Saturday, 8 November 2014

Fortune cookie wisdom and winsome tear stains

I am so behind with my visual diary. There is a backlog of photographs in an envelope waiting to be incorporated into the next few pages. Gradually I am doing a little (little being the operative word) more freehand pen drawing, but I think joining an art class will help me loosen up and draw bigger and more consciously.

As the diary develops, it's really becoming a record of how I was feeling at the time. I visited the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition at the Wellcome Collection a couple of months ago. Ever interactive, the Wellcome Collection invited us to take a fortune cookie, but not open it until we had left the exhibition. Well, on the train home I discovered that mine advised "The harder you work, the luckier you will get".

This rings true, but now that it seems we are in the depths of winter I'm finding it somewhat difficult to locate my drive. At this time of year I often just want to burrow down and hibernate. I wonder if I should give a SAD lamp a go?

In spite of this I've just started a very interesting commission which will keep me pretty busy for the next couple of months. That's all I'm prepared to reveal about it for now!

When and if I earn a bit more cash, I shall also be having Treasures For Your Troubles (my first curated zine) printed. I have plans for a second, which the contents of this page from my visual diary are an overture towards. And before you ask, yes, it is based on a true story.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 1)

The William Morris Gallery is very canny at showing contemporary artists whose output would have been looked upon most favourably by Morris himself. None more so than the latest exhibition by Alke Schmidt, Tangled Yarns. If Morris was alive today I'm sure he would have felt as passionately about Alke's call for social justice through her exposure of the murky world of the textile industry as about her highly skilled handicraft.

Alke plays up this dichotomy between Morris the socialist and Morris the designer in her exhibition. One of the first works which the audience is confronted with as they ascend the stairs to the main exhibition space is entitled Morris's Dilemma. "Confronted" is perhaps an apt word; rising like steam from the two arms of a mill engine, Morris's Honeysuckle and Tulip pattern, repeated on a grand scale, weaves like a mirage in and out of the engine painted over it. I'm not sure whether the work should be classified as a painting or as a collaboration with a bygone craftsman. It could easily be an assault on the senses, but Alke blends pattern and painting so seamlessly, confronting Morris's romantic longing for a pre-industrial, hand-crafted age with the means of production that made his career possible.

One cylinder of the mill engine is entitled "CAPITAL"; the other, "LABOUR". On Alke's blog we learn that this is not her own invention intended to "illustrate the complex and conflicted relationship between Morris the entrepreneur-designer and Morris the socialist", but an unbelievably fortuitous discovery on her part; such an Orwellian mill engine may genuinely have existed. At the very least, it did as a Victorian illustration.

The composition and colouring of Alke's piece is redolent of both right and left wing propaganda for me, but particularly trade union, socialist, and suffrage banners.

In the very last piece completed for Tangled Yarns, Alke pays direct homage to these suffrage banners, appliquéing an early 20th century patchwork (which would have been a "contemporary" of the Suffragettes) with the Suffragette rallying cry and banner proclamation Deeds Not Words.

Though the work harks back to the 1900s and the suffrage movement, and is in part a collaboration with a needlewoman of the past, it feels decidedly modern. It could be the jumble of colours, which are warm, inviting, even cosy; in marked contrast to the rest of the exhibition there is a sense of the handcrafted here that is perhaps not entirely polished; this is highlighted by the unfinished, raw edges of the patchwork. Alke posits on her blog that the woman who created the patchwork may have been a professional machinist making this piece at home for personal pleasure; she was certainly a skilled stitcher. 

Alke's choice to leave the patchwork unfinished signifies the never-ending nature of "women's work", and lends the piece a vulnerable air. The domestic furnishing and dressmaking cottons used for the lettering, the shirting stripes of the patchwork, show that craft is for everyone, and can be (and certainly was in the past) a part of everyday life. Just as Morris would have wanted. 

The phrase which keeps repeating in my head as I look at this work is the old rallying cry of Second-wave feminism, "The Personal Is Political". Its execution puts me in mind of Craftivism, as does its simple, yet impactful and perennial message. It has readopted the Suffragette call to arms, but divorced it from its austerity. As with the campaigns of the Craftivist Collective, "unlike some of the more traditional, extrovert forms of activism", Deeds Not Words is quietly beautiful. 

Alke created her text from fabrics used in the other works in the exhibition - thereby tying up the loose ends of her Tangled Yarns. A fitting conclusion to Alke's exhibition, calling us to bring about real change in the textile industry, whilst honouring the women who intersect with it.

A group of women whose lives were utterly transformed - for worse - by the textile industry were the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Disaster makes it sound like an accident; textiles workers in the Rana Plaza building were literally told "If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work". 

The building collapse is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern human history, leaving behind countless unanswered questions. Due to failures at every level, from highstreet brands whose clothes were manufactured in the building neglecting to take responsibility towards their workers, to local government turning a blind eye to the lack of planning permission, to managers at one of the factories in the building threatening to withhold a month's pay if workers refused to come to work following structural cracks appearing, 1138 (and counting) people have died. The majority of these workers were women, and a number of their children were also killed in the collapse.

