A Notice by Frances Devlin-Glass
By happy chance, I caught an exhibition of quilts by Eileen Haley in Braidwood a bit over a year ago and I wrote about the joyfulness encapsulated in a small quilt about Countess Markievicz, the only woman leader of the Easter Rising.
Eileen has created another much larger quilt (145cm x 117cm) which, not this time accompanied by poems but by a most unusual DVD – Utopia a Patchwork. It stands as testimony to the enduring human impulse that is Utopia-envisioning.
The narrative which interprets the richly decorated quilt starts in 1516 in Antwerp, where all talk of Utopias must start, with Sir/Saint Thomas More, diplomat at the court of Henry VIII, and the publication of Utopia. More set his in an imaginary island in the Antipodes. It articulates the dreams of Utopians wherever they manifest for a place where there is no rich or poor, no master or slave, where all are equal, and where access to land, healthcare and education is the basis for a society that knows not want and misery.
Eileen Haley, who researched and wrote the concise commentary, is under no illusion about the fragility of the dream of Utopia. She knows that Utopias have proliferated, and are found and lost and found again throughout history, and gives examples of some 30 such Dreams that are woven into her quilt of many rich colours.
You can get a taste of the DVD and see how it illustrates the quilt, and at the same time appreciate the hugely different motives which have driven Utopia dreamers. The commentary, though brief on each manifestation, gives eloquent pen-pictures of revolutionaries (like St Romero of the Americas), artists (like William Morris whose fabric is to be found in the quilt and whose wallpaper designs are ever new and celebrate the natural world), communards (like those in 1871 in Paris), indigenous people (like the Gurindji of Wattie Creek who expelled Lord Vestey from their lands, and the Toorbul of Bribie Island who shared what goods they had), political refugees (like William Lane and the New Australians who went to Paraguay), builders and workers (who preserved buildings and communities in Sydney), the visionaries who at an international conference in Nigeria in 2002 committed to abolish penal servitude along the model of Abolition, and many more. It’s a moving list, and naming these names and implicitly pointing to the enduring idea of Utopias has the force of a sacralising utterance, though many of these Visionaries are avowedly secularist.
Such communities, in separating themselves from neoliberal agendas and consumerism, often find a simpler way of life its own reward – Cubans forced into austerity by the USA; Bouganvillians who frustrated the intentions of the Papua New Guinea army in 1989; the 82 families of Vietnamese who lived in 5 miles of underground burrows (with full services) under the war in 1965; and the environmentalists who saved a remnant of bush from A V Jennings in 1971, are all cases in point. These are testimonies of survival and flourishing against the odds. There are many details which move: like the domestic self-sufficiency of the women’s liberationists who grew gardens and fig trees, and took pleasure in kittens, and gave one another support, in suburban Canberra in the early 1970s. There are many examples of simple, resourceful, peaceful communities. Did they endure? Sometimes. Not always.
The narrative of the DVD is accompanied by Justo Duaz’s ethereal music, often quite specific to the community celebrated. The DVD allows one to better appreciate the history and research which informs the artefact, as well as the quilting expertise, by giving close-ups of images in thread and collage of the many communities on its register.
To quilt these hopes is both a political act and one which grounds the grand visionary impulse-that-does-not-die in domestic hearths. I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s essay celebrating the womanly art forms so often overlooked by mainstream art traditions — such humble artefacts as lovingly prepared meals, kitchen gardens, cunningly crafted hand-made jumpers, and of course intricately worked quilts that sing a vision.
EILEEN HALEY is a quilt maker, feminist and poet, living in Sydney.