Notes on Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts

The project titled Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts by Sisonke sex workers is an arts-based project which was conducted in 2016 in a collaboration between The MoVE Project at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), and the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement. The participants in this project created a series of mixed media artworks, referred to as quilts within the project, that were part of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) AIDS Quilt Project. The quilts were conceptualised, designed and produced by the Sisonke participants, in partnership with MoVE facilitators. In this post I reflect on the project’s origins, the workshop process, and the exhibition of the work.

Origins of the project
The SANAC created the AIDS Quilt Project to aggregate personal stories of people who have been affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The SANAC asked Sisonke offices across South Africa to create some quilts for this project. The quilts were commissioned for the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) which took place in Durban in July 2016. The following is from the conference website, and describes the SANAC’s thinking behind the quilts:

Inspired by the Memorial Quilts, which were 300 three by six foot panels of cloth commemorating the life of someone who has died of AIDS displayed at AIDS 2000, SANAC’s Quilt Project will display new story panels at AIDS 2016. Tapping into South Africa’s rich creative culture, the Quilt Project will visually tell the stories of people living with or affected by HIV across the country. The AIDS Quilt Project is more than simply using art as a creative outlet; every quilt shows a personal story of a South African living with or affected by HIV, AIDS and tuberculosis. The quilt speaks in a way that words cannot fully express – representing many South Africans, regardless of their gender, race, age or sexual orientation. The Project gives a human face to the epidemic, giving valuable insight into the people behind the statistic and the communities on the frontlines of the response.

The quilts were intended to show the turbulent history of HIV and AIDS in South Africa, through the eyes of people who have been affected by HIV and AIDS since the last International AIDS Conference that was held in South Africa, back in 2000. Kanya Ndaki (2017), from the South African AIDS Council, described the quilt project as being about a journey towards a more equitable and humane way of interacting with HIV and AIDS as a society:

The quilt project is about South Africa’s journey. When the International AIDS Conference came to Durban in 2000 it was a bleak time in South Africa’s history: anti-retrovirals were not available and stigma and discrimination were widespread. But also the Department of Health at that time decided to introduce an AIDS Memorial Quilt project which celebrated and commemorated the lives of those who had lost families due to HIV. AIDS 2016 would tell this journey to how we came from a time of loss and death and stigma and discrimination to where we are now where we can actually talk about treatment we can talk about stigma we can talk about HIV and we’re much more open. So what the quilts do is visually tell this story this is one.

The quilts that Sisonke Gauteng submitted for the AIDS Quilt Project tell this story from the eyes of people who sell sex for an income.

Workshop process
The Sisonke National Advocacy and Media Liaison, Katlego Rasebitse, asked MoVE collaborators to assist with the facilitation of the quilt-making process. With the help of Katlego and Greta Schuler, Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated an arts-based, activist-style workshop with ten Sisonke Gauteng members.

Workshop Documentation (2016) Participants making quilts in Yeoville , Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts by Sisonke Sex Workers.

The workshop took place over the course of two days. It was held at the Yeoville Community Centre in inner city Johannesburg. We had access to a medium sized room. This room had just enough floor space to lay down onto the floor two, two-and-a-half meter long quilts, while still being able to walk around the room and work at tables.

We started the workshop with a facilitated discussion with the Sisonke team. In this discussion, we talked about lived experiences, ideas and knowledge linked to HIV and AIDS related to sex work in Gauteng and South Africa. While this discussion served as a general introduction and framing mechanism for the workshop, the workshop had a very short timeframe, and we had four quilts to make. That means we had to find a way to drive forward idea generation through the quilt making working process. We had to trust the art-making process as a thinking process.

We decided to finish each quilt before continuing with the next. Focusing on single quilts would provide participants enough encouragement not to become overwhelmed by the amount of work that had to be done in a short amount of time. This would ensure a momentum that would push the workshop forward. We started each quilt with a short brainstorming session. Each participant was tasked to come up with a few subject-matter ideas for that quilt, write down those ideas, and then present them to the group. We, as facilitators, guided participants in collating the important ideas arising in these presentations, helped participants brainstorm symbols and images to visualise the ideas, and assisted in designing the basic layout of the quilts. We also help participants choose what they thought the main ideas or themes for each quilt had to be. This main idea would then be transformed into a slogan, and be fabricated as a large, bold and highly readable element of the quilt. Much thought was placed in the symbolism of the images that were chosen, and of the text that would accompany those images – participants had novel ideas when it came to the imagery and language they wanted to use. As soon as the basic design for the quilt that was being worked on was decided upon, the participants would break up into smaller, somewhat informal teams, each team working on specific aspects of the quilt: cutting shapes; drawing images; pasting down material; and so forth. This workshop structure worked out well, because it gave participants focussed objectives and clear deliverables based on specific time constrains.

At the end of the second day, without anyone quite knowing how we had pulled it off, we had four quilts telling a story about HIV and AIDS in South Africa through the eyes of ten participants who sell sex for an income.

The quilts and their symbols
The quilts were designed to tell a story through images and text. They had to share sex workers’ experiences, specifically in relation to HIV and AIDS; from before the year 2000 up to the year 2016. The quilts feature four periods, and the important concerns, topics, achievements and sensibilities connected to those periods. The quilt time periods were (1) before 2000; (2) 2000 – 2006; (3) 2006 – current; and, (4) moving forward.

[… For the rest of this blog post visit, “Notes on Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts“…] 

About Quinten Williams

Quinten Edward Williams is a Johannesburg based artist. Arts-based research projects provide him with the opportunity to work with nuanced relationships that are embedded in specific places. Projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project allow Quinten to expand his art practice beyond the painter’s studio, linking up with social justice movements.