When Jim Smoote II completed his quilt, called "Obama 44," in time for an exhibition that opened in Washington for the 2009 presidential inauguration, he expected that the exhibit — like others he'd been involved in — would travel widely to museums in cities around the country.
But that hasn't happened. Not for Smoote, whose quilt is a compilation of 44 colorful patches and appliques displaying half of Obama's face (the side with the mole), nor for the more than 100 other quilters.
Next Monday, when "Journey of Hope in America: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama" opens at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History, it will be only the fourth stop for the exhibit, which has spent time in Washington, D.C., Japan and Ohio.
"The group that packages and ships (traveling exhibitions) decided to back out and some places canceled, so it went to Wilberforce, (Ohio)," said Smoote, 62, an Uptown resident and retired Chicago Public Schools art teacher. "After Obama passed the health care (legislation), a lot of people were not feeling Obama."
The exhibit spent just over a year at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce and was dismantled in June. The quilts were shipped back to their owners, which is where they stayed for months until being reassembled for the DuSable show.
Carolyn Mazloomi, the curator of "Journey of Hope in America," said that over the last 28 years she's put together countless quilt exhibits that have traveled worldwide. She said her last exhibit about the history of jazz toured for four years with a full schedule. But this has been her most challenging project.
"Many institutions didn't want to take a chance on having a show that was unpopular with their constituents," she said. "They didn't want to rock the boat."
It's difficult to say exactly why "Journey of Hope in America," believed to be only the second large-scale Obama-themed exhibit since the beginning of his presidency, stalled a bit. With the tough economy, many museums are struggling and have cut back on shows.
But Floyd Thomas, curator emeritus at the National Afro-American Museum, said some museum directors may have been concerned that booking an exhibit with such a strong Obama presence would be akin to making a political statement.
"Maybe there was the fear or perception that the exhibit is a mechanism to promote Obama or the Democratic agenda, and given the tenor of the times, maybe (museum directors) didn't see it as being a good idea," said Thomas.
"The exhibit is a tremendous achievement and was so well-received by a very (racially) diverse audience. Most people saw it as we saw it: not about politics, but history."
Although Thomas said he personally didn't receive push-back regarding the exhibit, one museum staffer told me that she fielded a handful of fairly acerbic calls from people who didn't think Obama should have been the subject.
Mazloomi, the founder of the nonprofit Women of Color Quilters Network, said that when the exhibit was conceived after the 2008 election, the idea was to highlight the African-American experience and the road to the White House.
"This was not at all about the celebration of any Democratic Party affiliation," said Mazloomi, a quilter and lecturer. "The show was a celebration of democratic ideals and principles.
"Many of the quilters are well over 60 and grew up in the South and were the product of segregation and discrimination. And to see this country elect its first African-American president, I said let's tell the story in a quilt. I told the (quilters) I didn't want to see dozens of portraits of the president. The show was much deeper than that."
While many of the quilts do include the president's visage and campaign iconography, there are others that incorporate historic African-American figures such as Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Some quilts also depict scenes from the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington.
The quilts are intricately detailed, some with embroidery and beads. Mazloomi said they are artifacts that preserve history.
"When Africans were brought to this country as slaves, they weren't allowed to read and write," she said. "They had a history already of creating great art in Africa. And quilts are like visual and cultural documents, narrative fiber work that helped tell our story over generations."
Charles Bethea, the DuSable's chief curator, said he believes this is the first exhibit the museum has hosted on a sitting president. The exhibit, which will open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and include about 50 quilts, is scheduled to run through this May.
"There are still many people alive who thought they would never see this moment and a younger generation that still does not fully comprehend the trials and tribulations African-Americans had to undergo to elect a black president," Bethea said.
Smoote said he was one of those people who didn't think he'd live to see the country elect a black president. He said he began creating his quilt shortly after watching the election results on television.
"I think politics is politics and that never changes," he said. "That's why this shouldn't be about a man, but art created around a historic moment in time."