On September 5, 2017, the Pick Museum of Anthropology at NIU, where I work as curator, opened an exhibit called "Quilts and Human Rights." Originally curated by the Michigan State University Museum in 2008, I expanded the exhibit for our installation at the Pick to include almost 20 additional quilts made between 2008 and 2017 to bring the exhibit up to the present day. When we opened the exhibit, we never expected the ways these quilts would inspire faculty, staff, and students at Northern Illinois University.
Earlier this year, NIU student Lili Fujiu visited "Quilts and Human Rights" on a class field trip. When her tour was over, she told me that she had visited the exhibit before and it inspired her to arrange a song for her a cappella group. She asked if the group, The Harmelodics, could rehearse the song in the museum so the rest of the members could see the quilts on display. Instead, we planned an incredible exhibit closing event around the song to celebrate the exhibit and our community.
The performance was truly magical. Lili's arrangement, inspired by the social justice quilts on display, was so moving that there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Luckily, for those of you who could not attend, filmmaker and NIU professor Randy Caspersen captured the performance with the assistance of three of his students. Watch The Harmelodics sing "Peaces" below and read more about the song after!
As a former musician, a quilter, and a curator, this was one of the most meaningful moments in my career. Lili's arrangement truly captured the struggle, resilience, and hope expressed in works included in the exhibit. "Social justice is something that I am very passionate about; my other passion is music," Lili explained. "When I went to see the exhibit for the first time, I was so moved by the beautiful pieces of art in front of me that were depicting such powerful messages. I felt that those messages could also be expressed beautifully through music." When she graduates, Lili told me that she hopes to attend law school to become a human rights lawyer.
The exhibit closing celebration also featured remarks from Kristen Myers, the director of NIU's Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, which was our partner in all of the "Quilts and Human Rights" programs we hosted. Kirsten spoke about her personal connection to sewing, which her mother taught her as a teenager. At first, it didn't stick. "I gave up sewing for years," Kirsten said. "I dismissed it as another way my mom was trying to make me into an ideal woman."
But Kristen started sewing again after her first daughter was born, making baby quilts, clothes, and the best Halloween and dance costumes. "Some semesters I sew every day, and I still felt like I was doing devalued women's work - something kind of embarrassing, to keep secret, to hide this part of my everyday life." That changed for Kristen after her center partnered with the Pick for "Quilts and Human Rights."
"It was not until this year when I heard [speakers] talk about making quilts and what they mean historically and today, that I was able to integrate what I know intellectually, that women's work is real work with great social value, and what I do personally, sew for hours alone in my basement." Kristen continued, "The exhibit and events have changed people forever. Those of us who made quilts squares and created protest banners created new community through these events."
Kristen closed her remarks by calling this the most impactful academic year in her 22 years of teaching and thanking the museum for "facilitating a feminist, anti-racist, transformative experience." Her love for the exhibit was unmatched on campus, and the exhibit and its programs were better because of her support.
I am so thrilled that my museum decided to host "Quilts and Human Rights," and I'm thrilled that we could build off of the excellent work done by the curators at the Michigan State University Museum. Every day that this exhibit has been installed in our space has been an honor, and it will be very hard to say goodbye when it closes on Friday, May 11. "Quilts and Human Rights" has inspired people beyond our expectations, and it has reinforced to me the power of quilting. If you live in driving distance to DeKalb, Illinois, make sure you come to campus before May 11 to see this exhibit!
The Harmelodics are an award-winning collegiate a cappella group at Northern Illinois University. They are currently raising money to record an album. If you've been touched by their passion for quilts, you can donate to their GoFundMe and help them professionally record this song and others in their set list.