Hanging on a wall in a storefront art gallery in Logan Square is a quilt stitched by hands that have felt the scope of homicide in Chicago, felt it with tired fingers pushing needles through fabric over and over and over again, lovingly spelling out the names of the hundreds killed last year.
The quilt is a map of the city, and most of the oddly shaped neighborhoods hold names — some only a few, some so many that names are sewn atop other names, forcing you to look closely to read one from the other.
And that’s the point, I suppose. To get you to look closely. To get you to see not only the perverse concentration of deaths in the city’s poorer neighborhoods but the sheer volume of loss.
This morning the following image was posted on Facebook. The image was attributed to http://www.antinwoalliance.com/
Thinking about these two very different approaches to the unthinkable, I found myself mulling over the difference between art and propaganda. For sure, art sometimes becomes propaganda, and propaganda can be art. Yet, I believe there is a difference: at its best art makes suffering personal.
I spend considerable time thinking about the unimaginably immense calamity that was, and is, the genocide against Native people in North America (to say nothing about South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and on-and-on). The thoroughness and ingenuity shown by settler governments in carrying out this genocide is breathtaking. The vastness of the enterprise is shocking. I understand why my family turned away from our Native cultures and tried to pass.
The above poster appears to grapple with these things but has many problems. First, we Native people are still here. Second, the genocide against Native people has occurred in (often) slow motion over five hundred years, and is ongoing, abet in new and insidious forms. Third, the poster belittles the ghastliness of the Holocaust and the crushing violence against Europe’s Jews, artists, homosexuals, persons with disabilities, Roma, and others who opposed Fascism. Fourth, it utilizes a stock image of a Plains tribesman, a choice that while paying tribute to my father’s side of our family, plays into racial stereotyping and erases many Native peoples. Fifth, the meme chooses a disputed number and does not acknowledge the complexity of Native cultures and populations. Sixth, and probably not last, it utilizes the volume of deaths to obscure the heartbreaking reality of the genocide as experienced by real people.
Genocide and other forms of violence change the survivors, creating fear, brutality, and heartbreak that lasts for generations. Maybe we should make an immense quilt, acknowledging the shadow cast by violence, and the ways we wrap ourselves in the memory of what happened and of those we lost. Perhaps there would be healing in creating that quilt, a sharing of grief and hope, loss and continuity. Maybe sharing the work would build and strengthen our communities, and reduce the power and influence of those who would destroy us.
We are wrapped in a blanket of loss, let us grieve together and, in so doing, find hope and unity.