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Reviewed by:
  • Quilts and Human Rights by Marsha MacDowell, et al.
  • Kelley Dianne Totten
Quilts and Human Rights. By Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Lynne Swanson, and Beth Donaldson; foreword by Desmond Tutu. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 210, foreword, preface, acknowledgments, 105 color photos, notes, bibliography, index.)

Winner of the 2017 Chicago Folklore Prize, Quilts and Human Rights beautifully highlights the individual and collective voices of fiber artists who have recorded histories with fabric, thread, and needles. The book complements a Michigan State University Museum travelling exhibit of the same name to present a moving survey of quilts made to protest human rights violations, document social justice initiatives, or memorialize and share personal stories of inequality, abuse, death, or struggle. Similarly to the objects it documents, the book transcends a singular representation to reveal multi-faceted and complex stories stitched in and with traditional forms.

With its extensive gallery of quilts, the catalog bears witness to individual and group material responses to issues of human rights. The authors framed their selection process by using the United Nations’ International Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that all humans have the right to live and express themselves freely. The quilts raise awareness and share stories as objects of activism, banners of protest, records of events, and symbolic representations of experience. Additionally, the authors note [End Page 82] that the processes of making can serve as acts of resistance: women dealing with trauma through the action of sewing; incarcerated individuals using quiltmaking to pass the time in productive ways; or organizations and communities using quilts as a means to raise money, in both fundraising initiatives and economic development. The broad framework of human rights quilts allows for a book rich with historical and contemporary examples that illustrate both the power of quilts to communicate human experience and the dynamic, innovative means by which makers employ traditional methods.

Each quilt demands the reader’s attention, the images so moving that one considers how strong an effect they must have when on exhibit as material objects rather than represented as images in the book. While collectively they illustrate the medium as a tool for resistance, individually they reveal trauma, oppressive histories, and emotional tributes to perseverance and survival. In the introductory essay, the authors chose as their first example an image of an arpillera, a traditional Chilean fiber art form in which makers document everyday life by stitching appliqué scenes with embroidery thread. Women revitalized the traditional form as a tool of protest under the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, when everyday life included searching for “the disappeared” and witnessing the killings of loved ones. Similarly to the arpillera, many of the included quilts utilize representational imagery to convey meaning. Others use stitched or written lettering, such as April Shipp’s “Strange Fruit: A Century of Lynching from 1865–1965.” Shipp created a remembrance of those who had been murdered by researching and listing each individual’s full name. The sheer volume of names, stitched in small yellow letters on a black background and accented with two small depictions of a noose at the top of the quilt (pp. 112–3), confronts the viewer. Some examples are interactive, such as “Childhood Trauma Game,” in which participants can “play” but never win as they advance along the game board through quiltmaker Linda Platt’s childhood experiences, continually moving from one abuse to another, often going back to repeat traumas. While viewers will undoubtedly experience the quilt and its content through differing perspectives, including a range of emotions from dismay to recognition, Platt noted that, for her, the artistic activity was necessary for her mental health: “Finishing this quilt was a leap out of my own personal hell” (pp. 100–1).

Though not exclusively made by women, quilts predominantly associated with domestic, feminine work have often been overlooked for their value as authoritative sources. This book helps to correct the omission, valuing the textiles as historical records. In fact, the power of the message is often heightened through the perceived triviality of the medium. Valuing women’s communication, the authors employ ethnographic methods to broaden understandings of makers’ intentions and agency, as well...


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pp. 82-84
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