Aliyah Bonnette is a 24-year-old mixed media quilter who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. She uses quilting to connect with her grandmother and her previous ancestors. In her work, she explores being a Black woman in America, sexuality, and connecting with one’s ancestors as a “displaced diaspora.” She has received multiple awards, including the Black Girl Who Paints Award and the Caroline Allen Memorial Scholarship. She’s leading a stitching and embroidery workshop at NC Museum of Art in July.
Growing up in a household centered around Blackness, Aliyah’s mother instilled in her a strong sense of Black pride and representation. It was in this environment, coupled with her move to North Carolina at the age of 16, that Aliyah’s creativity flourished.
While studying art in college, Aliyah became fascinated with fabric and dye classes, which led her to discover the historical significance of quilts in the Underground Railroad. This revelation sparked her interest in quilting as a means of processing her experiences as one of the few Black individuals in predominantly white spaces. When Aliyah decided to make a quilt, she learned that her grandmother had been a quilter, and her grandfather had preserved all her unfinished work and materials.
This connection to her grandmother and the family tradition motivated Aliyah to teach herself how to quilt.
As a Black female artist, Aliyah faces unique challenges in the art world. She discusses the difficulties of entering white-dominated spaces, such as galleries and museums, where the representation of Black artists is statistically low. Networking is another hurdle, as a Black woman in the industry, but Aliyah remains resilient and determined to fight for her work and beliefs.
Aliyah’s creative process involves writing as a form of self-expression and exploration. Often, she writes before visualizing her artwork, using her words to gain insight and clarify her ideas. This practice allows her to address the emotions and thoughts that she may struggle to convey verbally.
In Aliyah’s view, she is substantial because her quilts embody her entire being. She meticulously selects fabrics, sews them together, adds details, paints, beats, and embroiders, giving her complete control over every aspect of her work. Through her art, Aliyah expresses her identity, connects with her ancestors, and challenges the limited representation of Black artists in the art world.
SM: What would you say to your younger self?
AB: Oh, gosh, keep going. Do not stop. I think that I was, scared in the beginning, but I was also working when I was in school to make sure that I’m in the spots that I am in now. So I would say you just have to work hard, that it has to be your priority.
SM: What makes Aliyah substantial?
AB: WOW! I’m substantial because I’m substantial. Because every piece of my being is in my work. From the fabric I pick out and I sew together, to the details I paint on it or embroider, I’m in control over every aspect of what I’m doing and the story that I tell.
Photography by Jonathon Leach