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A stitch in time

This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most poignant monuments of the AIDS epidemic — the AIDS Memorial Quilt. As Daniel Brookes reports, its roots are steeped in activism and protest.

“My name is Duane Kearns Puryear. I was born on December 20, 1964. I was diagnosed with AIDS on September 7, 1987 at 4.45pm. I was 22 years old. Sometimes it makes me very sad. I made this panel myself. If you are reading it I am dead...” You can only begin to imagine what that young man — just starting out in life — would’ve been feeling as he carefully sewed black letters onto white cloth, fully realising he was creating his own epitaph. His is just one of the 50,000 panels that make up the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Just as the person they immortalise, no one panel is the same. Each captures the uniqueness of the person lost to AIDS, bringing humanity to a statistic.

The AIDS quilt was the brainchild of San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones. While Jones was organising an annual candlelight march to honour slain San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk, the curly-haired, bespectacled 31-year-old decided to also honour those who had died of AIDS. It was 1985 and, by then, more than 1,000 San Franciscans had succumbed to the disease. “I remember looking around and grasping for the first time that, of those thousand, virtually every one of them had lived and died within six blocks of where I was standing — and there was no evidence of it,” says Jones.

And so Jones — portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in the Oscar-winning film Milk — asked marchers to write the names of friends and loved ones on placards to be carried through the streets of the Castro. “People were ashamed to do it,” says Jones. “They would put initials or just the first name. Finally, one guy took two pieces of paper, taped them together, and in big block letters wrote, ‘Thomas J. Farnsworth Jr, my brother — he’s dead’.” At the end of the march, the placards were taped to the wall of a government building. “I got to the edge of the crowd, and I looked back at that patchwork of names on the wall and I thought, it looks like a quilt,” he says.

Inspired by the sight, Jones and friends came up with the idea of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “[Co-founder] Joseph and I made a list of 40 men we felt we had known well enough to memorialise and began painting their names on three-by-six-foot blocks of fabric … the approximate size of a grave,” says Jones. Activists in other US cities decimated by AIDS — New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta — took to the project immediately. Before long, the quilt featured 1,920 panels and was the size of a football field.

From the start, Jones had a definite idea as to where the quilt would be put on display. “I could see it so clearly in my head,” he says. “The Mall, covered in fabric, stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.” On October 11, 1987, Jones’s vision came to fruition and the quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington DC during a march for gay rights (pictured). “Later that day, fellow organiser Mike Smith and I stood in a cherry picker 20 feet above the ground and watched as people made their way along the quilt panels,” says Jones. “Only the reading of the names and the sound of people weeping broke the silence. We were exhausted and overwhelmed by the beauty of the quilt and the horror it represented.” 

The quilt provoked an astounding response. Across America people began to sew. “New panels arrived in the mail every day along with letters from throughout the United States and the world, many of them asking us to bring the quilt to their communities,” says Jones. A four-month, 20-city tour of America followed. As the quilt moved from city to city, more panels were added. “I imagined families sharing stories of their loved ones as they cut and sewed the fabric,” says Jones. “It could be therapy, I hoped, for a community that was increasingly paralysed by grief and rage.” As well as a therapeutic tool, the quilt also became a powerful symbol of protest “to shame [the government] with stark visual evidence of the utter failure to respond to the suffering and death that spread and increased with every passing day”. 

Tragically — at roughly 1.3 million square feet and weighing 54 tons — the AIDS quilt has grown to such an extent over the years that it can no longer be physically displayed in its entirety in one place. New panels for the quilt still arrive on a daily basis; a reminder that AIDS is as real today as 30 years ago. In that time, the story of the quilt has been the subject of countless books, scholarly papers, articles, theatrical and musical productions, and an Oscar-winning film.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest community art project in the world, an icon of the epidemic, and an international conduit for grief. And that, says Jones, was its original purpose all along. “I was just overwhelmed by the need to find a way for us to grieve together for loved ones who had died so horribly, and also to try to find the weapon that would break through the stupidity and the bigotry and all of the cruel indifference that even today hampers our response.” 

An Australian tapestry 

There are 37 quilt projects worldwide. Launched in 1988, the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt remains the largest outside the USA. A large proportion of the quilt (97 blocks — each block containing eight panels each) is housed in Castle Hill, Sydney, at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre. 

A team of volunteers painstakingly record information about the people memorialised, and the friends and family who created the panels. “Working with the quilt has filled me with lots of different emotions,” says Douglas Knox, former convenor of the Australian quilt. “There's some sort of connection for me with the person commemorated, even though I didn't know them personally. You can tell so much about a person's life from each panel.”

Other parts of the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt are held by independent organisations in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Brisbane and Newcastle.

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