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Quilts and Human Rights

Quiltmaking as a Means of Coping with Oppression and Its Memories

For many individuals, quiltmaking has served as an important mechanism to cope with oppressive experiences. Barbara Hogan, for instance, was held for years as a political prisoner in South Africa during apartheid. Now a member of the South African parliament, she says “I think I would have gone crazy all those years in prison if we did not have our quilting.” Some individuals make quilts that show their memories or feelings about personal experiences with human rights violations; this activity often helps them to work through and heal emotional scars and to record and tell their stories to others.


After the Party
Helen Pedersen and Janice Dowdeswell
Wanganui, New Zealand
2007
Cotton, hand painted and commercial prints, leather belt, cotton batting and backing;
raw edge machine appliqué, free-form machine quilting, 'distressed' edge treatments
66 ½” x 62”
Collection of the artists
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

The quilt refers to mathematics teacher Pederson’s own personal story of escape from domestic violence. She said, “It has not been easy for me to reveal this, but making the quilt allowed me to close a chapter.”

Dowedeswell explains more: “The title refers to the fact that alcohol fuels a lot of domestic violence. The time immediately after, or before, social occasions is often the catalyst. The warm spectrum colors on the outer part of the quilt portray the bright exterior victims often show the world when everything on the inside is dark. The spiral background shows the feeling of being sucked down into a black pit of despair. Reducing the size of the words as we read the story depicts the shrinking of one's spirit and the feeling of smallness and insignificance. The cross shape, for others, may represent the death of a family member of the death of the relationship; for Helen it is the death that could have occurred (but, thankfully, didn't). The cross itself and the edge treatments illustrate some of the methods of physical abuse that are used. The first three words of the story hint at a solution: 'Please Stop Hitting'."

This quilt was one of two top prize winners in a juried exhibition held in 2007 at New Zealand's National Quilt Symposium in Palmerston North, New Zealand under a thematic category, sponsored by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, in which entrants were asked to consider human rights abuses, their effects, and possible healing. The quilt was subsequently included in the Content May Offend exhibition, organized by the Human Rights Commission and the School of Education at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.





Incest
Cecily Gordon, Margaret Perowne, Megan Cooper and Kay Lamport
Sydney, Australia
2006
Calico painted with acrylics, embroidery thread, beads, sequins, and barbed wire
69” x 64”
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

This quilt was one of two top prize winners in a juried exhibition held in 2007 at New Zealand's National Quilt Symposium in Palmerston North, New Zealand under a thematic category, sponsored by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, in which entrants were asked to consider human rights abuses, their effects, and possible healing. The quilt was subsequently included in the Content May Offend exhibition, organized by the Human Rights Commission and the School of Education at University of Waikato, New Zealand. As Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan says, “the winners truly bring home how a traditional domestic art can become a powerful medium for the important message that to be free from violence is a human right we should all cherish.” Cecily Gordon, a psychotherapist and one of the makers of this quilt, provided this statement on a separate cloth: "This quilt is for the hundreds of children and women who have told me their stories. It’s about bringing these stories home to Palmerston North [a town she lived in for 20 years] where they began."



Prison Quilt
Barbara Hogan
Pretoria, South Africa
1990
Cotton and paper; pieced
78 ¾” x 59”
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

In 1982 Barbara Hogan was a thirty-year-old post-graduate student working part-time for the Environmental Development Agency in South Africa and an ardent member of the African National Congress (ANC), the anti-apartheid political party, She was detained in 1982 for sending labor related material out of the country on behalf of the ANC and, after being interrogated, ill-treated and held in solitary confinement for one year she was charged with treason, Hogan admitted ‘furthering the aims of a banned organization’ but denied the charge of treason. The judge, however, found her guilty of high treason and sentenced Hogan to ten years in jail; Hogan was the first white woman to be tried for treason under apartheid and the first individual in South Africa to be tried for treason in a case that didn't involve violence against the State. She served seven years of her sentence and was released from prison in 1990 only when the South African government lifted the ban on involvement in the ANC.

After her first year of solitary confinement during which she was only allowed a Bible and a book of poetry, Hogan was allowed to take a correspondence study course from UNISA (University of South Africa), to read other books, and to take up a craft. She taught herself how to quilt in the English pieced paper method, using torn out pages from her correspondence study books for the backing of the pieced blocks. Her warders chose and delivered fabric to her. She was still working on this quilt when, in 1990, the South African government lifted the ban on involvement in the ANC and she was unexpectedly released from prison. Now a member of the South African parliament, she says “I think I would have gone crazy all those years in prison if I did not have my quilting.”

 


Weya Cloth
Unidentified artist
Weya region or Harare, Zimbabwe
2000
Cotton; patchwork and appliqué
23" x 25"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

Weya cloths are a distinctive style of appliquéd pictorial textiles done by primarily Shona-speaking women in Weya, an impoverished rural area in Zimbabwe located about 170km east of the country’s capital, Harare. In 1987, art teacher Ilsa Noy was asked by the German Volunteer Service to devise an economic development project to assist women in becoming financially self-sufficient. Noy thought the women, already skilled in needlework, could make narrative, pictorial scenes that could be sold to tourists. The Weya textile project began with nine women; today cloths are produced by hundreds and sold by artists who travel to marketplaces and through galleries and traders around the world. This appliqué was acquired in Harare.

Artists chose stories or themes that reflect their experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. This piece tells the sad story of a woman (possibly Sarai Mugare) who hung herself after her husband beat her and left her for a second wife. A small piece of paper in the pocket of one of the panels provides more detailed description: 1) John was married but he fall for a girl; 2) The girl was pregnant and she eloped, with auntie's company; 3) When the wifes [sic] were staying, one day they fought for their husband (shanje); 4) John loved the young wife most so he hit the older wife; 5) One day when John and his young wife were resting behind the hut, the older wife thought of running away; 6) On her way she turn to hear her life, then in the thick forest she committed suicide [with the word Sarai Mugare].




Walls Talking: Mulatto Ex-Slave in Her House Near Greensboro, Alabama
Keisha Roberts
San Fransisco, California
2006
Mixed media techniques
15" x 19"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

"Born into a social system that deemed her and millions like her
chattel, the nameless, formerly enslaved woman in the central
image of this quilt endured what seems unendurable. If her
walls could talk, perhaps they would tell us how she fought to
outlive a system that owned her life, then struggled through the
dark years that followed to build a home and a future."


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