In early May, American embroiderer Stephanie Dunlap (who creates under the moniker “Illuminate”) approached Australian quilter Tal Fitzpatrick with an idea. Dunlap had grown up a self-described “UN fangirl” and wanted to raise awareness of the refugee crisis by honoring the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
“With what we've been seeing in our current political and social climate, there’s all the more reason to highlight human rights and their defenders,” Dunlap told BUST about the purpose of the collaboration. Fitzpatrick echoed the same sentiments: “I think it’s undeniable how in our time and place in history right now this struck a nerve with people.”
So, Dunlap and Fitzpatrick sent out a call for artists on social media with the hope of finding thirty people willing to embroider one article each of the UDHR. Instead, they heard back from over one hundred and twenty.
Embroiderers from Venezuela to Iceland and the Philippines stepped up to embroider one of the thirty UDHR articles — four times over. The embroiderers came from different backgrounds, with different levels of expertise and different experiences of human rights, but all shared a singular focus: fighting the refugee crisis through craft.
The different blocks that each embroiderer chose illustrate their different interests and values in respect to human rights.
New mother Libby Simpson, of @OhMyGollyEmbroidery, stitched her hopes for her young daughter on her block honoring Article 17 of the UDHR, the right to own property. “As a mother of a young daughter, I am so aware of the importance of stability and security in her life. The thought of her being uprooted from her home and placed into a position of uncertainty breaks my heart,” said Simpson.
“It's easy to forget or take for granted how privileged and fortunate most of us are to have the possibility of owning a home or the comfort in knowing we won't be made homeless. When owning property or land or not being forcibly removed, relocated or evicted is a basic human right, it is astonishing to see so many violations of this across the world.”
Meanwhile, embroiderer Shelly Georgopulos, of @Shelly_Sells_Lemonade, has embroidered her frustrations with modern American politics into a block that both celebrates Article 11, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and decries policies that profile different peoples.
“I began bouncing ideas off my friends about the court of public opinion in America, the current political climate and the way that the new president paints entire groups of people with a broad brush; creating a climate where it’s ok for others to do the same. The idea and support of the Muslim Ban and The Wall are examples of how others are willing to judge and assume guilt on the basis of a name, a religion, an accent, a skin color or any number of characteristics,” explained Georgopulos.
“Using this concept, I sketched a couple ideas for creating a juxtaposition of innocent people and the man who violates their rights in words and actions. I wanted to represent them as human beings wrapped in the protective text of the article while he spews vitriol and condemnation from the fringe.”
With her block illustrating Article 27, the right to participate in the cultural life of a community, Canadian embroiderer Jennie Johnston connected the artistic and political work of crafters. “As a visual artist, I felt that [Article 27’s] message of freedom regarding the cultural life of any given community was compelling. To deny or restrict [cultural] access to a certain group cuts those people off from a fundamental part of what makes human beings connect and express their truths,” said Johnston.
And so, Johnston chose to design her block accordingly. “Since my individual perspective [as a Canadian] is that of a settler in a land that was colonized by my ancestors, I wanted to comment on that cultural paradigm. As this is a quilt project I took four textile styles to depict my point,” explained Johnston, who chose to use fiber traditions from the French, British, Mohawk, and Coast Salish — two main colonial powers of Canada and two First Nation cultures. With Mohawk beading, Coast Salish blanket weaving, Toile fabric from France, and embroidered English roses, Johnston hoped to convey that “these cultural textiles could have been overtaken by colonial powers but they have survived and are now regaining ground from oppression.”
Lest we forget that human rights are deeply tied to our environment, Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo is reminding viewers that all are equal before the law, including the earth. Founder of the environmentally conscious craftivist project @SewTheSEEDS, Biggerstaff Cuneo has embroidered the Whanganui River in New Zealand. “I’d heard [that the river] had been granted the same legal rights as a human being,” said Biggerstaff Cuneo. “I had no idea at the time just how long the Maori people in New Zealand had been working to get this accomplished.”
