Stitching Up The Past |

9 mins

Stitching Up The Past

As a child of the ‘80s, the AIDS crisis holds a strange place in my psyche. I have hazy memories of horrific news reports and sinister advertising campaigns jumbled up with DayGlo sweatshirts, Cabbage Patch Kids, bad mullets (before they became a Covid-19 must), and Band AID.

Drawing a line between what I actually remember and what I’ve come to learn is a difficult distinction and one that I try not to dwell on too much because, at the end of the day, very little to do with the AIDS crisis can ever be remembered with fondness.

Mixed up in all the murkiness of recollection is the Names Quilt. I can’t remember when I first learned about its existence, perhaps it was on a TV programme or in a newspaper or through school, it’s just one of those things that I seemed to always have been aware of. 

The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was the brainchild of human rights activist, lecturer and author Cleve Jones. During his time helping to organise the annual candle-lit commemorative march to remember the assassination of Harvey Milk, Cleve learned that over 1,000 gay men had died from AIDS-related illnesses in San Francisco. So for the 1985 march, he asked people to write some of their names on placards. After the march, they taped the placards to the wall of the federal building resulting in what looked like a patchwork quilt.

“I remember one day exclaiming in rage to my friends, ‘you know, if this was a meadow with a thousand corpses rotting in the sun, then people would look at this, they would see it.’ So each panel is three foot by six foot, the approximate size of a grave, and that was deliberate,” Cleve explained in a BBC documentary. “I wanted to show how much land would be covered if all these bodies were lined up head-to-toe.” 

Something I will never forget is the first time I saw the quilt in real life. It was also the first time I got to meet the incredible Mary Shannon, founder of the Irish Names Project, and it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

We were setting up the Queer-in-Progress Timeline exhibition in Project Arts Centre and Mary had agreed to loan us one of the quilts for the display.

About a week before we launched, Mary and her husband Christy came to the gallery to deliver the quilt. She wandered into the room, sceptically eyeing up myself and Livia Paldí, the curator, before scanning the gallery space. Shortly afterwards, Christy followed behind hauling a heavy black canvas bag.

At first, I was concerned that her look of scepticism was something sinister but I quickly came to learn that it was purely out of concern for the quilt. As we sat and chatted about how it would be hung and where it would sit best within the space, I began to understand Mary’s passion and her sense of responsibility towards the quilt. I also discovered her incredible warmth, endless generosity, and uncompromising empathy.

When it came time to open the bag, she and Christy delicately lifted out the folded fabric. I was immediately struck by how thick and heavy it was. As they began to unfurl it out onto the large table, I could see they were struggling under what seemed like an unending number of folds, so I tentatively asked if I could help. As I gingerly placed my hands on one of the corners, I was overcome with a sense of awe and reverence. By the time we had it fully opened, I couldn’t hold back my tears.

Following the death of her close friend Joe Carthy in 1990, Mary wanted to find a way to commemorate him. After hearing about the Names Quilt in the US, she decided to start an Irish quilt. She began to run workshops in the offices of the Dublin AIDS Alliance for friends and families of people who had lost loved ones through AIDS complications.

In an interview with GCN’s Peter Dunne in 2018, she explained, “A few of us got together, we put out the word about what we were doing and people started coming in to help, or to make panels for someone they had lost. We put out word that we wanted buttons and little knickknacks to sew on the panels. We used to get dresses and skirts as bits of material. Two of the lads were great characters, they used to put on the dresses. It brought laughter into the room, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Everybody who was in there had been affected in one way or another by HIV and AIDS, so everybody could talk to one another, there was nothing that couldn’t be said.”

Mary also pointed out the importance of the quilt in bringing together different communities that had been affected by the disease. “It wasn’t just for gay people, there was no creed, no matter who wanted to make a panel – we helped them make it.”

During my initial meeting with Mary and Christy, they warmly told the story of each of the panels, recounting stories of the friends that they had cared for and ultimately lost to the disease. They told us about the girl who wanted to remember her mother and had asked them to make a panel for her but gave them nothing more than the woman’s name, so they had just added flowers.

