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Quilts and Human Rights

Quilts Document or Remember an Event or Experience

Some artists focus their textile work on a single experience or event that often has become a symbol of human rights violation and activism. Quilts have been made, for instance, to depict the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the Mohawk incident at Oka in Quebec, the bombing of Afghanistan, and the student resistance in Tiananmen Square in China. While these document individual instances of human rights transgressions they also raise awareness of other similar transgressions.

Unidentified artist (or artists)
Cotton, embroidery
41” x 54”
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

In 1988, painter Irma van Rooyen organized the Kaross Workers, a craft-based economic development project to provide regular employment for wives of male workers—mostly Tsonga or Venda speakers—on the farm run by her husband in Letsitele, North Province, South Africa. Five women participated at first and, as of 2007, the number has grown to over four hundred and now also includes a few men. This piece, one of the many representations by artists around the world of the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001, illustrates the worldwide access via media that artists, even in remote areas, have to war related events.

News From Native America
Judy Toppings
White Earth, Minnesota
Cotton/polyester with polyester filling; appliqué, beadwork, photo-transfer
74" x 72"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Doug Elbinger, all rights reserved

Ojibwa/Anishnabe artist Toppings made this pictorial quilt to commemorate American Indian demonstrations, protests, community and political history. The quilt is signed in lower left corner: "Dedicated to all people who take stand and fight for justice, freedom or religion, equality and environmental issues. Judy Toppings, 1996, White Earth Rez., MN."

So Many Twin Towers
Diana N'Diaye
Washington, D.C.
Assorted fabrics and digital prints; embroidery, machine quilting, appliqué
31 3/4" x 37 1/2"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“My work is inspired by traditions of visual storytelling and improvisation in the quilts created by Sea Island needle artists. My ancestors and elders are my muses, always with me in my dreams and at my sewing table. This piece was created as a gut response to the bombing of Afghanistan and other inhumane and inappropriate reactions to the bombings on 9/11. These actions and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have added innumerable innocent deaths and ruined lives to the toll of the tragedy of the twin towers.”

N’Diaye is an anthropologist, visual artist, Cultural Heritage Specialist and Curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a Research Associate, Michigan State University Museum. N’Diaye grew up in a Caribbean family where she learned at an early age a love of needlework from her elder aunts and a love of working with cloth from her mother Patricia Croney and her teacher, New York couturier Zelda Wynn. She also counts artist and quiltmaker Faith Ringgold as an early mentor and influence. In the early 1980s Dr. N’Diaye was a member of the Urban Fiber Artists. Her work was featured in the juried exhibition Folk Art - Traditions and Innovations at Harmony Hall Gallery, Fort Washington.

Tree of Peace Saves the Earth
Alice Olsen Williams
Curve Lake First Nation Reservation, Ontario, Canada
Cotton with polyester batting; hand pieced, appliquéd, and quilted
65" x 66"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Doug Elbinger, all rights reserved

Anishnabe quilter and Trent University faculty member Alice Olsen Williams made this signed work, inspired by Mohawk teachings of the White Root of Peace, to commemorate the Oka incident in 1990 when the Mohawks resisted the further taking away of their land.

“I personally want to pay tribute to and honor the Mohawk people at this time because, against great odds, they made known to the world, and brought up to date, the fact that we aboriginal peoples all over the world are still trying to regain our rights to our lands, our cultures, our relatives, our language, our beliefs and customs and our world views that we have to struggle and fight for constantly. The fight to save ourselves isn't just about what happened 100 or 200 or 300 or 400 or even 500 years ago as the dominant ideology would want us to believe; THE CIRCUMSTANCES, MACHINERY, and IDEOLOGY ARE STILL in place, are still HERE, in motion, alive and well, to get rid of us, the First Nations Inhabitants of the great and sacred Turtle Island.”

“In the comfort of my home, while the Mohawks were suffering inhuman insults and conditions at the hand of our enemies, I had the privilege of being able to think and wonder about how, through my art, I could be able to show my love and respect for these Mohawk people who have put their lives, their families, their loved ones on the line to stand up to that oppressive, unjust, inhumane, degrading, genocidal massive machinery. It is one thing for me to be able to have the luxury of sitting in my work area and commemorate a piece of art to honor the just and brave Mohawks and quite another to be out there on the front lines, fighting and defending our rights and laying my life on the line. I realize this contradiction and I know it is not good enough to say, "I'm sorry," and to say, "Thank you," to them.”

“The Mohawk teaching about the Great Tree of Peace talks about the time when there will be peace over all the Land. At the top of the tree sits the Eagle, the strong and sacred bird who helps to look after all the Beings and takes our prayers to the Creator. Around her is the Sun, a Life-giver, for without the Sun, there would be no Life. The four roots of the Sacred Tree of Peace represent the Four Directions that embody the teachings of sharing, honesty, kindness and caring. The roots are on the back of a turtle that represents Turtle Island. Under the roots are buried weapons [crossed tomahawk and war club] of oppression. When peace is allowed to come, all implements of war shall be buried. We believe that a patriarchal, capitalist, socioeconomic ideology permeates the land. This system is represented by the [Canadian] Parliament buildings. As First Nations people we believe it is the Anishinaabeg who will teach the white man about the balance of the natural world and how to live in harmony and peace with all of Creation. This is shown by the Tree of Peace growing through the Parliament buildings, destroying all that they stand for and replacing it with the teachings of peace, caring, sharing, and harmony.”

Williams’s work has been published in magazines and books, shown in many exhibitions (including To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting organized by Michigan State University Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian), and is in many private and public collections in Canada and in the U.S.

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