The Monument Quilt,
by Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle
Individual quilt squares from the Monument Quilt
Aerial view of the Monument Quilt
resisting a singular narrative
March 3, 2017
by Hannah Brancato
The Monument Quilt is a crowd-sourced collection of stories from survivors of sexual and domestic violence that tell a multiplicity of narratives, not just one. Testimonials are written, painted, and stitched onto red quilt squares and put together to blanket highly visible venues. The Monument Quilt creates and demands public space to heal. The structure of the project is built on the idea of survivors speaking on our own behalf. In 2018, the Quilt will blanket the National Mall to spell Not Alone.
In the Quilt, we resist a singular narrative because, while there is no standard way to be a rape or domestic violence survivor, we live in a society where people with privilege, like myself, are raised to think of our experience as universal. Thinking my white experience is universal is white supremacy in action. This myth of universality is part of what I see stopping white women from being able to listen to important critiques about feminism—creating responses like, “Why can’t we all just come together about what we do have in common (ie, not talk about race?)” As a white woman, and a cis, straight, middle class, able-bodied person, my story doesn’t mirror all women’s stories, or the stories of all survivors. Our history books, families, pop culture—you name it—communicate this (false) idea that there is one standard experience that everyone can relate to. The violence of white feminism, a term coined by women of color to critique racism within feminism, is doing work under the guise of creating more freedom for “all” women that instead, intentionally or not, oppresses black, or trans, or Native American women, or women with disabilities, by erasing their stories at best and creating policies that create more harm than good, at worst. Not surprisingly, each named group experiences the highest rates of sexual violence.
In the Quilt, we resist a singular narrative by centering the stories of the people most ignored and most victimized by rape and abuse. The Monument Quilt tells many stories but which stories are focused on is always in the forefront of our organizing strategy. That looks like building partnerships and alliances with survivors who can speak on their own behalf about their own experiences. As a white person and survivor of dating violence, stories like mine are the ones that we read about most frequently in the news, especially as the campus sexual assault movement has grown. But few people are also discussing tribal sovereignty and the high rates of sexual violence that Native Women face because non-native people can commit many crimes on sovereign land with no punishment. In very different contexts, both campus sexual assault and violence against Native Women are rampant because of policy and law that allow perpetrators to commit crimes without consequence. By seeing stories from survivors from both circumstances displayed side by side, visitors to the Monument Quilt can begin to draw connections between institutional and structural power that perpetuate rape.
In the Quilt, we resist a singular narrative by foregrounding our conviction that mass incarceration is not the solution to gender-based violence. Discussions about the need for perpetrators of sexual violence to have consequences for their actions have often resulted in more funding for prisons. In this way, survivors’ stories are used to advance political agendas, often without our consent. Some survivors do need and want to use the criminal justice system, but that isn’t the whole story. Women of color like Marissa Alexander are routinely criminalized when they are victimized by intimate partner violence; almost all women who are incarcerated have experienced past abuse; and sexual violence against people of all genders in prisons is a silenced but widespread problem. In the Monument Quilt, stories of the racism in the criminal justice system and messages about body love from transgender survivors and testimonials from survivors of childhood sexual abuse are displayed side-by-side. This intentional placement resists any one person’s experience being isolated and co-opted. It creates space to talk about new forms of accountability instead of relying on the current systems.
In the Quilt, we resist a single narrative by reflecting on the intersections of privilege in our identities as survivors. As a white woman and a survivor, I am simultaneously someone who has lots of priviledge within our racist/ablist/homophobic/transphobic society; AND a person who’s been personally impacted by gender-based violence. This dissonance of being both a victim and a person with huge amounts of privilege is, I think, another reason why white women are often defensive in discourse around intersectionality. To state the obvious, it isn’t acceptable to silence people as a result of feeling confused, which is what Brittany Oliver experienced in the early conversations around the recent Women’s March when her critiques were deleted from the Facebook page after bringing up critiques which you can read in more detail on her blog. But I don’t want to pretend to be perfect, either—I want to own up to the fact that it is hard to reconcile serving both of these roles simultaneously. My whiteness rears itself the most as a fear of being wrong, trying to avoid admitting that I make mistakes, and trying to always be correct. I see this fear in those friends and family that I mentioned in the beginning of this article. It’s what can make real conversations about intersectionality difficult. It’s what can make white people shut down and decide not to be active. There’s a lot at stake, because as white people, we have caused a lot of harm and we have a lot of structural power. But pretending we’re perfect won’t undo that harm. Owning up to our mistakes will at least help. The thing is, this work is not about being correct or right. It is about being open and willing to learn; this is one of my primary roles as an ally. I believe when we can let go of the need to be correct, as white people, we’re less likely to react defensively and in a way that silences other people; we’re more likely to listen and learn first.
There are some things that most survivors share in how we’ve been impacted by trauma and in our road to healing—having been isolated, silenced, shamed, disbelieved, blamed, and needing support, affirmation, community, and control over our own narratives. Through the Monument Quilt, we create space to see that connection; at the same time, the visibility of our varied narratives of trauma, resilience, and survival make it impossible to ignore that sexual violence is upheld by racist, classist, transphobic, ableist and homophobic policies and practices. In other words, rape is not only about gender. Through the next four years and beyond, the survivors leading FORCE’s work will continue to tell our stories in a way that creates intentional space for survivors with many different and distinct identities. We will continue speaking loudly and publicly. We will continue to resist a narrow and mainstream narrative about sexual violence, creating space for survivors to advocate on own behalf of ourselves. We invite you to join us in this complicated, difficult, yet simultaneously joyful work.
Hannah Brancato is an artist, educator and activist. Her work challenges viewers to think about the connections between personal experience and social injustices. She is Co-Founder and Co-Director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. FORCE is a creative activist collaboration to upset the dominant culture of rape and promote a culture of consent. Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle formed FORCE in 2010 to create a more public, difficult and honest conversation, demanding that we face the realities of sexual violence in the US. To promote this needed conversation, FORCE creates art actions to generate media attention and get millions of people talking.
Prior to her work with FORCE, in 2008, Hannah Brancato established Advocate Through Art, an awareness campaign by domestic violence survivors in a Baltimore shelter. In 2010, she co-founded Mother Made, a women’s economic empowerment project. Her work has been covered by NPR, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and Fast Company.
Brancato is graduate from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) MFA in Community Art program. She is currently a professor at MICA.