Just writing these words makes me angry. It is incredible, therefore, that Alke has created such touching, peaceful, and appropriate memorials to these women in her exhibition, restoring them the dignity that they were so brutally robbed of.

In each of her two works commemorating the workers who were killed, she uses 1138 pearlescent-tipped sewing pins - one for each victim who died. Alke therefore honours the work that they did as seamstresses, though it was not respected during their lifetimes.

1138 and Counting presents the pins on a scroll of cotton and muslin, grouped together like a tally. The pure yet warm off-white is peaceful and spiritual, and together with the ethereal muslin is reminiscent of ghosts and angels.

Memorial presents us with a shroud-like length of cotton (the fabric which ties the entire exhibition together) on which pins delineate the shape of a woman's body. Although the pins pierce the fabric, the body appears to be resting on it; this calls to mind the stories of volunteer rescuers bringing victims out of the wreckage of Rana Plaza on bolts of fabric.

Alke has incorporated the survivors' testimony into both pieces:

They would not pay us if we didn't work that day.

One supervisor forced us to go inside.

We tried to get out but they wouldn't let us.

Our managers said, 'We will all die some day'.

If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work.

My hand got stuck when the roof came down. So I tried to cut off my hand but I couldn't.

I was buried alive. I never thought I'd see sunlight again.

I can't work anymore. I can't support my family, can't afford my treatment.

They didn't even pay my kids' due salaries. They said there is no salary for the dead.

Alke's neighbours transcribed this testimony from videos published by Labour Behind the Label into Bengali script, a further example of her collaborative process. Alke transferred the script on to the cotton of the works. In 1138 and Counting, the script rises from behind a haze of muslin, reminding us, like Morris's Dilemma, that the chain of supply in the textile industry is obscure and murky.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Between The Waves: Experiences at the 2014 Feminism in London conference

The Feminism in London conference made me feel uncomfortable. It also made me feel elated, disgusted, relieved and confused. And in that regard, I would say that it did its job. Feminist conversations are oftentimes uncomfortable.

However, as I am what some people are terming a "fourth wave feminist", I sometimes feel caught between, or perhaps under the various waves of feminism. And I must admit, I'm not entirely satisfied with any of them. That perhaps, is also the point. Feminism must move forward as it encounters new barriers to the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.

I felt particularly caught between these waves when listening to the opening speech of the conference by Gail Dines. She called for a return to radical feminism, which originated in the 1960s with the rise of second wave feminism. Radical feminism's fly in the ointment is patriarchy; male domination over all aspects of society. Now, as a modern day intersectional feminist, I have a bone to pick with this idea; for example, what about race? What about class? Sexuality? Trans rights? I would argue that as a white, middle class, heterosexual woman, I have more privilege than a black, working class, lesbian woman; I get a bigger slice of the pie. Intersectionality is about being mindful of this and supporting all our sisters in their struggles against the multiple oppressors they face.

 I also believe that men have their place in this too, and can effect positive change, so long as they don't attempt to dominate a movement that is primarily about women's rights. Case in point the recent cock-up with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg wearing "This is what a feminist looks like" t shirts which were allegedly made by women under sweatshop conditions. If true, this is certainly an  utter outrage, but to my mind also rather begs the question: what were these men doing making the feminist conversation about them? At which point we return to the issue of patriarchy. These men are the living embodiment of the word, taught to believe everything is always about them. It's up to "scrappy upstarts", i.e. the thousands of women who attended and supported the Feminism in London conference, to remind them that it's not. This is a message from the speeches at the conference that I wholeheartedly embrace: that feminist revolution is a collective effort. That we must pull together to make our voices heard.

There was a strong focus on the increasing "pornification" of our culture at the conference. The next day, I was idly scrolling through Tumblr when I happened upon a fashion editorial advertising a new line of Barbie-themed garments. One of the t shirts proclaimed the legend "This bod's for you." Many women today claim that they don't need feminism; some because they think feminist = man-hater, some because they believe there is equality now, so what's the point of feminism? Well, I would argue that when our own bodies are not for us is precisely the point at which we need feminism. That's not even taking into account the disparity in what men and women are paid for equivalent jobs, to give but one example of inequality.

A young woman who is painfully aware of this inequality is Freya Pigott. In Freya's own words: "I am a 16 year old student with a love for standing up for what I believe in." And what Freya believes is that injustices committed against women have to stop.

As part of The Art of Feminism exhibition which made an appearance at the conference, Freya exhibited a textile piece entitled I wish the content of this would age quicker than the fabric will disintegrate.

The mismatched fabric squares making up the work are machine embroidered with statistics related to gender inequality and observations on the misogyny Freya encounters in society today.

