Queer Quilting: the aids quilt as an icon of queer Identity and classic americana
As a manifestation of national identity and domesticity, few traditional handicrafts enjoy the ubiquity or the sentimental value of the American quilt. Synonymous with comfort, its image and symbolism has been the subject of everything from feature films to toilet paper commercials; representing a touchstone experience of American life. Against this image domestic tranquility, an alternate tapestry unfurls: the experience of LGBTQ individuals stricken by the AIDS crisis from the 1980’s. In 1987, 16,908 deaths in to the AIDS epidemic, activist Cleve Jones, utilized the concept of a quilt as a public memorial, forcibly using the aesthetic and symbolic vocabulary of American domesticity to confront the American people with the scope of loss. Nearly thirty years later, the AIDS Quilt (slides 1 & 2) has received a variety of interpretive lenses, lauds and critiques, few of which interpret the quilt from the domestic tradition of quilting itself. By returning the AIDS quilt to the realm of American handicraft, I seek to comparatively analyze its significance in relation to the quilting traditions it draws upon: the patchwork quilt, the friendship/album quilt, and the mourning quilt, as a means to discuss its uniquely subversive status as both a memorial to marginalized individuals and a piece of classic Americana.
The first stage of the quilt’s development began in 1985 when AIDS activist, Cleve Jones, conceived the idea for the quilt at a 1985 candlelight vigil for activist and politician, Harvey Milk. During the vigil, the names of hundreds of AIDS victims were written on cardboard squares and taped to the San Francisco Federal Building. For Jones, the experience triggered a childhood memory the fabrics his grandmother quilted together. Jones created the first square of the quilt, using the three by six feet dimensions of a standard grave, as a memorial for his friend Marvin Feldman.[i] In June of 1987, Jones teamed with several others to organize the NAMES Project Foundation, renting a storefront in San Francisco where individuals could ship their individual squares for incorporation into a whole quilt by Jones and his volunteers. By the time of its display on the Mall in 1987, the quilt totaled 1,920 panels. Returning to Washington a year later, the quilt now comprised 8,288 panels and rested on the Elipse directly in front of the White House.[ii] Ulysses Grant Dietz, Decorative Arts Curator at the Newark Museum, visited the quilt and recalled its impact in a personal interview: “The AIDS quilt in DC (and as it traveled in smaller pieces to other parts of the country over the years) was visually powerful because of its simple grid—the white lines that gave it structure and emphasized the repetition of the square quilts for each memorial…the whole ‘E Pluribus Unum’ idea really hit you in the face when you saw the quilt—this endless sea of repetition (like the grave-markers at Arlington) was both beautiful and appalling. It’s very hugeness represented the scale of the disaster, the enormous scale of the suffering and sadness.”
As disparate patches unified by a grid design, the cumulative quilt draws its form from the patchwork quilt genre. The oldest patchwork quilt is an Egyptian canopy quilt from 980 BC comprised of dyed squares of gazelle leather decorated with varying symbols utilized as a display of prestige for public ceremonies (slide 3).[iii] Although made as a symbol of ostentation and royal display, other examples emerge that reflect the homage of a community, as with the alter hangings (slide 4) from the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in India, rendered from the offerings of travelers visiting the shrine during the sixth through ninth centuries.[iv] Early European patchwork assumes the form of applique on armorial or ecclesiastical banners, with Sandro Botticelli (1444/5 – 1510) credited as one of the first artists to introduce applique wall hangings into Italian churches.[v] Manifesting within the form of a quilt, the earliest example of patchwork from England is a quilt from 1708 (slide 5) made from printed Indian calico by the second wife of Color Sir James Grahame and the other women of Levens Halls in Westmoreland.[vi] Given the statement and monetary value of imported calico fabrics following British ban in 1700, the quilt serves as a testament to the fastidious economy of saving scraps of this precious cloth. The precious nature of patchwork fabrics was compounded by the fact that before 1785, all domestic fabric production in England was rendered by hand, a practice that continued in America well into the nineteenth century. Often exchanged by women within sewing circles, the pieces also held an interpersonal value as reflected by the practice of fabric diaries like that of Ann Eliz Cunningham. With additions ranging from 1841 through 1890, Cunningham’s diary features sewn squares of fabric, arranged from dark to light, with descriptive passages that provide biographical details on the fabric and circumstances of acquisition.[viii] In her text for The American Quilt, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, describes the connection between a quilter and their fabric as a “heart connection” with quilters gradually building up repositories of fabric, waiting for the elusive piece that balances and completes a composition.[ix]The history of patchwork from its origins in public rituals to its symbolism of interpersonal connections and community closely parallels the history of the AIDS quilt as a call for visibility and physical manifestation of a memorial network of makers and subjects touched by AIDS.
