On March 2, 2016, the Supreme Court will hear the most important reproductive rights case in nearly a quarter century. The justices will weigh the legality of an underhanded and medically unnecessary 2013 Texas law that would shut down 75 percent of the state’s abortion clinics, leaving just 10, or fewer, women’s health clinics providing abortion services. The requirements of the law, known as HB2, are partially in effect today, and only 19 of the 42 clinics open in 2013 are currently in operation. At stake are the rights and access of 5.4 million women of reproductive age to safe and legal abortion care.
That’s 5.4 million women across the nation’s second-most-populous state: how can the public understand the scope of this threat—to them, and to the reproductive rights of women more broadly—and show support? In 2015, Brooklyn-based artist Chi Nguyen visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley with the Center for Reproductive Rights, where she works as a graphic designer. There she met women organizing on the front lines of the fight for their right to reproductive health care. Inspired by this experience and the imminent Supreme Court case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, she initiated the collaborative project 5.4 Million and Counting.
In partnership with the Textile Arts Center and the Center for Reproductive Rights, 5.4 Million and Counting is a work of art and activism in which Nguyen and contributors nationwide will collectively embroider 5.4 million stitches. These will ultimately be shaped into a quilt in what Nguyen calls “an homage to the Rio Grande Valley and the 5.4 million Texan women of reproductive age whose right to safe and legal abortion is at risk.” On March 2, Nguyen and collaborators from the Textile Arts Center will travel with the quilt to Washington D.C. for a rally to protect abortion access.
When asked whether she located her project in the craftivism tradition, a form of activism that incorporates “domestic arts” like needlework, Nguyen cited political activist, artist, and writer Toni Cade Bambara: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” “That’s what I believe craftivism can do,” she continued, “With the 5.4 Million and Counting project, I hope the public will use the quilt as a stepping stone to learn more about the Supreme Court case and the condition of reproductive health care in the U.S. today.”
Materially, the patchwork quilt will also symbolize the unity and support people across the United States have for Texan women and abortion access. But there is a contradiction to the medium as well. “The quilt implies a sense of comfort, safety, and security, yet the lack of access to safe and legal abortion care is anything but,” says the artist.
Later this month collaborative stitch-in events will be held at Textile Arts Center studios in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where members of the public are invited to embroider lines or help sew together completed swatches that will become the quilt. Those outside the New York area can participate by sending in their own 10 by 10 inch swatches with as many tally marks (卌) as they would like to embroider. The project joins other gestures of solidarity and taking a stand in the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Draw the Line campaign.
Nguyen says of participants:
5.4 Million and Counting is a very public and collaborative process so I don’t want to dictate where someone’s journey begins or ends. Some might want to embroider one line and others might want to embroider all 5.4 million. I think that’s the beauty of it. When we surpass the original number, we ourselves become ‘and Counting.’
Does she have a personal goal for how many stitches she wants to make? “As many lines as it will take to raise awareness for the women in Texas, and to show the Supreme Court that their decision won’t just affect Texan women but all women across the United States.”
Indeed, what’s at stake is much greater than Texan women’s access to reproductive health care and abortion providers. If the court rules in favor of HB2, the law, which demands clinics comply with targeted and often unattainable regulations, could become a template for limiting abortion access across the country. Aware of the significance, supporters of overturning the law will head to D.C. for the March 2 rally timed with the opening of oral arguments. Outside the Supreme Court, Nguyen and Textile Arts Center collaborators will hold an open stitch-in, embroidering throughout the rally from 8 am until noon. If all 5.4 millions lines are completed before or during the rally, the quilt will be used as a banner to show the Supreme Court the public support for abortion access.
Texas after HB2. Courtesy of the Center for Reproductive Rights
5.4 Million and Counting is only complete once all 5.4 million stitches have been embroidered. Thus, there is no clear end date for the project—a construct Nguyen, whose practice often incorporates endurance and performance, has worked with in the past. “I like the open-endedness of duration performance,” she says, “the piece is only finished when you have gone through every necessary step, physically or emotionally.” Nguyen says her favorite aspect of durational performance is the commitment: “the commitment to yourself, your subject, and your audience. It is a conscious effort to carve out time and space to explore an emotion or idea unquestioned and unrestricted.”
Just as the duration of the project remains open-ended, is also unclear what form the final quilt will take. When asked to speculate on its magnitude, she used her first sampler—a 10-by-10-inch swatch containing 500 lines—to do some arithmetic. Assuming that swatch were average, there would be around 10,800 swatches to sew together, with the final quilt measuring around 86 by 86 feet, or a third of a football field.
While that nebulous final form may be the sum of the work, it is in the process, its collective accumulation of millions of embodied gestures where the project will really come together:
For the 5.4 Million and Counting project, I’m most excited to see the range in the aesthetics of the fabric and embroidery. All different personalities will shine through and the quilt will become a collective object. The different aesthetics are also illustrative of the range of women—across the U.S. and the globe—who are harmed by these attacks on reproductive health care. All women need access to safe, legal, compassionate care. This quilt won’t belong to me but to all of us.
For more information on public stitch-in sessions in the New York City area, as well as instructions on how to participate if you cannot join the public stitch-ins, visit the project page on Textile Arts Center website.
ArtSlant would like to thank Chi Nguyen and Jennifer Miller of The Center for Reproductive Rights for their assistance.
(Unless otherwise specified, images courtesy of Chi Nguyen)