Olive Edwards and The Jamaican Community of Positive Women: Quilting to EmpowHer

Written by Jessica Whitbread for The HIV Howler: Transmitting Art and Activism

In 2012, Olive Edwards supported the Jamaican Community of Positive Women (JCW+) in establishing a quilting club to support women living with HIV to engage in dialogue about their trauma in relation to HIV. In 2016, this arts based method for establishing peer to peer connections was developed into a 2 day workshop to enable for the process to be shared and replicated in three other countries in the Caribbean region (Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tabago). 

Olive: I used to do dress making. I love the way that clothes look on people. Now that I don’t have to do it for a living, I am interested in the fabric and how to work with it. When I was sewing, I actually resented it because I was working instead of going to school and getting an education. I was working and having to raise children at a young age. 

Twenty years ago the AIDS quilt came to Jamaica and we had so much stigma in the country around the quilt and AIDS. That quilt was about death and those who had died. When we started to do the quilts in JCW+, women were scared and didn’t want to talk about death. So we just started talking about the women’s lives and from this we realized that women wanted to celebrate the lives that they had — not death. 

We work with diverse groups to start conversations about difficult issues. The process is always similar, it begins with the conversations that are happening while we are working and preparing to sew together. We use symbols instead of words often because it helps us talk through our stories. Lots of the stories of our community deal with the violence that we experience as women living with HIV and from our families. The butterflies are about freedom and empowerment for example — in our community we understand our symbols and use it as a code to talk about hard things. 

A lot of the women like to work in the group, because if they go home, they have to explain the process and the ideas to their family. We try to use quilt making to move women living with HIV to work through their thoughts and support them to build community and disclose to their families. 

These quilts are all made by the women. Sometimes we do collective quilts like our Caribbean quilt which touches our four community partners. These are really powerful. Working on these we acquire some appreciation about our different skills that we all bring to our collaborations. Our understanding of what a quilt is and what it should look like or be about is challenged. For me I do it for the therapy of it. Sometimes people think it is going to be easy to do. But you have to go deep in yourself to feel your message and then the patience to create and finish it. Its healing. 

We were inspired by a quilt in Russian that we had no idea what it said but we felt the meaning that came to Jamaica as part of LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN and we wanted to have more people see our quilts around the world. So we could share stories and be in solidarity with our sisters globally. 

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The HIV Howler: Transmitting Art and Activism is a limited edition art newspaper focusing on global grassroots HIV art and cultural production. Artists have and continue to play a fundamental role in shaping broader societal understandings of HIV and working within communities that are most impacted by the virus: queer and trans people, people who use drugs, sex workers, people of colour, and indigenous peoples. Together we reflect the immediacy and urgency of global HIV/AIDS dialogues as well as their historical continuities.

The HIV Howler is a forum for dialogue, a demand for aesthetic self-determination, a response to tokenism, and a guide to navigating the vibrational ambiguities between policy, pathology, and community.

Publishers + Editors

Anthea Black and Jessica Whitbread

Editorial Advisory Committee 

Anthea Black, Theodore Kerr, Charles Long, Mikiki, Darien Taylor, L’Orangelis Thomas, and Jessica Whitbread.

Funding

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Toronto Arts Council. 

LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN

LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN (LPW) happens each year between February 1st–14th. It is a global project, conceptualized in 2012 and implemented in 2013, raising awareness about women and girls living with HIV using social media to link local grassroots gestures of love. Using Valentine’s Day as a backdrop, Love Positive Women creates a platform for individuals and communities to engage in public and private acts of love and caring for women living with HIV. Going beyond romantic love to deep community love and social justice, Love Positive Women is call to action. It requires participants to spend time reflecting about how they, as either a woman living with HIV or an ally, will commit to loving women living with HIV. Through action, change can be made. Working from a place of strength, Love Positive Women focuses on the idea of interconnectedness, relationship building, loving oneself and loving one’s community. By starting from a place of love, there are endless ways to build strong communities. While Love Positive Women is active primarily between February 1st–14th, it remains a symbol of how the world can be different throughout the year. Groups in over 45 countries have participated in shifting lives and making a difference through acts of love. LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN is an ongoing project established by Visual AIDS artist member Jessica Whitbread

For Love Positive Women 2019, Luv Til It Hurts will participate by celebrating women artists living with HIV in our community by featuring one each of the 14 days. We are excited to honor our ladies!

