I happened upon a display of a small segment of the AIDS Quilt on campus at GSU last night. It is here for three days, to promote health and awareness of HIV/AIDS, sponsored by the GSU campus health and auxiliary services. I have seen small bits of it, but they were specific panels I had asked them to pull for me when I visited the headquarters of the NAMES Project Foundation in January. The difference this time was spending time as an anonymous visitor, as much time as I wanted, to observe, to read, to cry, to ponder the lives of these hundreds of souls whose squares ensure they remain part of the legacy, that they will not be forgotten in the midst of statistics on AIDS and the lives it has cost us.
My favorite thing about this artifact is that it is explicitly not an artifact. Cleve Jones, the one to conceive of the idea of this Quilt–as an awareness tool SO BIG that it would not be possible for politicians and heterosexual men and women to ignore it laying across the land–specifically explains in his memoir that this is not to be something to be tucked away and not seen, enjoyed, laid out in the grass, touched. It is here to provocate. It makes people sad, angry, nostalgic, happy, and often, all of these at once.
I have the constant urge to lay down and wrap one of the panels around me. This is silly and probably violates some giant rule (it certainly would in a museum), but this is what I really want to do when I see the squares laid across the ground. I want to be near them. I kneel down and stroke the sides, the edges, the various materials–velvet, polyester, silk, synthetic silk, cotton, leather, corduroy, pieces of clothing that were formerly owned by the namesake of each–I love reaching out and touching them, feeling myself connect to the names, the words written by mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers, nieces, friends, coworkers, children. I feel the pain in the words, the grief, the hurt of every day this person lives without this person they have lost.
One of the first panels I approached when I got to the student center was simple, with a photo in the center, birth and death dates, and beneath it read, “I loved being your mom.”
I was instantly moved. Ten seconds into my experience with this enormous, emotional piece of folk art. I wanted to share just a few images, moments, and words I found during my visit. You might notice that people put every kind of thing onto these Quilt panels. Shirts and clothing are very common. But one square below is two shirts, and below them, the man’s name is spelled out using an extension cord. I broke into a smile seeing this, and other odd momentos that surely carry such meaning.
My friend Margi shared with me some of the meaning behind her brother Parnell’s double-panel they made for him, and it contained so many more, subtle notes of significance than I imagined first seeing it. Every bit of his panel is steeped in vast, loving, meaning. I can only imagine the same amount of thought, love, and meaning poured into each of the details of every one of the squares I saw last night.
For clarity, the Quilt itself is not all connected, as it is miles and miles long. It is contained of 12-foot by 12-foot squares that each contain eight panels. So when you see a panel by itself, that is 3-feet by 6-feet, roughly the size of a human coffin. The portion on display in our student center is less than one percent of the entire Quilt.