by Marsha MacDowell et al. University of Nebraska Press, August 2016. 232 p. ill. ISBN 9780803249851 (pbk.), $39.95.
Reviewed September 2016
In American culture, the handmade quilt has long been a freighted signifier of home comforts, domestic economy, and "women's work" in the private realm. In Quilts and Human Rights, four quilt scholars from the Michigan State University Museum subvert that notion mightily, demonstrating that, for over two hundred years, thousands of women across many cultures have used their quilting skills instrumentally, to assert themselves as citizens of the wider world, capable of organizing to address human rights abuses and agitate for social change at home and abroad.
Individually and in organized collectives, quiltmakers documented here have wielded needle and thread to advocate for social justice, express solidarity, bear witness to events and oppression, protest human rights abuses, celebrate heroes, memorialize martyrs, and engage and recruit others in actions to put right a world of wrongs. From slavery, denial of the vote, worker oppression, civil war, economic inequality, child abuse, AIDS stigmatization, gun violence, apartheid, and the torture of political prisoners to genocide, environmental degradation, racism, domestic violence, the depopulation of Palestine—these and more are represented.
The authors present their ongoing investigation into the history, cultures, themes, and geographies of "quilt activism"in the form of a museum catalog. An extended essay charts the global history of quiltmaking and its connections to human rights, employing forty-five quilt projects by individual artists, regional quilting cooperatives, and organized 'quilting for social justice' initiatives worldwide to describe and analyze the various ways in which quilts have been used to address human rights issues. The book's gallery section highlights another fifty-seven examples in chronological order, photographed entire and in color, with individual descriptive captions. A statement about each quilt's content, context, and artist's motivation, often in the artist's own words, connects the personal story of the maker with the material object.
The curatorial 'voice' throughout is scholarly yet accessible, if occasionally disjointed by the effort to distill, from immense variety, a representative sampling of recurring themes, artistic styles, techniques, and quilt-activists' motivations and experiences. Even so, the authors remain attuned to the creativity, humanity, and full-throated advocacy manifested in these extraordinary objects. Highly recommended for all audiences, Quilts and Human Rights would illuminate any library.
Collectively, all four authors are quilt scholars with longstanding ties to the Great Lakes Quilt Center, the American Quilt Study group, The Alliance for American Quilts, and the Quilt Index, an international digital repository of over 75,000 quilt images and related documents.
Scholarly apparatus includes endnotes, a well-focused bibliography, and an index.