In 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained an average of 45,000 asylum seekers each day in for-profit, taxpayer-funded and notoriously inhumane detention centers. With a number so large, the gravity and scope of the human rights abuses refugees regularly endure, from inadequate food and healthcare to forced hysterectomies, feel unfathomable.
Concord, NH-based activist Glen Ring found the long string of digits particularly astonishing. However, she also realized the limitations of facts and figures. “If someone just reads a number, it doesn’t make an impact,” she explained. “But if they have a visual to go along with that number, it’s much more powerful.” She turned to art as a way to illustrate and honor the experiences of each person impacted by the United States’ immigration policies, from which the 45,000 Quilt Project was born. In her own words, “I just kind of dreamed it up.”
The 45,000 Quilt Project is a collaborative effort among more than 60 activists and artists across the United States and Mexico that will come to Vassar on Oct. 19. Each square features hash-marks, each mark representing a current ICE detainee. Participants send their panels to New Hampshire, where a group of women stitch the pieces together to form what is becoming a massive product—when complete with all 45,000 marks, the quilt will be 45 feet long. Though each square is an individual effort, images such as butterflies and birds are common motifs. “There’s a theme of freedom,” Ring reflected.
This project joins a rich history of quiltmaking as a collaborative, therapeutic and community-building medium. It particularly evokes the famous AIDS Quilt, a massive communal art piece that successfully drew attention to the epidemic in the 1980s. Quiltmaking has also been employed as a healing mechanism for female survivors of violence, rape and war-induced trauma. Professor of History and Founder of the Consortium for Forced Migration Maria Höhn opined, “The quilt is, of course, in that same tradition of protest and advocacy.”
Local activist and board member of NY-based grassroots movement Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden Valerie Carlisle alerted the Consortium of Forced Migration of the project back in March; but it took several months to finally display the quilt due to COVID complications. Consortium of Forced Migration Steering Committee Member Richard Jones eventually forged the plan to make the exhibit both low-risk and interactive with the broader Hudson Valley community. The quilt will be outdoors—on the Library Lawn on Monday and Tuesday, then in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s Sculpture Garden from Wednesday through Sunday—providing ample room to view the piece in a socially-distanced manner. After leaving campus, the project will be presented on Main Street, in churches downtown and eventually at Bard College. “[The exhibit] is a new opportunity to really show how agile we can be in times of crisis,” Höhn stated.
Connecting the exhibit to the rest of New York is especially vital given the state’s high number of ICE detention centers. As Höhn noted, “Though the border is so far away from us, [immigration] actually affects us all, and it’s in all of our names…having this on campus can encourage students to learn about what it means to have this in our own backyards.” Jones expressed a similar sentiment: “It extends beyond the border; it’s our whole system.”
It’s impossible for any one project to convey the breadth of the crisis. As Jones put it, “It’s hard to know how to address something as hideous as this.” However, the quilt at the very least forces the viewer to contemplate the human experience behind each mark. “For me, seeing a number that large, and knowing every single one of those people is suffering in some way—that hits me right in the gut,” Jones reflected. “Knowing what those marks have been applied as really knocks you over.”
The quilt depicts a harrowing issue via beauty and brightness; though varied, the artists almost ubiquitously took an optimistic approach to their visualizations. Consortium on Forced Migration Coordinator of Research and Pedagogy Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19 reflected, “We are not recreating these images of violence against people who are migrating, but we’re still conveying the seriousness of the situation.” Höhn evaluated the benefits of this ethos: “It’s a more abstract description…but every artist who works does so to speak to a shared humanity—you don’t just make art for yourself or the people in your village or town, but to speak to something larger.” Jones added, “[The quilt] is a nonaggressive but unyielding statement on right and wrong.” The piece is also thought-provoking in its inherent juxtaposition: the artists use the quilt, a symbol of home and warmth, to demonstrate homelessness, abuse and desperation.
The project is not explicitly political. However, given the exhibition’s proximity to the election, it pushes viewers to consider where their elected officials lie on this issue. As Chair of the City of Poughkeepsie Public Arts Commission Jeff Aman stated, “This one is definitely not a political statement—but then again, it is. It’s pointing out a failure of our society and of our government, and makes you question if what we’re doing is right. I think that’s a valuable role for art.” Höhn notes how the exhibit not only calls attention to ICE, but also to other pressing topics this election cycle. “The quilt speaks to the specific issue of detention, but it also speaks to much larger issues in our country—incarceration of people of color, the injustices in the judicial system, the poverty of children not getting healthcare or not getting internet access to come to school,” she mused. “[The quilt] reflects much much larger social and traumatic challenges right now in our own country and our own democracy.”
The 45,000 Quilt Project is ultimately a space for empathy, solidarity and reflection. It presents a sorely needed opportunity amidst election season to ponder an issue that, though sometimes forgotten between cycles of outrage, is particularly critical. Carlisle promised, “You will learn, and you will open your heart.”