The spirit of Biggerstaff Cuneo’s block is to celebrate the earth as worthy of the same human rights protections as people. In the wake of recent environmental disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Biggerstaff Cuneo also emphasizes, “Now is the time to start talking about man made climate change and how it is, if not causing, at least exacerbating the size and number of refugee-creating natural disasters.”
Simpson, Georgopulos, Johnston, and Biggerstaff Cuneo are but four of the more than one hundred and twenty artists contributing blocks to the UDHR quilt project. Dunlap and Fitzpatrick described blocks by other artists celebrating their freedoms or condemning human rights violations through images colored by their own backgrounds. From a Palestinian artist in Abu Dhabi to a collective of South African artists to a young Venezuelan embroiderer, the participants are stitching human rights close to their own experiences.
“We wanted to provide a platform where contributors could speak from their own personal story and perspective by highlighting a human rights violation that is important to them,” said Dunlap. And as Fitzpatrick emphasized, “That question of ‘What is within my power to do?’ is really at the crux of this project.”
Besides highlighting individual stories, Dunlap and Fitzpatrick also wanted to encourage artists to collaborate and learn from one another in community. “One of our main goals of the project was the educational aspect,” said Dunlap. “Some people don’t realize that you have the right to rest in leisure or the right to an arts community! These are ideas that have been put in place; a united declaration of the rights that you have as a person.”
Dunlap and Fitzpatrick encouraged the artists of the UDHR quilt project to connect online and to have conversations with each other, as well as their friends and families about their block.
Georgopulos recalled such an educational moment: “I was riding the train with my kids and one of my daughter’s friends asked about what I was stitching.” Georgopulos went on to show her daughter’s friend the contents of her block, “I showed her that I chose to represent a mother and child from Mexico, a young black man in a hoody and a Muslim couple. I told her these are some of the people who are often judged and labeled bad and that this was a violation of their rights.” When the child responded, “Did you hear about the bombing at the Arianna Grande concert? They proved ISIS was responsible[...] That’s what their culture wants; their religion wants everyone to die,” Georgopulos knew that it was even more important to represent those often presumed guilty as innocent.
In raising awareness about the refugee crisis, the UDHR quilt project also intends to raise funds for refugee aid organizations, particularly the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Many of the participating embroiderers are migrants themselves or are highly aware of the refugee crisis because of modern politics.
“While I haven’t been affected as a refugee or an asylum-seeker, the pull to actualize this project and reach out to [Fitzpatrick] about the idea came Donald Trump's inauguration and attempted Muslim ban,” reflected Dunlap.
In planning the project, Fitzpatrick recalls, “We decided in relation to this document and in light of the refugee crisis in the world right now, which is the worst it’s been since World War II, that we really wanted to raise awareness of that.”
When the each of the embroiderers finished their block, they mailed their finished work to Fitzpatrick in Melbourne, Australia. There, Fitzpatrick gathered all one hundred and twenty blocks and arranged them into four quilts with each of the thirty UDHR articles. Now that the quilts are nearly finished, Fitzpatrick and Dunlap are gearing up to auction off the quilts. They’re also designing a zine to commemorate each of the blocks and artists for those who want a token to remember the quilt and its significance. Proceeds from the auction of the quilts and the sale of the zines will all go to benefit the UN High Commission on Refugees.
As Dunlap, Fitzpatrick, and their hundreds of artists embroider their final stitches, they’re joining in a community of activists concerned about the growing refugee crisis and artists dedicated to raising awareness and starting conversations through craft.
Top image by Shelly Georgopulos in USA
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Cecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art, feminism, and other fun things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment, and Ms. Magazine. In her free time, she drinks too much tea, listens to too many podcasts, and runs a cat blog. Follow her at cecilianowell.wordpress.com and on Twitter @cecilianowell.