photo provided by NWSM

HIV/AIDS impacts people around the world, and in each community methods of talking about the virus and the experience of being positive emerges. For 13 months last year, while talking to each other in a safe space about their lives, women at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) used quilting as a way to tell each other about the impact HIV was having on their lives. Each person created a patch for a quilt that when assembled became a physical manifestation of their shared conversations. Entitled the Aborigional HIV Prevention and Awareness Dialogue Quilt, the art work represents the contribution of "First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women and their children, employees of the NWSM, and certain participants from a quilt circle held in the Global Village of the AIDS 2012: XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington DC, USA."
Now that the quilt is finished, the women want to share their story with as many people as possible. So far it has been exhibited in 3 countries and numerous cities including Vancouver, Manchester and Washington. Project leads Pascale C. Annoual and Carrie Martin answer a few questions for Visual AIDS about the Quilt.

Visual AIDS: How did the Quilt Circle come to be? And what are the goals?
The Quilting Circle was developed and coordinated by Pascale C. Annoual, Art Therapist (www.artracines.ca) and Carrie Martin, Holistic Health Coordinator at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) (www.nwsm.info) to address the need for a culturally safe space to discuss HIV amongst Aboriginal women. The culturally relevant project used oral and arts-based traditions to create messages of HIV prevention and awareness and to encourage dialogue around important issues such as discrimination. Participants used symbolism in the design and creation of quilt blocks for a quilt that would be displayed locally, nationally and internationally. The aim of using this arts-based approach was to allow visual learners to express their ideas and focus on their strengths through creativity while designing important and effective culturally adapted messages for the prevention and awareness of HIV in the Aboriginal communities of the world.

Visual AIDS: One of the stated goals of the project is to spread "the message" far and wide. For you, what is the message you hope the quilt shares?
We hope to share culturally adapted messages for the prevention and awareness of HIV in the Aboriginal communities of the world. Each quilt block has a unique story with a special meaning for the designer. We are currently documenting these stories and will soon have them to share.

Visual AIDS: Can you tell me about the lives of some of the women involved? Are they friends? Mothers? Grandmothers? Living with HIV? Trans? Two-spirit?
Due to strict rules of confidentiality at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM), we cannot share the names or stories of the women who created the quilt. We can say that the quilt was made by both the residents and employees of the NWSM as well as by participants at the International AIDS Conference in Washington DC. We can say that the participants in this project ranged in age from 6 years old to 65+ and were mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, nieces, sisters, friends, etc. There were HIV+ women, Two-Spirited women, First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Visual AIDS: What programs existed before the Quilt Circle for Aboriginal Women? What does the Quilt do for the women that other programs cannot?
The Holistic Health Project at the NWSM has been around since 2006 (originally called the Harm Reduction Project) and offers a variety of activities for addressing HIV, Hepatitis, STIs, addictions, homelessness, etc.

The quilt project was successful because the residents of the NWSM frequently use traditional forms of art (beading and various crafts for example) for both recreational and therapeutic uses so they respond well to arts-based projects. They have powerful stories to share but do not necessarily know how or want to do this in words; so we created activities that give them the opportunity to use different outlets for sharing their knowledge and their personal experiences.

Visual AIDS: What has been some of the reaction to the Quilt in the various locations you have shown it? What do you hope for the quilt?
We continue to get positive feedback when the quilt is exhibited; so much so, that on two occasions we have been asked to help other organizations create a quilt. We are also asked to speak at events and conferences to share successful, culturally relevant approaches to addressing HIV (and other health issues) using art.

We hope that the quilt and the work that we do at the NWSM to address HIV amongst Aboriginal women will continue to gain exposure. The women who created this quilt really believe in the importance of sharing these messages far and wide to help stop the spread of HIV and to eliminate the discrimination associated with it. We also hope that people will adopt and adapt our approach to addressing these issues in a positive and effective way.

Visual AIDS: What kind of things get discussed during the quilting time?
We discussed different topics including HIV prevention, transmission and awareness; sexually transmitted infections; hepatitis; addictions; sex and sexuality (including discussions around where and how we learned about sex and ways in which we can talk to youth); general health; discrimination in Aboriginal communities and in urban settings; access to care, treatment and support; condom use; etc.

For a complete description of the Project, please visit the NWSM website.