Tributes to Archbishop Desmond and Leah Tutu by Quilt Artists from South Africa and the United States

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Marsha MacDowell, Aleia Brown
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , August
     90 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ubuntutu: Life Legacies of Love and Action provides a rich texture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s understanding of ubuntu—an African concept of human interdependence. A pleasant surprise in reading this book is that it includes Tutu’s wife, Leah Tutu, thereby embodying this meaning of ubuntu. The format of this whole project of Ubuntutu is spectacular in that it produced both a standalone book as well as an exhibition by the same name. True to the meaning of ubuntu it is a collaborative project that produced delicious fruit.

This book uses the medium of art known as quilting as well as authentic reflections on the legacy of Desmond and Leah Tutu. In addition, their daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth blesses this work by holding up the imagery of scraps and stiches coming together in such a way that a profound quality of love is made manifest in this work. Archbishop Tutu says as much in the foreword: “Without each other, without love, we become unstitched and inarticulate” (3). No doubt, the Tutu family endorsement of this work enabled outstanding quilt tributes as well as profound artists’ statements on the Tutu legacy—over seventy artists in all.

 Marsha MacDowell and Aleia Brown provide sound organization of this work, especially by focusing on the theme of ubuntu to honor the Tutu legacy. The title Ubuntutu, coined by Diana Vandeyar (one of the quilters in the book), literally represents the symmetrical form of quilting as well as the meaning of interdependence that ubuntu connotes to the world. Other quilters, including Celia de Villiers and Kris van ‘T Hof, also capture this meaning of ubuntu as they reflect upon their contribution entitled “Shadowbind.” They provide the insight that in their artwork “there are no concealed knots or hidden stiches, openly entangling proper and improper threads.” They conclude, “Grappling with right and wrong in human relationships has been an integral part of Desmond Tutu’s life’s work” (36). So, the reader receives the double benefit of art and reflection in light of Desmond and Leah’s legacy. The images of the quilts are magnificent in their portrayal of ubuntu in a variety of contexts, from Tutu weeping at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Leah’s buoyancy as she holds flowers. Ubuntu is also well portrayed in the choreography of black and white quilters as well as those of male and female quilters.

The book ends with reflections on the themes of “Art as Political Action” and “Making Art, Making Democracy.” These brief reflections also focus on Tutu’s contributions to human rights, social justice issues, and peacemaking in South Africa and around the world. These are fitting tributes to Tutu’s work to facilitate the unravelling of an apartheid government as well as Leah’s work as the founder of the South African Domestic Workers Association. Although much of the artwork in these quilt exhibitions displays the spiritual symbolism of Tutu and Leah, concluding with a reflection on the Tutu spiritual legacy would have been an additional gesture honoring Tutu’s concept and work of ubuntu. In other words, a spiritual reflection alongside the closing political reflections would have nicely illustrated the theme of the book. I mention this only to encourage the authors in their next work to include such a spiritual reflection to exist alongside the other excellent reflective essays that end this magnificent book.

 In closing, it cannot go unmentioned that it was brilliant to include the legacy of both Desmond and Leah. Oftentimes in history the unsung heroes go unnoticed. By focusing on ubuntu’s measure of interdependence that also sustained the Tutu marriage and family, the writers and artists in this book encourage the reader to notice those who sustain their own vocations in the world as advocates for spiritual flourishing, peacemaking, and social justice. In so doing, we live out the theme of this book to stay interconnected.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Battle is Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center General Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marsha MacDowell is professor and curator of folk arts at the Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing, Michigan. She is director of the Quilt Index, a digital repository of stories, images, and other data related to quilts from dispersed collections around the world.

Aleia Brown is visiting scholar with a joint appointment at the Michigan State University Museum and the Michigan State University History Department. Her writing, covering museums, civil rights, and gender, has appeared in Slate, TIMELINE Magazine, and other online platforms. She is the co-founder of two digital humanities projects: #BlkTwitterstorians and #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.


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