Quilts and Human Rights

“Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?” queried South African writer Olive Schreiner.1 Textiles - especially quilts - have long been made and used to demonstrate solidarity with movements dedicated to advancing human rights, mark important events related to human rights activism, provide vehicles for the expression of feelings and memories about human rights violations, and engage individuals in actions that will solve human rights issues.

In 2008, the Michigan State University Museum organized an exhibition of quilts related to human rights. Museum staff realized that the exhibition packed a surprise for those who regularly seek out any exhibitions on quilts; the images and stories associated with this set of quilts were not the typical heartwarming ones they were used to seeing. These quilts and their stories spoke of difficult experiences, of difficult events, and of the darker side of human life.

Four museum staff continued to research quilts connected to human rights and heard from scores of artists whose work was firmly rooted in human rights experiences. They found, among many other things, that there is no one visual or technical style of quilts related to human rights. Some quilts give very little, if any, visual clues that they are connected to human rights; it is in their stories of why they were made and how they were used that we learn of their deep connections to human rights.

In 2014 the four commenced writing a manuscript and, in 2016, University of Nebraska Press published their book that contains a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.2 In addition to presenting the many quilts and quilt-related stories that were part of the research for this publication and exhibition the Quilt Index also contains many, many more that have been made by artists all over the world.

If you would like to add a quilt to this project, you can find the form here: Quilts and Human Rights form.

1Quoted in Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch, London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1984, p. 15

2Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Lynne Swanson, and Beth Donaldson, Quilts and Human Rights, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

--Marsha MacDowell, 2016.

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