The AIDS memorial quilt
by Carol Brown
The 'Names Project' quilt started in 1987 when Cleve Jones made a quilt in memory of his best friend, Marvin Feldman, who had died of AIDS. The size of the quilt panel was that of a grave: 3 feet by 6 feet and was reminiscent of a tombstone. Soon others began responding to deaths of those close to them in a similar way and the quilt first went public on June 21, 1987 when its first 40 panels were displayed in San Francisco's Lesbian and Gay Parade. The quilt grew and grew and, by October 1992, 21 600 panels were laid out on the Mall in Washington DC making a powerful statement about those who had died of AIDS. Now there are more than 45 000 panels and this number grows daily.
I recently spent some time in Atlanta on a CSPS fellowship at Emory University where I was working on the publication of Art and AIDS in South Africa, and discovered that the quilt, which originated in San Francisco, is currently stored in a renovated warehouse in a suburb of Atlanta. This was a most exciting find as the quilt represents one of the world's most important statements about AIDS. Weighing in at 54 tons, this is the largest piece of community folk art in the world and is now recognised as an American Treasure. The scale of the work in progress makes its curation and cataloguing a mammoth task. The quilt is stitched together in panels of 12 x 12 foot blocks. Each individual quilt is allocated a number and indexed together with text which often accompanies the quilt.
The project organisers request information about the maker of the quilt which will include their name, contact details, and who they are commemorating. They are also invited to send in a biography of the person commemorated as well as any mementoes such as photographs, favourite objects, and fragments of clothing or anything which they would like to archive. Each panel then has a corresponding file and once a suitable group of panels has been chosen to sew together this is once again referenced for storage and access purposes. The result is shelves and shelves of folded sections of the quilt which are easily accessible for loan or display purposes. The panels are often requested for AIDS exhibitions and many speakers at seminars or conferences have had them installed behind the podium.
The caretakers of the project have a mammoth task which requires more than the usual amount of dedication. One of the caretakers who has been with the project since its inception is Gert McMullin who is responsible for the stitching of individual panels into larger, more manageable sizes. Her interest commenced when the quilt first began during the 80s - a time when she had lost a large number of her friends in the San Francisco Bay area to AIDS.
McMullin is a wiry blonde with a page boy haircut who chain-smokes and has an amazing dedication to this project. Living constantly with other people's bereavement is tough and she clearly has the guts to carry it through. 45 000 stories of death and loss have come through her nimble fingers and it is she who decides which panels would best be linked together. The fact that this has been one person's set of choices also lends coherence to the entire product which is now too large to show in one piece. She has devoted her life to this project and although organises many volunteers, has sewn the majority of the 45 000 panels herself. She is immersed in the panels and surrounded by objects which she has collected from various participants in the project. It is for her clearly a labour of love and she is unflinchingly committed to the ongoing remembrance and awareness project which are the quilt's main functions.
Although the number of deaths through AIDS in the USA has diminished considerably in the last 20 years, it is alarming to note that the epidemic is now creeping slowly back. South Africa, as we all know, has one of the highest numbers of HIV-positive people in the world and one of the slowest roll-outs of Anti-Retroviral treatment. The quilt caretakers dream that a museum will take over the project as they are aware that a handful of people can no longer remain responsible for such an important document of our time. Visiting the quilt was a most emotional experience as each panel represents a particular person - those commemorated range from babies to the elderly and included unknown and famous people from many countries and occupations. It is a powerful statement of how the personal can be political and how the individual can make a difference.
If you are interested in making a panel the details can be found at www.aidsquilt.org
Carol Brown is Director of the Durban Art Gallery