Although by construction, the aesthetic of the AIDS quilt is a patchwork quilt, the individualized pieces reflecting the loss of a friend or loved one recall the intent behind the archetypes of the friendship quilt and the album quilt. Emerging in the 1840’s the album quilts first appear in the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania and Maryland although they format quickly dispersed along settlement lines throughout the rest of the country.[x] Their popularity coincides with a wave of migration across the country, separating families and communities, and creating the need to memorialize relationships soon to be altered by distance. Like the AIDS quilt, the individual panels featured names of loved ones and messages intended to assuage the grief of parting.[xi] While the intent was the same, the aesthetic execution differed, as the individual friendship/album quilts assume the shape known as the “autograph cross” that features a bi-lateral cross design in a unified fabric scheme against a contrasting background (see example on slide 6). The central block of the cross features a white ground on with a stenciled or stamped name.[xii] The national popularity of the friendship/album quilt was reflected by Godey’s Ladies’ Book, a nationally circulated magazine that printed suggestions of verses and sentiments for printing on quilts.
The national circulation and popular usage of the friendship/album quilts was rivaled by another genre within quilt making that has a strong corollary to the AIDS quilt: mourning quilts (see example on slide 7). Author, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, speaks to the profoundly cyclical significance of mourning quilts, saying: “Many Americans have come into this world and departed it wrapped in a quilt, and quilts have eased the transition from this world to the one beyond, comforting the old and infirm.”[xiii] Like the AIDS quilt, the genre of morning quilts does not possess a unified aesthetic, but instead is united by the common theme of loss. As the AIDS quilt commemorates the those lost to a twentieth century AIDS epidemic, mourning quilts commemorated lives lost in five global cholera epidemics that spanned the nineteenth century.[xiv] Rampant disease and unsanitary living conditions made death at an advanced age an achievement to be celebrated and an occasion of dignity for which friends, community members and relatives, would gather to pay their regards in the deceased’s final hours.[xv] Ricky Clark in, “Needlework of an American Lady”, comments on sentimentality from which the mourning quilts derived their significance, reflecting on the genre as, “a succinct statement of a particular and prominent world view, which romanticized death and mourning. Its adherence held that the dead were only temporarily absent, ‘asleep in Jesus’, but still accessible to the living who visited and spoke with them regularly in newly-created ‘rural cemeteries’, beautifully landscaped for the enjoyment of both the living and the dead.”[xvi]
This romanticized views of death and friendship exist in stark contrast to the reality of prejudices faced by those suffering from the AIDS virus at the time of the quilt’s creation. The same year of the quilt’s creation, the Ray brothers, elementary school students in Arcadia, Florida, were denied enrollment into their elementary school after they contracted the AIDS virus during treatment for hemophilia. Following the reinstatement of their enrollment by a federal judge, the family faced death threats, and a school boycott, and ultimately an arsonist’s destruction of their home. Although the LGBT community quickly closed ranks to support those infected, the scale of loss frequently made the mourning process harried, as one survivor shared via Reddit: “‘After they passed, there were memorial services to plan with no real time to grieve because when one passed, you were needed somewhere else to begin the process all over again.” For those denied a grieving process or victims denied the dignity of a graceful death, the process of making the quilt panels and their placement on the National Mall offered a restitution of grace and dignity in the face of mounting prejudice.
While the nearly thirty years since the creation of the AIDS quilt, brought effective medical treatment to manage the disease and reduce its prevalence, a stigma remains for those afflicted. Although the disease has not been eradicated, new diagnoses within the U.S. declined 19% from 2005 to 2014 and of 2013, the Center for Disease Control reported 6,995 people died of AIDS within the U.S. As the percentage of the infected population declines within the U.S., the concentration of infection continues in Sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for 66% of all new HIV infections worldwide. Furthermore, innovations in antiretroviral medication allowed the World Health Organization to provide medication that prevents transmission to 73% of all pregnant women living with HIV, ensuring their children were born disease free. Against this tide of medical progress remains a persistent stigma associated with the disease. Avert, an AIDS awareness organization, reports that in 35% of countries with available data 50% of men and women identify as having prejudices against people living with HIV. The People Living with HIV Stigma Index reports approximately one in eight individuals living with HIV is being denied services because of prejudiced discrimination.
