The Quilt, as it is informally known, came about because of activist Cleve Jones in San Francisco:
The visual cue was enough to start the NAMES Project Foundation which collected the panels for and constructed the the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The project took off, first around the United States, then around the world.Since the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Jones had helped organize the annual candlelight march honoring these men. While planning the 1985 march, he learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.
The Quilt now has 44,000 panels (as of November 2008 and growing monthly), each one 3'x 6', each one a tribute to one individual who has died from AIDS, each one lovingly made by those left to mourn.
The panel I have pictured above for Lewis Anton Smith, whom I do not know, is displayed on the homepage of aidsquilt.org. It seemed almost too personal to post the image of the panel - would I be offending the maker of the panel, disrespecting the image?
But the personal, painful, intimate nature of the individual blocks is exactly the point. The statistic of 44,000 people who are commemorated on the Quilt, is another statistic - hard to imagine, really. But to see even one panel invades one's space, says that Lewis Anton Smith, this age, this face, this family, died of AIDS. Now imagine 44,000 of those faces all in one place.
The Quilt is, for me, the most striking, astounding reminder, wake-up call, and dedicated testament anyone has ever made about the tragedy of AIDS.
The Quilt was shown on the National Mall in Washington DC on both the first (1987) and last (1996) time it was shown in its entirety - interesting how that place is so significant, visually, politically, and symbolically.