Michigan Quilt Project
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Quilts and Human Rights

Quilts Express Collective Transgressions Against Human Rights

Artists around the world have made quilts to portray wide-scale transgressions of human rights. They have made quilts, for example, about rape, incest, domestic abuse, indigenous rights, worker’s rights in Chile, civil rights in America, the Holocaust in Europe, and Apartheid in South Africa. Some of these quilts were simply made as memorials; some were made as educational pieces specifically to raise awareness of the violations of rights and to call for assistance and action.

Angry Young Men
Marion Coleman
Castro Valley, California
Mixed media; layered collage
49 1/2" x 47"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“Angry Young Men is a fiber collage quilt that examines urban violence, the criminal justice system in the United States, and community ambivalence toward the loss of a generation of young African American men. There appears to be a lack of public will to address their basic human right to have an enriched life, health, education, and prosperity.”


Unidentified artist
c. 1980
Fabric, pearl cotton, yarn; machine pieced, machine appliquéd, hand embroidered, hand crocheted
18” x 14”
Collection of John Beck and Ann Austin
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

MSU labor educator and adjunct MSU Museum adjunct curator John Beck acquired this work in 1981 or 1982 in Ann Arbor from Madame Letellier (the widow of Orlando Letellier who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by the Pinochet regime) who was an instructor in the Residential College at the University of Michigan. The textile depicts a strike by the professionals' union (professors, engineers, etc.). A small piece of paper rolled up and inserted in the back of the textile carried text in Spanish that references dismissal of 45 employees.

Merits of Bombs?
Meena Schaldenbrand
Plymouth, Michigan
November 2005
Copper, cotton, metallic lace; appliqué
22” x 26”
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“Twenty-six countries have been bombed by the USA since 1945. The quilt is already outdated since it was made in 2005 and bombs are still exploding in Iraq today! Are these facts sobering enough to shock us into peace? What is the meaning of this?”

Middle Passage
Karimah Abdusamad
Durham, North Carolina
Hand dyed and commercial cotton; quilted on hand dyed raffia
35" x 90"
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“Of the many roles that an artist has in a society one of them is to call attention to the triumphs that the society revels in as well as the injustices that it has committed and upholds as part of its laws. With the 200th year anniversary of the abolition of the trade in human beings looming near it becomes increasingly apparent that the Middle Passage begs to be revisited and evaluated in order to have true reconciliation.

It is also the role of the artist to present some works in such a ways as to evaluate and allow the viewer to interact and have a relationship with the work that stimulates the intellect over the emotions and in a way encouraging said person to willingly participate in a visual dialogue. By abstracting the Middle Passage as I have done it is my hope that the viewer will engage with the piece and then with themselves, thus looking a bit longer and reflecting a lot deeper”.

Peeling Layers Back to Basics
Meena Schadlenbrand
Plymouth, Michigan
July 2000
Cotton, metallic lace; machine appliqué
33” x 33”
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

Underneath our many layers of clothing and skin we are the same.
Marvel at our similarities, celebrate our differences.
Have a heart, reach out, and lend a hand...
Make a difference in the short time we have...

This quilt was included in Roots of Racism, a juried international exhibition first organized in 2000 in Memphis, Tennessee. The exhibition began when quilt artist Susan Leslie Lumsden sent a plea over the Internet calling on her fellow quilters to address the global problems of prejudice and hatred. Within hours, hundreds of American quilters had responded and the concept for a group exhibition confronting the roots of racism was born. The exhibition was subsequently shown at the US Ambassador's Residence in Islamabad, Pakistan as part of the 2003-2005 Art in Embassies program. The Art in Embassies Program exhibitions play an important role in our nation's public diplomacy. They provide international audiences with a sense of the quality, scope, and diversity of American art and culture through the accomplishments of some of our most important citizens, our artists.

She Carries Her House
Chris Worland
East Lansing, Michigan
Spring 2000
Commercial fabric, cowrie shells, buttons, beads; pieced, appliquéd, and photo-transfer technique
20 1/4" x 24"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“In the summer of 1999, I traveled to South Africa. The South Africans I met were very welcoming and friendly. When they began to tell stories of living through apartheid, I was shocked by the level of violence and coercion and dismayed by my ignorance of that horrible period in South Africa’s history. This quilt is my response to that trip. The pass book photo is from one I took at the Kwa Muhle Museum in Durban, [a museum devoted to telling the story of living under apartheid]. The turtle was inspired by a woodcut by Carina Minnar. The turtle represents the rights granted in the 13th clause in the South African Bill of Rights. Like the turtle who carries her house with her, South Africans are now free to reside where they please.”

Under apartheid, all non-white South Africans were subjected to strict rules of segregation and limits of their rights. All non-whites had to carry a pass book which included their photograph and a statement of whether they were Indian, black, or colored (mixed race). Failure to produce a pass book on demand often led to harassment, torture, and imprisonment. The system of pass laws was finally repealed in South Africa in 1986.


Southern Heritage, Southern Shame
Gwendolyn Magee
Jackson, Mississippi
Cotton, organzas (several different types), cording; layering, machine appliqué
22 1/2" x 32 1/2"
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“This quilt is my response to the failure of the April 17, 2001 referendum for the State of Mississippi to adopt a flag without the confederate battle emblem. Proponents to retain it stated that it is just a symbol of southern pride and southern heritage. My goal with this piece is to expose exactly that of which they are so proud - a heritage that glorifies slavery; a heritage based on racism and hatred; a heritage that committed atrocities and unspeakable acts of savagery; and a heritage dedicated to oppression by using terroristic tactics to instill fear and impose subservience.”


April Shipp was interviewed by Marsha MacDowell on January 21, 2008 at the Michigan State University Museum. On that day, the Quilts and Human Rights exhibit was part of a campus-wide celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Strange Fruit: A Century of Lynching from 1865-1965
April Shipp
Auburn Hills, Michigan
Silk, cotton, denim; machine embroidery
126” x 120”
Collection of the artist
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reserved

“Strange Fruit is named after a song by the late Billie Holiday, and it’s dedicated to Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, an African American Newspaper journalist born in 1862, who fought for an anti-lynching law. The story of my Quilt began with an episode of the Oprah. Her guest had written a book entitled The Face of Our Past, a book dedicated to African American Women. The book was filled with marvelous photos, but one picture was not so marvelous. It was a post card of a mother and her son who had been lynched side by side from a bridge. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that they lynched women, also. Photos were often taken of people who had been lynched. These pictures were called post cards because that was what they were. I have a son who at the time was only five. I thought, if an angry mob came after my boy what would I do? Who do you turn to for help when the whole town is coming after your child? I began to pray, "Father God, someone needs to do something about this." These people need to be known, if not their stories, at least their names. I believe the spirit of the Lord spoke to me, "Find their names and make a quilt."

“Strange Fruit weighs 12 pounds and its 10' long by 10'6" wide. The fabrics are various shades of black. In making this quilt, I learned that it didn’t matter who you were. It didn’t matter how old you were. It could happen to anyone, anywhere, and anytime. I did this quilt in loving memory of my people, people I have never met, people whose names are not only woven into the fabric of this quilt, but also into the fabric of my heart.”


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