On a bright, windy Saturday afternoon on a football field in White River, South Dakota a team of volunteers lay out 250 quilt squares, each containing a of sexual violence. A week later in Queens, New York, more volunteers pin together quilt squares made by women who arrive, bringing with them children, families, and food to share. On a Tuesday in Chicago, the 250 stories are displayed in Daley Plaza. People pour out of their office towers to see what the bright red squares and the words “NOT ALONE” mean.
These are scenes from the Monument Quilt, which just completed a 13-city tour. The 100 foot square foot traveling quilt was displayed across the country this August in university gymnasiums, town squares, high school football fields, and urban parks. Survivor-led art and advocacy group FORCE, which I co-direct, planned the project in collaboration with 61 community organizations from Louisiana to Connecticut, creating an ongoing collection of stories from survivors of rape and abuse. By stitching our stories together, we are creating and demanding public space to heal. One day there should be a permanent monument in the US to survivors of rape. The quilt is a traveling temporary monument to begin to create that kind of public space in this country.
The goal of the Monument Quilt is to help change American culture from one that publicly shames survivors to a culture that publicly supports them.
“During the Baton Rouge display, I sat with a survivor while she made her own quilt square. She told me that making her square that day was the first time she had ever told anyone her story,” recounts Shameeka Dream, healing artist in residence with Force.
The power of the quilt is the power of storytelling. In each square, the quilt connects the personal to the political. In the effort to recognize the epidemic of sexual violence, we have become numb to the same statistics that have been stated (and not changed) for 40 years. The quilt makes physical those numbers. When you are standing in a field of quilt squares when you can read the depth of experience each square represents, you feel the impact of sexual trauma. Feeling that reality is different than knowing it intellectually.
“I’ve been describing the quilt as a punch in the gut,” said Sharmili Majmudar, Director of Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. “I felt like my breath was taken away by the power of those pieces. By how painful they are and how powerful they are and how joyful.”
The stories expressed on the quilt squares show how our pop culture discourse often glosses over the realities of rape and assault. On a quilt, one survivor wrote, “It was men who taught me that assault only happens to women, robbing me of the language I needed to name and process my experience.”
On another quilt square that was collected during the tour one survivor wrote, “I was scared, hiding my emotions away, hidden behind a mask that fooled people for years. I tore away the mask & began my long journey on the road to recovery. I may fall along the way but I will get there!”
On a quilt square made at White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, the group’s Education and Outreach Specialist Summer Lunderman wrote, “Lakota Women are Sacred.” She explained, “Native women are real. We are still here. And we experience higher rates of violence. We are not some Pocahontas or a fantasy character. We are people.”
How survivors experience, recover, survive and thrive through sexual assault is extremely personal and individual. No two quilt squares are the same, just like no two experiences of sexual violence. In the quilt, it is survivors who tell their own stories.
“What I love about the whole project is the narrative of control by survivors,” says Melanie Keller, co-director of Baltimore Hollaback who volunteers with the Monument Quilt. The diversity of the stories on the quilt show how rape affects all people in different ways.
“When rape victims are discussed in a non-blaming manner, they are generally young, heterosexual White women,” says Keller. The quilt squares made by male victims of sexual assault, people victimized by family members, partners abused by their intimate spouses, and other people we don’t often see discussed in media tell an uncomfortable truth. “Recognizing these stories is one huge step towards ending rape,” says Keller.
The Monument Quilt is an activist art project. “The power of these testimonials is the power to move people,” says Majmudar, of Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. “Its not just stories that we are used to hearing, but also stories that we don’t hear.”
During the displays, visitors were invited to write their own reflections on squares that say, “Sit. Write. Reflect.” On one such block, a visitor wrote, “I will read, believe and be transformed by every story here.”
Related Reading: We Need a National Monument to Survivors of Sexual Violence.
Rebecca Nagle is the founder and co-director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, a creative activist effort to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent. All photos are used with the permission of FORCE.