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Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington has partnered with the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast to display several quilts remembering Cape Fear area residents who lost their lives to AIDS. In addition to several local quilts, CAM is exhibiting two large panels on special loan from the National AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and consisted of nearly 2,000 panels. Today, it has close to 50,000 panels, honoring more than 105,000 individuals! Quilts have become an important symbol in raising awareness around HIV/AIDS and a touching tradition for those who have survived.
The first quilt on the wall in CAM comes from the National Quilt. Giant sequence lettering spells out the name Neil Lewis, a DJ from San Francisco, "originally known as Neil A-Go-Go." In the center of the quilt is a painstakingly detailed game board with amusing details about Lewis. Played like Monopoly, this quilted game has squares like, "To the Bar," "GHB Overdose," and "Bathroom Break." Each game-square also has comical instructions based on memories and personal details. My favorite, "Shut Up," tells the player, "Your favorite song comes on and some idiot is going on and on with some lame story — Collect 40 Disco Bucks from every player." Endlessly creative and intimately personal, each AIDS quilt poignantly embodies the deceased.
One of the regional quilts — made for S. Craig Riddle, who died at the age of 37 — is copied from a detail in the Italian fresco The Deposition of Christ from the Cross by Pietro Lorenzetti. A note off to the side, written by the quilt's creator, describes Riddle's studies in Italian art history. According to the note, Riddle and the author had a tender fling while studying abroad in Europe. "OMG," the note says, "I thought he was so worldly and cosmopolitan." The author goes on to describe how Riddle would act as a tour guide as they walked romantically together through Rome. Openness, honesty, and vulnerability run rampant through this exhibition, which can't fail to tug at some heart strings.
Enriching music plays through the room as you walk around the exhibit. The songs come from Red Hot Organization, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture. The organization's first album, Red Hot + Blue, compiled Cole Porter cover songs recorded by artists like U2, Iggy Pop, Annie Lennox, and David Byrne. These and other songs from various Red Hot compilation albums foster an air of contemplation and reflection on the cultural history of AIDS in America.
Another local quilt, dedicated to Luwana "Pumpkin" Daniels, emphasizes the need for continual awareness. Daniels became infected in 1990. The stigma surrounding AIDS caused her to isolate in embarrassment and shame; she didn't seek help for six years and succumbed to her illness in 1998 at the age of 41. Daniels' life inspired the work done by SEEDS of Healing, Inc. (SoH), an HIV awareness and advocacy organization that helps empower and educate women who suffer from AIDS. SoH helps women with AIDS to live productive and fulfilling lives free of stigma.
The second quilt on loan from the national collection was created by women inmates at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Incredibly detailed, this quilt memorializes dozens of loved ones, while also expressing the creativity of the women who made it. Unlike some of the other quilts, this one predominately mentions victims by their first names only, which, according to CAM curator Matt Budd, is a product of stigmatization. Organized like a massive painting, this quilt depicts a prison yard with cell blocks, gardens, and a chain-link fence going all around like a picture frame. A small plane flies through the sky above the prison towing a banner that reads, "PRAY for the DEAD and FIGHT like hell for the LIVING." Just below the plane, the artists sewed a hovering helicopter dangling an escape ladder over the fence, a humorous detail that demonstrates just how much personality goes into these amazing cultural artifacts.
The AIDS crisis reached its peak in the mid-1990s, although HIV continues to spread today. Since the 1980s, when the epidemic really took off, AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 36 million people; more than 37 million people alive today are infected. The Cape Fear area in particular has one of the nation's highest growing infection rates, according to the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Region. This quilt exhibit not only honors those who have died, but it also raises critical awareness about prevention and living with infection.
The quilts are on display at CAM until Sunday, February 27. For more details on the exhibition, please view the sidebar.