I found the below the most harrowing: More people would dial 999 if they were to witness animal rather than domestic abuse.

Creating this piece was a considerable act of bravery for Freya; some of her classmates criticised her efforts, asking what the point was, and stating that "it wouldn't change anything"'; as if art has never changed the world!

I was invited along to the Feminism in London conference by Catherine of Significant Seams, to document a discussion on how craft can change the world.

Catherine was joined by Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective and Deadly Knitshade to present the talk Crafting Politics. Creativity couched as craft rather than art was important here; the speakers concluded that art is less accessible and more exclusive than craft, which is a form of creativity which transcends class, gender, and race divisions. Of course, the particular forms of craft discussed by the speakers, stitching, knitting, and patchwork, are to a large extent still gendered female, though "manbroiderers" such as Mr X Stitch are doing their best to debunk this. However, as Roszsika Parker notes in The Subversive Stitch, the very term "manbroidery" wards off the associations with "trivial" femininity embroidery still holds.

Through her work with the Craftivist Collective, Sarah Corbett has encountered some male activists who say of Craftivism that it's "crap"; that activists need to be angry, to shout, to effect change. Sarah argues that she is channelling her anger to reach the right audiences, and simultaneously creating joyousness out of anger. This reminds me of a glorious cross stitched quotation I saw once: "I sublimate my rage through needlework". Craft can be political in unexpected ways, partially as consequence of its "girly", "fluffy" associations.

As Deadly Knitshade noted, when you tell people that you are protesting or raising awareness through needlework or knitting, they relax and say "Oh, that's really interesting". In a similar way, colleagues in a school I was working in recently couldn't seem to reconcile the fact that I wear a lot of pink lace with the fact that I'm a "rampant" feminist; my feminism and Craftivism are thus both slightly stealthy forms of politics.

Craftivism is neither high (elitist) art or confrontational (scary) activism. It is Craftivism; activism using craft in a quietly beautiful way.

Returning to the theme of second wave feminism for a moment; Catherine argued that textile crafts were thrown under the bus by second wave feminists in the 1970s, just as research was beginning to indicate that they were the most effective hobbies for better mental health and deeper relaxation.

 I concede that during the second wave domesticity was in feminist firing lines, and needlecrafts were part of this domestic sphere (hello, the enduring phenomenon of Jane Austen). However, during the 1970s a number of feminist artists turned to textile craft as a means of self-expression and manifestation of "the personal is political"; the collaborative work of Judy Chicago particularly springs to mind. During each wave of feminism, craft has played its part; think of appliquéd Suffrage banners in the first wave; of Womanhouse and The Birthday Party (both instigated by Chicago) in the second; of Craftivism, and the reclamation of craft as an undervalued, gendered art form in the third.

In each wave, in each era, there is much to be proud of in the efforts of feminists, craftswomen, and women who fit into both categories (why, hello there). I think there will be much to be proud of in the waves which follow, as well.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Now I'm a Milk Thistle

I've had a bit of a lonely half term; my family were away, most of my friends were working, and Pip has been very busy with work and being a new home owner. I did manage to host a small gathering yesterday, with home-baked brownies and pumpkin pie, though; there are far too many sweet treats left lying around the house!

I may have spent a lot of time with Mad Men boxsets, but I did try to use the time semi-productively; whilst slobbing I was stitching, too. In fact, Milk Thistle is finally finished.

The book deals with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes and performativity of femininity, Romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses. Milk thistle is thought to be good for the liver, so the book is also about bravery; about not being lily-livered.

Conceptually I think it's the most cohesive of my three artist's books; however, due to the thin fashion and quilting cottons I used for its cover and pages, it doesn't feel quite as "structurally sound". But I did get a chance to experiment with a few techniques learnt during my time at the RSN, as well as some new ones; Turkey rug stitch, Victorian cross stitch beading, and ribbon embroidery all make an appearance.

So here it is, the completed Milk Thistle, an idea it has only taken me two years to realise:

The text of the book:

We are wilted English roses grown pallid and wan, wandering moors, moaning "Willoughby, Willoughby" at thin air for hours.

I'll twist my ankle attempting to commune with nature, and fall deep in the shaded wood, become a shrinking violet, growing smaller and smaller until one day I simply vanish.

Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower, I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower.

Up in my garret, my ivory tower, I wax and I wane, I pale by hour.

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed, stitching petals between pages, paper thin Honesty skin - quick! Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in.

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually, a delicate flower choked by creepers, bound up by pansy sickness.

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet, but everywhere I wept, petals sprung, until I watered a meadow.

The White Lady came to me. She told me "Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes. It's good for the liver and you need all the unlilying you can get. Remember you're a milk thistle; a tenacious weed."

I was an English Rose.

Then I was Rose Madder.

Now I'm a Milk Thistle.

I'm looking for somewhere to exhibit Milk Thistle, alongside my other two artist's books, if at all possible. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch!