The Year of the Quilt

Or how quilting represents community-wide solidarity

The quilt was a collaboration between gardener Sui Searle (Decolonise The Garden) and quiltmaker Jess Bailey (Public Library Quilts). Together, they asked people all around the world to donate their scraps of naturally dyed fabric, which sewn together resulted in large-scale quilt with a beautiful star-shaped pattern.

The Land in Our Names Quilt, 2021. Photography: Jess Bailey and Kim Lightbody.

LION, the grassroots collective who received the quilt’s funds, work to ‘connect climate justice with racial justice’, all through the care and farming of British land. The fundraised money will help sustain community gardens and farms for people who would otherwise not have access to land or nature in an effort to redress the effects that colonialism had (and still has) on land stewardship and climate change.

With the scraps donated by over 50 dyers from 11 countries, the quilt is a true expression of mutual aid to support Black empowerment. Although the quilt was sewn by one person only, it is the result of collective effort. It speaks to the reality of 2020 as the year in which the entire world finally became aware of the glaring legacies of colonialism and day-to-day racism, and to the connections that have been made internationally in the fight against these issues.

But why the quilt? What does it stand for as a symbol? The traditions behind quilt making are too vast to be summarised in one article, but I will highlight some important quilts and draw out what makes these pieces so powerful.

One of the most famous quilt might be the AIDS Quilt — officially the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt — a collection of thousands of quilts made in memorial of the people who died of AIDS. Each panel, three feet by six feet, is roughly the size of the average coffin.

The Quilt on the National Mall in Washington DC, 11 October 1987. Photography: National Institutes of Health.

Started in 1985, the quilt was famously first shown in Washington DC as a way to remember and celebrate the lives of friends and loved ones lost to the epidemic, and as a protest to the lack of action from the Reagan administration. There were 1920 panels in this first demonstration; the NAME Foundation now has over 48,000 of them.

The AIDS Quilt remains a symbol of unity and protest in queer communities all around the world. It is also a warning against ‘historical homelessness’, a term used by fashion curator E-J Scott referring to the lack of knowledge surrounding queer histories and the legacy of decades of activism. The AIDS Quilt now feels as a reminder that, if there is a sense that queerness is a ‘new’ thing, it is partly because an entire generation of people was lost to AIDS and the stigma surrounding it. Here, quilting stands for an active gesture of creation that embeds memory and community into textile.

Recognising the importance of self-documentation lies also in artist Jahnavi Inniss’ creation of the Black British History Quilt, a five-metre long quilt depicting the names of eighteen Black British people who lived from the 17th to the 19th centuries. She intended to combat certain preconceived notions, such as the idea that Black people have only been in Britain since the 1940s, or that any Black person in the country before that must have been a servant or an enslaved person.

Black British History Quilt, Jahnavi Inniss, 2020. Photography: Jahnavi Inniss.

Inniss recalls the lack of representation of Black people in the education curriculum and how this has the ability to create and maintain prejudices, and contribute to systemic racism. To ensure that the names are understood in their context, the quilt is accompanied by a Quilt Directory, which offers information on the lives of the people featured on it.

Fanny Eaton, for example, was an artist’s model popular with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was considered incredibly beautiful. (The National Portrait Gallery recently featured her in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition.) Omoba Aina, an Egbado princess, had a close relationship to Queen Victoria. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a successful composer in London and performed for President Theodore Roosevelt in the United States in 1904.

All this information, sewn implicitly in the quilt and explicitly on its website, reveals the broad range of lives led by Black people in Britain and connects present-day Black Brits to a longer history that is often denied to them through a distortion of information or lack thereof. In this sense, the Black British History Quilt, made in 2020, is also understood in reference to the world-wide Black Lives Matter movement and in solidarity to it.

But quilting also has a longer tradition both in West Africa and in the United States. The Alison Jacques Gallery recently showed The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers exhibition, displaying quilts made throughout the entire 20th century in a small Black community in Alabama. The exhibited quilts follow familial lineages: a woman’s quilt is shown next to her daughter’s and her granddaughter’s, spanning a hundred years of painstaking work and creativity.

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers, exhibition installation shot, 2021. Photography: Allison Jacques Gallery.

These quilts represent the hard work that ensured families would be warm in the winter, and the sunny afternoons in the spring when quilts would be hung outside so everyone could admire them. They are tradition in the best possible sense of the word: community and innovation hand in hand.

This sense of community also reached out across the country during the Civil Rights Movement, when the resident of the Gee’s Bend founded the Freedom Quilting Bee collaborative which supported impoverished Black people in different states.

Although the quilts are rightfully seen as works of art, they are not displayed as detached creativity but as the past and present bonds made between families and communities.

From climate justice, to queer protest and to racial activism, quiltmaking is a community-led activity that unites people in pain-staking labour that builds meaningful, horizontal relationships.

We may all have something to learn from quiltmakers.

Museum student; art curator; writer.

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