In turn we encourage everyone in our networks to do their own intervention in their communities and share the love on social media #lovepositivewomen @lovepositivewomen <3

“The Cure for AIDS is Kindness….”

The Social Practice of Jessica Lynn Whitbread

My community mother, Darien Taylor, was one of the first women living with HIV to do direct action with AIDS ACTION NOW! in Toronto in the late 80s – she’s seen a lot. Darien said that I was a love warrior, and what I advocate for was people being and feeling loved. Which I guess is different than people being accepted because being loved, feeling sexy, being desired, or getting fucked ultimately come with a sense of feeling good and at a deeper level change our quality of life. I had a conversation with a taxi driver in Johannesburg once who asked me if there was a cure for AIDS, I told him yes – kindness. For many people living with HIV and those who are marginalized by ability, age, class, and so on life really sucks sometime and through my projects such as LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN, Tea Time, and No Pants No Problem I aim to change people’s sense of wellbeing at both the micro and macro levels. I believe that role modeling how to be a good friend, lover, family member or service provider has effects that ripple through our communities. People notice. People feel it. I feel it.

LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN is a holiday/movement/project(s) to celebrate women living with HIV in our communities every year from February 1-14th. Basically, people are asked to do something nice for themselves as women living with HIV and/or their communities as friends. These events/actions/gestures are driven not by donors or grants, but by people who actually just want to do and perhaps feel something nice. There is something like 5000+ individuals and about 125 organizations implementing activities each year (which for me is a little mind blowing organizing such a thing with ZERO budget-ha). Communities are incredibly amazing and creative from dance parties and secret talk show giveaways in India, candle making in Nigeria, quilting in Jamaica and Barbados, soap making for trans women in Puerto Rico to card making in NYC. My heart is full of emotion every February as I’m always inspired by what projects people come up with. Most years I do my own person intervention, which usually includes stitching a banner. In 2015, I stiched one for my sisters in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that said “Любите Позитивные Женщин” and took photos of different people in Jamaica, New York City, and Toronto holding it – these were posted on the LPW social media. Within a few days a copy cat banner was made in Ukraine and posted, and then another, and another all in Russian. It was so amazing to actually experience your work having an impact in real time. In 2018 there were about 15 different LPW projects in the region.

Another one of my long term projects is No Pants No Problem. NPNP was a way for me as a young 20 year something year old how to exist as a queer, women living with HIV. Which to be honest, with not many role models is a little difficult. It is rare that women living with HIV are ever depicted as sexy, sexual or queer, especially at that time. So what I did was created a world where I (and eventually others) could explore their sexuality and gender without disclosure being a barrier. In this world we all feel a variety of levels of awkwardness dancing in our underwear, but ultimately realize that we didn’t seem to mind too much when we realize that we forgot our pants at the party the night before (true story of a friend of mine). Working with other artists to create the NPNP experience (such as performance artists: Morgan M. Page, Mikiki, Glam Gam, House of Hopelezz, Kia LaBeija), NPNP is a collective practice that, like most things I do, more about the process than the end result. NPNP has been produced on 5 continents ranging from 50 – 1200+ people. I’m not a size queen in this respect.

I like to work on projects that have longevity and eventually are adapted by others to foster community building, but really most of all, people feeling good. At the core of my projects is myself. They are a representation to things that I often need in my life – so have lots of sex and feel loved I guess.

XO