At one point, Christy opened up a bum bag that was stitched to the bottom panel and took out a box of cigarettes and a lighter. He explained that they had been the last packet of cigarettes that a woman called Grace had owned before she died. It dawned on me how not only do the quilts serve as a way for loved ones to remember those who have passed away but also how they bring us into those people’s lives.

Seeing the objects and knowing that they once belonged to the people who had died, I felt close to them, as if they were almost in the room with us.

Over the next week, Mary and Christy returned to the gallery on two more occasions, firstly to oversee the hanging and then for the exhibition’s opening. Each time, Mary was so warm and giving of her time and herself. She continually expressed her appreciation to us for displaying the quilt and talked about how she wished that they could be put out on display more often.

The opening night of the exhibition was also the last time I met Mary. The following week the country went into the first Covid-19 lockdown and sadly, Mary passed away on July 19, 2020. Despite the brief time that I had spent with Mary, I was deeply saddened by the news of her passing but honoured to have had the chance to get to know her.

Before Mary’s passing, she had the foresight to entrust the custodianship of the quilts to Judith Finlay and Kate Drinane of Queer Culture Ireland (QCI). Together with historian Dr Patrick McDonagh and Dublin Pride, they mounted The Quilt: Echoes and Memory exhibition in the old Filmbase building on Dublin’s Curved Street on December 1, 2020, as a tribute to Mary and to mark World AIDS Day.

Since then the quilts have been in almost constant circulation, touring the country to arts centres, county council offices and museums.

In September 2022, in association with QCI, the REWIND<<FASTFOWARD>>RECORD (RFR) initiative exhibited one of the quilts in Galway Arts Centre to accompany the Array Collective’s Turner Prize-winning The Druthaib’s Ball. As part of a three-week residency, RFR also devised a series of talks and workshops responding to the exhibition.

After the talk, Kate and I hosted a patch-making workshop, inviting members of the public to create their own commemorative patches. All of the participants brought their own stories to the workshop, many expanding beyond HIV and AIDS. One of the participants wanted to commemorate their friend, Sylva Tukula, a Trans woman who died in a Direct Provision centre in August 2019. She was buried in an unmarked grave and none of her friends within the LGBTQ+ community in Galway, where she had been an active and vibrant member, were informed.

Sylva’s friend spoke warmly about how she loved cooking and getting her nails done and how she used to call everyone “Darling”, so we helped them work these into a design for a patch to remember her.

Another participant who had been recently diagnosed with HIV wanted to pay tribute to some of the nurses and support workers who had helped him in learning to accept his diagnosis, so he included their names in a patch. Although some of the participants were remembering loved ones who had passed away, many others wanted to share stories of celebration, including Liz Martin, a HIV activist. In creating a radiant peacock, she remarked on how it was the first time she had made a patch that was about being a person living with HIV instead of remembering someone who had died. Liz described, “For me, the peacock represents new beginnings and living each moment as it comes. I actually called the peacock Penny. I think he had to have a name and it looked like a Penny. You see, he’s quite colourful and vibrant. I guess that’s what I wanted to show people- he’s full of life and colour.

“Sewing away became a cathartic experience and took me on a journey to a place back in time. There are 31 eyes on the patch and each one represents a year since I tested Positive, so I’m 31 years Positive.

“As I sat at the workshop table, I did not want to visualise loss. I, like others, have lost many to this disease. For me, the workshop transcended making something from nothing. It was the concept of making something about ‘living with HIV and not loss’ that was important.”

Inspired by these beautiful stories and the power and warmth of coming together to remember, Kate and I felt that there was still a need for us to have spaces like this. So, as part of this year’s Winter Pride programme and throughout 2023, RFR and QCI will be hosting a series of patch-making workshops.

The hope is to make enough patches from these workshops to create a new quilt which will be mounted on some of the leftover canvas from the original quilts which has been donated by Mary’s husband Christy.

We would like to invite anybody who wishes to remember loved ones past or present or to celebrate the joys of life, to come along to the workshops. Fabric and assembly materials will be provided but please feel free to bring buttons, badges, small trinkets or other adornments to make your patch as personal as possible.

For more information on the workshops follow REWIND<<FASTFOWARD>>RECORD and Queer Culture Ireland on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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