On the NAMES Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and Lost Photos

I remember going to a show of a portion of the AIDS quilt. Each 3 ' x 6 ' rectangle in the quilt commemorates in a highly personal way a loved one who had died of AIDS; most of the sections are made by surviving lovers, friends, family members. So many quilts have been made and gathered (over 32,000 of them by 1996) that only portions of the quilt can be displayed at a time. Groups of quilts travel to communities all over the world, to educate about the plague, raise funds, and help each local community face its losses from AIDS and look beyond.

In the display I went to in Pennsylvania, the quilt pieces filled a huge room, lined up in rows. They are hand-made, each by a person or a group who knew the person who died and loved them well enough to take the time. And the quilts emphasize each person's NAME, often in large letters, so that it will be recorded, reclaimed from silence and anonymity. Of course, to those who didn't know the person who died, each quilt will always to some degree be shadowed by anonymity, featuring as it does signs and symbols that can't mean as much to outsiders as to those who knew the person who passed. But what is unmistakable in each quilt is the strong and unsnappable quilt-stitches that forever link that person to the living: it is this link as well as individual people's names that is named and named again in the Quilt project. Some of the quilts are signed and dedicated by their makers, but even more moving are the quilts whose makers chose to remain anonymous: here anonymity stands for the hidden strength of human bonds rather than (as with the lost photos) the fraying of them. [continued below]

We walked among rows and rows of the quilts and read the inscriptions, like at the cemetery. But it was a cemetery of soft monuments, and no moment stood alone; each one touched another, rubbed shoulders together.... In Raymond Williams' words (see the beginning of the main "Instant Relatives" essay), memories are a form of desired continuity, a virtual community---and as commemorated in the quilt project, these memories of individuals are also placed within a larger context, the shadow of the plague that took them all, now turned into a field of light and color and reminders of the life lived, not the death. Each quilt is made lovingly from pieces of a life and the entire field of quilts (there must have been over a 100 in the room I was in) becomes not just random quilts placed together but a single quilt, THE quilt, a new community pieced from loss.

The Quilt is now so large, though, that all the individual quilts that make it up can rarely be physically displayed together. (The Quilt has been shown in its entirety several times, and there is an upcoming showing in the central Mall in Washington DC, but very soon it will probably become impossible to display the full quilt physically.) The Quilt's full existence and full meanings are thus becoming not physical but as a desired whole seen in the mind's eye and represented in the world's memory. The Quilt also lives as a "virtual" whole: the quilts are gathered and displayed and cared for by the NAMES Project: 2362 Market St., San Francisco CA 94114. The AIDS Quilt Project has a Web page filled with all kinds of information, including a history of the project and schedules of upcoming displays.

For more: See also Shoshana Kerewsky's article, "The AIDS Memorial Quilt: Personal and Therapeutic Uses,"
in the journal Pergamon: The Arts in Psychotherapy 24.5 (1997): 431-38.