The History of the AIDS Memorial Quilt

Still Here: Art on HIV/AIDS from October 29th to December 7th at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Written by Fiona Yang

quilt dc.pngThe AIDS Quilt is a poignant, heart-wrenching piece of art that serves as a reminder of the impact of the AIDS crisis. Conceptualized by activist Cleve Jones, the quilt had its humble beginnings in June 1987. Jones asked permission for the first five panels of the quilt to be hung from the mayor’s balcony on Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco. After that, people began donating panels. A quilt of 1,920 panels was unfolded at the National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights in October 1987. The quilt being displayed in such a public space inspired many more to donate; the quilt now consists of over 49,000 panels. It also raised a quarter of a million dollars for AIDS organizations around the country. 

As a piece of art, the Quilt symbolizes many things. It represents an item of comfort, for example. Jones wrote in his book that it reminded him of grandmothers, generations of women sewing something “beautiful, useful, and warm.” It represents healing; Jones hoped that the making of quilt squares could be therapeutic for the LGBT+ community, which had been traumatized by years of death. Most importantly, Jones wanted the Quilt to represent the humanity of those who had died from AIDS. He wanted to “humanize the statistics,” to make it apparent that those who had died livedvibrant lives and were grieved.

Jones hoped that by humanizing victims of AIDS, the media would be able to use it as a tool to better advocate for the AIDS crisis, and the Quilt was very effective to this end. The Quilt was just one of many pieces of protest art during this time that were utilized in the same way. During the 1980s, at the worst of the AIDS crisis, LGBT+ activism was on the rise in response to a governmental inaction. The most prominent on the activist scene was ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Chapters of ACT UP staged protests outside the FDA, the CDC, and on Wall Street. Their protests actively changed the medical landscape; research on a cure moved along much faster with momentum from ACT UP. 

Along with the organization’s powerful message were powerful visuals. For instance, one famous poster simply reads “Silence = Death.” The slogan is iconic now; the quote even features in Antonius Tin-Bui’s “Not Sorry for the Trouble” paper cut pieces here in Stamp Gallery. “Silence = Death” is referring to the lack of action by the administration, along with public health institutions, to address the AIDS crisis. The slogan does not mince words; it links the silence of the reader and governmental institutions directly to the many deaths attributed to AIDS. It speaks to a feeling of deep anger, frustration, and hopelessness in the LGBT+ community. In this way, it is a deeply emotional piece, much like the AIDS Quilt. 

silence.pngHowever, it was meant to be more than just a gesture of grief. Avram Finkelstein, the creator of the poster, posits the slogan and iconography of “Silence = Death” as urging direct political action. He writes in a post for the New York Public Library, “In order to ‘sell’ activism in an apolitical moment, the poster… needed to be advertising. So the poster was strategically wheat pasted alongside commercial posters by professionals. We chose this context to signal an “authorized voice,” and to hint at resources and a level of political organizing which were non-existent. The font was graphically on trend. The black background carved its own space in the urban clutter of commercial advertising.” The tag line was picked up by ACT UP and made its way into the public sphere, where it has since defined a generation of LGBT+ activism. 

The art surrounding the AIDS crisis has been deeply poignant and meaningful for victims of the crisis, as well as members of the general public. But these pieces serve as more than just an emotional outlet. They are calls to action. In this way, these pieces of art attain true iconographic status. 

The AIDS Quilt is included in Still Here: Art on HIV/AIDS at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from October 29th to December 7th, 2019. 

For more information on the AIDS Quilt, visit https://aidsmemorial.org/theaidsquilt/.

Further reading:

Cleve Jones on the AIDS Quilt: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/how-one-mans-idea-for-the-aids-quilt-made-the-country-pay-attention/2016/10/07/15917576-899c-11e6-b24f-a7f89eb68887_story.html

Avram Finkelstein on “Silence = Death”: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/11/22/silence-equals-death-poster



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