Ten years ago, seven strangers gathered in a San Francisco storefront to commemorate lives of loved ones lost to AIDS. This informal meeting laid the foundation for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a quilt that contains thousands of panels contributed from 40 nations.
“The quilt is a means for greater awareness for everyone of the devastation AIDS has had,” said San Francisco resident Kelly Lee, who contributed a panel to the quilt last year.
Two of the ever-growing quilt’s sections, from Israel, are being displayed through Thursday at the University’s Hillel Jewish Student Center.
“The quilt brings you in touch with the people this is happening to,” said Hillel student organizer Noa Saadi.
Most 12-by-12-foot sections of the quilt are created by sewing together eight 3-by-6-foot panels, each representing an AIDS victim. In the October before each presidential election the smaller sections are brought together on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to keep the plight of AIDS victims in the minds of Americans.
One of the Israeli panels on display at the University was created in the spirit of an AIDS victim’s Sephardic background. Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors are from Spain, Portugal, the Middle East and Asia.
Another panel was a collective effort in Tel Aviv to document the lives of Israeli AIDS victims who have never been formally recognized.
“You find that the materials you use for the panel you’re creating become a symbolic work of art, a window into the person’s life,” said Lee, who made a panel last year in memory of his lover.
Weighing more than 50 tons, the fully assembled quilt has panels bearing photographs and flags, corduroy and cremation ashes, favorite jeans and wedding rings. Coming from 40 different countries, the panels are all interwoven to create a powerful visual reminder of the millions of lives touched by the AIDS epidemic.
“The process of making a panel is bittersweet. Their memory is sweet. But there is pain knowing that they are gone. When you’re sitting there, sewing, it becomes a meditative process of facing the feelings of loss. It is an act of courage,” said Lee.
Starting out as 1,980 panels on the Capitol Mall in 1987, the quilt has quietly grown to more than 40,000 panels and spans an area equal to 24 football fields.
“On the opening day they unfold the quilt and have a reading of names. Over 70,000 names were read continually for three days,” said Lee.
Viewing the quilt in its entirety can be a more moving experience than many people anticipate.
“I went there naively thinking that seeing the quilt would be a great art experience,” said NAMES Project volunteer Mary Wagner. “It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. There was complete silence, with the exception of the reading of the names.”
The World Health Organization reports that AIDS is the world’s fastest spreading epidemic. In 1996, 2.7 million people were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
“Everyone knows someone — it doesn’t take six degrees of separation. It is much closer for everyone,” said Lee.
The quilt serves to increase awareness and to educate the public about the disease.
“Education needs to be done on a personal level and it needs to be done on a social level,” said Lee.