Te Papa team member Gareth Watkins describes how a community and whānau transformed an early AIDS activist’s wooden graveside cross into a permanent memorial.
Almost ten years ago, Te Papa became kaitiaki for the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt. The 16 blocks (each measuring 4 x 4 metres) mostly contain eight individual panels, each the size of a standard grave.
The quilt panels were made by partners, family members, friends, and others to remember loved ones who had died from AIDS-related illnesses. At the time of gifting, Stephanie Gibson, Curator New Zealand Histories and Cultures, described the quilt as “a profound and significant taonga”.
The Te Papa team worked closely with then-Quilt Guardian (and former Catholic priest) Michael Bancroft. I had also been working with Michael in a personal capacity a couple of years earlier documenting the quilt. It was during this time that Michael showed me his in memoriam journal. I turned to a page that remembered Darren Horn and read a quote from him: “I’m not afraid of death, I want to embrace it as a friend.”
In the 1990s Michael had conducted almost a hundred AIDS-related funerals in Auckland. One of those funerals was for Darren. Circumstances at the time meant that there was no provision for a headstone and so Michael arranged for a simple white cross to mark Darren’s grave at Waikumete Cemetery.
Darren was a passionate activist and educator. He organised the first AIDS March up Queen Street in the early 1990s, was a founding member of Auckland Community AIDS Services, and an early member of the Auckland Branch of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. He was also one of the early organisers of the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt. In 1992 he wrote “all the quilts speak of love, compassion and memories. Each is composed of recollection, sadness, acceptance and letting go. The quilts help us to learn and accept.”
Darren, along with Peggy Dawson, had also provided light touch massage for many people living with HIV and AIDS. With other volunteers they created a quilt panel featuring large daisies. Each petal contained the name of someone they had worked with who had subsequently died.
The last two petals were left blank and only completed after Darren’s death in 1993. They commemorate his partner Stephen Maxted who died in May 1993, and Darren himself who died four months later at the age of 32.
The 31st of October 2020 would have been Darren’s 60th birthday. For the last 27 years Michael has been regularly renewing the wooden cross at Darren’s grave. I chatted with Michael about this a few months ago and we decided that now was the right time to honour Darren’s legacy with a more permanent memorial.
We established a public fundraising page and on Saturday 28 November a dedication ceremony was held at Waikumete Cemetery. The ceremony also marked World AIDS Day.
Michael conducted the service and Peggy, along with Darren’s sister Jaylene (pictured), unveiled the headstone.
Almost three decades after Darren’s death, his passion and energy continue to strengthen old friendships and create new ones. Part of the dedication prayer on Saturday read: “We are grateful and indebted to you Darren, who in those early years of HIV and AIDS, in the midst of stigma and prejudice, did so much to educate and challenge the community. You bore this illness with such dignity and strength at a time when medical intervention was so limited. In many ways you were a pioneer for the care and support men and women receive today.”