In the wake of continuing prejudice, the AIDS Quilt, now the largest public art project in the world, has evolved into a digital memorial and resource for AIDS education. Since it began in 1987, over 14 million people have visited it, with displays across the globe raising over $3 million dollars for aids service organizations throughout North America. Since it has not been displayed in its entirety since 1996, the Aids Memorial Quilt Archive Project is collaborating with University of Massachusetts at Amherst to create a searchable database that links primary sources contributed by panel makers to images of their panels. The project description illustrates intent behind quilt’s recent digital iteration:
“A student in the rural South exploring her heritage might search for all the panels that contain kente cloth, read about the memorialized persons’ lives, and access video interviews with the panel makers to learn about the significance of the African patterns. The database and oral histories will chronicle the pandemic in very real, very human terms for generations to come. They will serve as a permanent memorial to those who have died, inspiring future generations with their valuable lessons about our lives, loves, community and society.”
By bringing the quilt into the digital age, the work of Cleve Jones, thousands of makers, and the traditions they drew from will be preserved and transformed into an accessible format, empowering future generations to commemorate and understand the lives lost to AIDS.
Note on sources:
Since[HN6] the quilt’s creation, twenty-nine years ago, it has been frequent topic of scholarly discourse within studies of mass media. Absent Bodies: The Aids Quilt as Social Melancholia written by Steven James Gambardella, discusses the quilt within theoretical paradigm of Michael Warner’s concept of the “mass subject”. Gambardella utilizes Warner’s theory to describe the impact of the quilt as an act of collective, active mourning. His interpretation challenges aspersions cast by activists like Larry Kramer who view the quilt as a passive portrayal of AIDS victims that reduced them to their HIV infection, failing to capture the complexity of their lives. While a portion of Gambardella’s argument discusses the Americana appeal of the quilt, he does not delve into its traditions within handicraft. Likewise, Remembering the Aids Quilt, a collection of essays edited by Charles E. Morris, interprets the quilt from the perspective of communication studies, applying lens of performance, media, feminism, queer theory, and personal experience to the topic. A biographical work by Cleve Jones, Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an AIDS Activist, discusses the evolution of the project in tandem with Jones’s personal evolution as a gay man and burgeoning activist. To augment the void of discourse regarding the AIDS Quilt within traditional handicraft, The History of the Patchwork Quilt: Origins, Traditions and Symbols of a Textile Art by Schnuppe von Gwinner, and The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750 – 1950, by Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff and Roderick Kiracofe, have proved invaluable resources for the historical context of the quilt patterns I discuss. Through its global scope and analysis of patchwork motifs beginning in 980 BC, the Gwinner text provides a foundation for understanding the evolution and impact of the design across the world. As a pendant to the Gwinner text, American Quilt expands the analysis of American quilting traditions, facilitating identification for various patterns through visual and historical analysis of design. Other electronic sources have been linked throughout the post for ease of accessibility. Special thanks to Ulysses Grant Dietz, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Newark Museum, for his contribution to this project.
[i] Stephen James Gambardella, "Absent Bodies: The Aids Memorial as Social Melancholia," Journal of American Studies 45, no. 2 (2011): 214, accessed June 21, 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0021875811000077. [ii] Stephen James Gambardella, "Absent Bodies: The Aids Memorial as Social Melancholia," 204. [iii] Schnuppe Von. Gwinner, The History of the Patchwork Quilt: Origins, Traditions and Symbols of a Textile Art(West Chester, PA: Schiffer Pub., 1988), 19. [iv] Schnuppe Von. Gwinner, The History of the Patchwork Quilt, 22. [v] Schnuppe Von. Gwinner, The History of the Patchwork Quilt, 67. [vi] Schnuppe Von. Gwinner, The History of the Patchwork Quilt, 64. [vii] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750-1950 (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1993), 9. [viii] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 8. [ix] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 9. [x] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 82. [xi] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 80. [xii] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 82. [xiii] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 180. [xiv] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 180. [xv] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 170. [xvi] Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, The American Quilt, 170.