Not only were Prince Hall Masons comparable to the African secret societies in terms of their community roles, but they also used geometric motifs as signs and symbols. Might there be a connection between the Prince Hall Masons, the Underground Railroad, Ozella's story code, and what appears to be shared interest in a geometric language? And what of the stories told about the Prince Hall Masons? There we were again, in the middle of a dialogue between patterns and stories. We probed the correlation in meaning and use of geometric symbols and we listened to the Masonic stories. Having considered the stories and the patterns side by side, we then focused primarily on the stories and the relevance that storytelling had to a people of African descent.

     Supportive of our theories are recent interpretive exhibitions of African art, such as the 1996 New York show entitled Memory:Luba Art and the Making of History, with a catalog written by curators Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. This seminal show and inspiring catalog, which presented a scholarly reconsideration of decoration and meaning in African art, demonstrated how African art objects were  encoded with "decorative" designs that were really mnemonic devices which only the trained eye could read. This sounded familiar to us. Might not patterns on a quilt top have a similar functions?

     Thanks to the Luba exhibition, we learned about the lukasa, the small rectangular wooden boards that are pieces of sculpture on which patterns are engraved and beads are tacked down to form what appear to be random groupings. In actuality, the groupings, as well as the colors of the beads, serve to trigger memory for those trained to recognize the arrangements. One example that Mary Nooter Roberts cites is a lukasa whereon one isolated blue bead represents a king, chief, or title holder. If that same blue bead is encircled by a number of smaller white beads, the arrangement stands for a king, chief, or title holder located within a determined space or a compound. A row of small white beads positioned to form a diagonal line indicates a road, a pathway, or route. This same motif might also represent migration. A row of stitching knots left visible on a quilt top could easily simulate this lukasa bead arrangement. Are knots on a quilt top a translation of the lukasa visual language? The many motifs formed by bead arrangements work in tandem with engraved patterns and sculptural forms to create a complex visual language. As with any language, a work or a motif is understood in context. The meaning of a particular motif may change given the context (see Nooter-Roberts, Memory, pp.117-47).


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August 2000