Arts + Advocacy Blog: Weaving Political Action into the Healing Arts

Written by Jasmine Sinclair Wilson

Last week, we discussed the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This journey to Montgomery, Alabama taught us about EJI’s efforts to educate the world about lynching, Jim Crow laws, and slavery. As institutions committed to memory and justice, they invoke conversation surrounding these issues and exemplify the role of the arts in challenging those who try to erase and ignore the past. This week’s post will carry on the theme of memory in the arts by highlighting one of the largest community art projects in the world: The AIDS Memorial Quilt and its organization, the NAMES Project Foundation.

AIDS Memorial Quilt via Bloomberg Volunteer Network

In the 1970s, AIDS and LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones was living in San Francisco while working under his mentor Harvey Milk—a lead gay rights activist in the historic Castro neighborhood. In 1977, Milk achieved a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and worked alongside liberal Mayor George Moscone. While Milk and Moscone worked to abolish anti-sodomy laws in San Francisco and advocate for gay right issues, they faced opposition from Supervisor Dan White “who was troubled by what he perceived as a breakdown in traditional values and a growing tolerance of homosexuality.” After a year in office, White resigned from his position due to a salary he believed “wasn’t enough to feed his family.” He returned to be reappointed, believing Milk and Moscone were “driving his city downhill,” but Moscone refused to give White his job back.

On November 27, 1978 White entered City Hall with a loaded gun and assassinated Moscone and Milk before turning himself in at the police station. Cleve Jones, who was in the building during the shooting, was deeply impacted by the loss of his mentor: “I knew by the end of the day that that was the single most important moment of my life, and it was the single most important thing that happened to me.” In 1985, Jones tested positive for HIV. This news paired with the Reagan Administration’s utter apathy surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis deeply distressed Jones and countless others. That same year, Jones was struck by news related to HIV/AIDS death tolls in San Francisco; in an interview with Hello Mr. magazine, he states how he lost “about 2,000 men for over a decade” in his neighborhood.

Photo: Michael Bry
Cleve Jones speaks at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1979 via Out Smart Magazine

Though these depressing numbers and lack of governmental action plagued his community, Jones found strength in organizing an annual candlelight march for Milk and Moscone. He took a San Francisco newspaper headline about AIDS deaths totaling over 1000 and used it to galvanize others to take action. For the 1985 march, he asked participants to write down the names of their loved ones who had died of AIDS. Jones provided markers and poster boards and echoed his directions through Milk’s old bullhorn. Each of the participants placed a placard with the first and last name of their late loved ones on the side of the Reagan administration’s Health and Human Services West Coast Office building. As an act of political protest, these placards combatted the administration’s rejection of truth and neglect of its communities. Seeing these names in mass numbers on the wall revealed the importance of going beyond epidemic  statistics to truly humanize those affected by HIV/AIDS, while creating a visual voice through the arts. Because the wall resembled a patchwork quilt, it inspired Jones to create the AIDS Memorial Quilt and establish the NAMES Project Foundation as the organization committed to preserving and exhibiting it.

Keith Haring Quilt Patch via SPACE Gallery

AIDS Quilt via The Yellow Jacket

In 1987, the Foundation became an internationally recognized 501(c)(3) organization and established its first headquarters in San Francisco. People living in highly affected HIV/AIDS cities—Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—each sent in patches with the names of loved ones who died of HIV/AIDS. Mirroring the size of a grave, each panel of fabric is measured at three by six feet. On October 11, 1987, almost ten years after Cleve Jones lost Milk and Moscone, the quilt had grown to 1,920 panels and was first showcased on the National Mall in Washington D.C during the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. With over half a million people visiting the quilt in its first week, it quickly gained recognition and travelled to 20 cities over 4 months, raising “more than $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations.”

The Quilt continued to grow and became a rallying point to challenge prejudices and homophobic attitudes towards the gay community and to honor those who had died of HIV/AIDS. Quilt contributors used various fabrics and materials including “feather boas, lace, leather, love letters, cowboy boots, buttons and bows, paintings, photographs, fishnet, and fur.” These art materials were tangible tokens for the healing power behind the quilt. It reached new heights in 1989 upon receiving a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and by 1992, the Quilt included panels from every US state as well as 28 other countries. The NAMES Project Foundation was also invited to march with the quilt during President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parade in 1993.

The Quilt ultimately moved beyond its birthplace in San Francisco to build a community of people who supported its mission: “To preserve, care for, and use the AIDS Memorial Quilt to foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the struggle against HIV and AIDS.” This mission carries on today at the Names Project Foundation headquarters here in Atlanta, which was established in 2002. The Quilt currently includes “49,000 panels, dedicated to over 96,000 individuals” and weighs 54-tons. The NAMES Project Foundation encompasses 10 US chapters and 11 international affiliates; its current initiatives include the “Call My Name” project, a weekly panel-making workshop for African American women to create panels for those who they have lost to HIV/AIDS. It also offers national programming to build HIV/AIDS awareness for youth, students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and faith-based institutions.

Recent Photo of AIDS Quilt Founder Cleve Jones via NPR

Between these impactful programs and awareness efforts, the Names Project Foundation stands as an international advocate for change and for those in need of healing. Cleve Jones continues to spread his message to communities throughout the world through his public speaking efforts and memoir When We Rise. Similar to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the AIDS Memorial Quilt embodies the vital importance of preserving memory to spur political action. It reveals the ways we are connected while challenging us to continue fighting for equality. For those interested in seeing the quilt, check out the Atlanta History Center before June 30 and also take a look at the display list.

Jasmine Wilson is a Communications Intern with WonderRoot. She enjoys writing about the arts and reports on a variety of topics for our Arts + Advocacy Blog. She can be reached via email.  


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