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quilts and human rights


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Photo of quilts that remember an event or experience text panel Photo of 911 embroidery

Unidentified artist (or artists)
Cotton, embroidery
41" x 54"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum

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.


Photo of Xenophobia Memory cloth

Xenophobia Memory Cloth
Cynthia Msibi
Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Cotton; hand appliqué, hand embroidery, beading
12 ½” x 16 ¾”
Collection of Michigan State University Museum

Cynthia Msibi is a member of Isiphethu (meaning Fountain in Zulu), a group that began in l999 when women from the communities of Madadeni and Osizweni came together to embroider appliqué images for a Woman’s Day project organized by the Carnegie Art Gallery located in nearby Newcastle, South Africa. This project inspired the women to continue creating and a workshop program was launched in 2000 under the umbrella of the gallery. Women are encouraged to attend mentorship programs where business development and quality control are discussed and they have now exhibited their work nationally and internationally and have won many awards. In this quilt Msibi depicts a rally outside a supermarket with people protesting foreigners. There are police with dogs and police cars helping protect people from an angry crowd.

Here people are seen being rescued by the police after the angry community members attacked them, here the shops have been closed because they've been broken into. And women and their children have run to the police for some help as the other community members approach. The police tried so hard to calm the situation as the members of the community are angry saying that the foreigners are taking their jobs from them causing them to be poor so they must be sent back to wherever they are coming from. - Cynthia Msibi

Photo of Tree of Peace quilt

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

Alice Olsen Williams, a faculty member at Trent University (Ontario, Canada), has made many quilts reflecting her Anishinabe culture and her work has been published in magazines and books, shown in many exhibitions (including To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions 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. Williams was inspired by Mohawk teachings of the White Root of Peace to make this signed work 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. - Alice Olsen Williams

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.


Photo of News from Native America quilt

News From Native America
Judy Toppings
White Earth, Minnesota
Cotton/polyester with polyester filling; applique, beadwork,
74" x 72"
Collection of Michigan State University Museum, 1996:134.1

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."

Photo of So Many Twin Towers quilt

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 the Michigan State University Museum, 2008:120.1

"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 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 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, ultural 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 Carribean 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 friend 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, Maryland, in 2007.

Photo of Baron Samedi quilt
Baron Samedi Visits His New Orleans
Diana N'Diaye
Washington, D.C., USA
Cotton, cotton-polyester, satin, organza; hand appliqué, machine quilting
71 ½” x 53"
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, 2010:115.1

Dr. Diana 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 from her teacher, New York couturier Zelda Wynn.

I began this quilt as an artist in residence at Michigan State University. It was inspiring to work right in the gallery surrounded by the powerful quilts assembled for the exhibition celebrating the Declaration of Human Rights. I was honored that the University chose to acquire the finished work. I thank Pat Turner, UC Davis, for including the piece in progress in a presentation at the American Folklore Society on “Katrina quilts” and Marsha MacDowell for showing interest and patience as I completed it.

The boat and the water have been both the sites of despair and death and means of escape and hope economic and physical lifelines for Haitians and the people of African descent in New Orleans. Baron Samedi in the sacred traditions of Haiti  and in New Orleans is both guardian of the cemetery and the lwa of procreation/fertility/virility. He combines both the origins of life and the decay of the body. He inspires acts of conception and leads souls to the afterlife.

The inner border alludes to the oil spills that represent new water related difficulties that impact the lives, peoples and cultures of the region. I always saw the image of the crowded ships that brought Africans across the Middle Passage to these shores and the Caribbean as powerful but as I sewed the images to the quilt marking the stitches with attention to the number of human beings whose bodies lay side by side, I suddenly had a visceral sense of what it must have been like to be on that ship. The boats that bring Haitians on the risky journey to the US borders (as depicted in the quilt) are equally as crowded as were some of the boats attempting to rescue Katrina survivors. It was tempting to include images from and allusions to the recent earthquake, but chose to deal with water related issues only in this piece.

I wanted the quilt, though depicting devastation to be beautiful even in the depiction of tragedy, in homage to the people of both Haiti and New Orleans who continue with so much tragedy with spirit and creativity. - Diana N’Diaye

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