power." The 30-by-30-inch quilt was inspired by the green, black, and gold flag of the African National Congress, the antiapartheid group of which Mandela was a leader, she said.
"I'm into cultural symbolism," said Leacraft. "So I decided to focus on the ANC flag because it was a symbol of black South Africans' struggle for liberation during the apartheid era."
"The central focus is four panels, which are miniversions of the ANC flag turned in such a way that all the black bars connect," said Leacraft. "That connection is to represent black South Africans joined in solidarity in the struggle against apartheid."
Leacraft said she held fund-raising events to pay for her trip. She said she plans to take about 200 pairs of socks for children in South Africa and is accepting donations. Details available at the Leeway Foundation website.
Leacraft, who is divorced and in her 60s, said she began sewing her own clothes in middle school. She became focused on African and African American culture in the 1960s, while she attended Cheyney University. She said she was also exposed to world culture by her grandfather, a native of Guyana.
Leacraft makes bright quilts that incorporate family photos, beads, and cowrie shells. She also makes wall hangings, scarves, and other items, including hand-dyed shoelaces for sneakers. Her work has been displayed nationally and internationally at museums and galleries.
Richard J. Watson, artist in residence and exhibits manager at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, said Leacraft's exhibiting in South Africa "is almost a monumental piece because she gets a chance to show her works in an arena that focuses something as important as Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa."