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Threads of Survival Quilt: 75 years of the NHS
5 July – 10 July
Threads of Survival is part of a long continuum of textile protest or radical stitching. This collaboratively-made quilt, stitched to mark 75 years since the foundation of the National Health Service, is viewable in the ONCA window gallery 5-10 July.
Sewing, stitching and embroidery were long disparaged as ‘women’s work’, and therefore inferior. However, from this position people have engaged in powerful acts of protest, a practice which art historian Roszika Parker has called “The Subversive Stitch”.
During the colonial struggles in India, cotton known as khadi was used to boycott imported textiles and ultimately promote Swadeshi or home rule. Khadi was homespun and handwoven to make fabric for clothing, the wearing of which became an important collective act of protest.
In Argentina, at 3.30pm on a Thursday in 1977, in the face of a brutal military dictatorship planning the systematic murder of thousands, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo began to walk around the square in front of the presidential palace. They were wearing white nappies as headscarves, embroidered with the names of their lost children, the young people forcibly disappeared by the dictatorship. Week after week they continued to walk, until those responsible began to be revealed and condemned.
In San Francisco in 1984, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was begun as an act of protest and of memory. At this time, there was little treatment available for people with AIDS. People who died of AIDS-related illness were prevented from receiving funerals, either because of stigma, or because funeral homes would not receive their remains. Today, at 54 tons, embroidered with the names of those who have died, the quilt memorial is the largest piece of community art in the world.
In Brighton in 2013, moved to act by the slow rise of the far right in Europe, a group of artists, activists and community campaigners began to remake Picasso’s painting, Guernica, as a protest banner, to deploy the power of art against fascism, militarisation and war. The banner continues to be used in countless protests, as well as hanging in galleries all over the world.
In all the above projects, the simple act of threading a needle and making stitches gave the stitchers consolation and courage to resist. This has also been the case for the people who have been working on the Brighton Threads of Survival Quilt, all of whom care deeply that the NHS will not be destroyed: universal healthcare for all on the basis of need, free at the point of use. As Aneurin Bevan reputedly said in 1948: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk with faith left to fight for it.”
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