The Corona Quilt Project weaves together stories of hope, hopelessness, and living through a pandemic
The Corona Quilt Project is a creative, non-verbal way of expressing things that sometimes words are not able to capture.
When the AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled for the first time on a Sunday in 1987 in Washington DC, the names of those who had lost their lives to the disease were stitched across panels and shared publicly in a solemn ceremony. The attendees — some of whom were living with the virus at the time of the unveiling of the quilt — recalled sharing that rare moment of acceptance with people who had been touched by the AIDS epidemic in one way or another, 30 years later, attesting to its enduring legacy.
Since its first unveiling, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has steadily progressed to include 49,000 panels, becoming a non threatening record of pain and loss and with it, the process of quilting developing into a potent journaling practice.
For people who have lived through the AIDS outbreak, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is tragically reminiscent of the crisis of the 1980s. Therefore, responses similar to the AIDS Quilt have sprung up across the world, chronicling snatches of daily anxieties and occasional respite for posterity.
Similarly, in India, the month-old art initiative, the Corona Quilt Project, has become a manifestation of both hope, and hopelessness.
Artist Al-Qawi Nanavati’s panel, an homage to her late mother, is a letter cut from an old piece of clothing that belonged to her, embossed with a made-up language meant to be understood just by the two of them. The artist notes:
“The sudden demise of my mother two years ago has become the basis of my practice since. During the lockdown, I am forced to stay in this house constantly — the house she passed away in; see her clothes, her books, where she sat, where she slept, every minute I am awake. While leaving the house was my escape before, now it was time to embrace it.”
Co-founded by Gina Kellogg and Shruti Sonthalia, the Corona Quilt initiative is being led in India by a four-member team comprising Neha Modi, Samyukta, Dia Bhupal and Pri Shewakramani.
“In our minds, the Corona Quilt Project is a creative, non-verbal way of expressing things that sometimes words are not able to capture. So in a way it speaks a lot to the mental health and wellness discourse that has gained momentum,” adds Samyukta. For the entrepreneur, associating with the project was also a way to partly fill the void left by the missing promise of travel and the vexing absence of social connections.
For Modi, the project presented itself at a time when she was wrestling the weight of feeling deeply ‘inadequate’. As the owner of a clothing label, she remembers feeling lost after her fast-moving life was suddenly interrupted: “At the beginning of the lockdown, I was struggling as I couldn’t find meaning in what I was doing. But when I made my ‘square’ for the Corona Quilt Project, I realised it didn’t have to be deep or meaningful at all. And that changed my mindspace.”
A group of Iraqi women, forced to migrate to the UK due to escape the instability and violence brought on by the war, formed a collective in Oxfordshire. While they have been able to create a support system for their contemporaries, the fight for the rights of those left behind continues.
“Their monthly meetings have halted due to the lockdown, but they express hope, gratitude and a range of other emotions through their square,” a note about their contribution states.
With the project pivoting on quilting, the creators wanted to revive that sense of community, now lost, which was strongly associated with the age-old practice traditionally perceived as a feminine pursuit. And while the Corona Quilt may not seem like a traditional quilt at first, it nonetheless reflects the ethos of articulating thought through handiwork.
The participants are encouraged to lend a shape and form to their individual experience of the pandemic with whatever material they have lying around at home. “We don’t want your skills; we just want your story,” Samyukta explains, as Modi articulates their objective: “We tried to mobilise as many people as we could from different ages and social profiles, so we could stay honest to what we’re feeling as a society.” The team has so far received multiple submissions from India, Nepal, Australia, the US and UK.
“A lot of our stories exhibit a certain loneliness as well as yearning as a result of the divisions caused by the pandemic, which are being experienced all over,” states Samyukta, adding that for some, the project has also become a space to viscerally respond to the migrant or refugee crises or the Black Lives Matter movement. A pair of slippers belonging to a daily wager left behind on the railway tracks; a child's fear-provoking portrait of the virus screaming, 'what have we done?'; an art montage of a plate full of food, remembering those who've gone hungry — these are some of the many artworks that populate the quilt journal.
Countering the gloom cast over humankind, artist Ankush Safaya envisions a monochrome world enveloped in hope, in Braille:
"Hope is an affirmation of life. In these times of fear, it is imperative to hold aloft the space to imagine a better tomorrow. The window to the world I stand at is one of eternal hope – even when everything may suddenly seem lost in that moment."
While the Corona Quilt currently exists in a purely digital form, Modi and Samyukta want to print the squares on fabric and turn it into an art installation that can be put on display in a public space. “As a people, we’re navigating something so major," says Modi, now more accepting of the cadence of everyday life – however sedate it might be. "I want people to have something remember this by.”