‘Women’s work’ – this is how craft and the decorative arts have long been conceptualised. It is a highly reductive phrase in a patriarchal genealogy of art history that privileges the mind over the body, sight over touch, painting over making, and the individual genius over the work of the collective. In this issue, we delve further into the work of craft in order to explore the intersections between labour, community activism, and class divisions through the history of modernism and the contemporary arts.
An activist, working class avant-garde was championed at the event ‘Queers, Class and the Avant-Garde’, held at the ICA and reviewed in this issue by Polly Hember. Queerying and challenging the classist current mode of Establishment review culture, the evening celebrated a contemporary avant-garde with poetry and reading from Kashif Sharma-Patel, Huw Lemmey, Ray Filar, Roz Kaveney, Mojisola Adebayo and Isabel Waidner. The immediacy of this event brings us squarely into a present moment, with practitioners who are creating experimental, turbulent and joyous works right now.
Interviews with contemporary practitioners Seleena Laverne Daye (interviewed by Jade French) and Denise Wyllie (interviewed by Eddie Saint-Jean) also speak to how craft and class intersect on a day-to-day level for working artists. Daye champions skill-sharing and community making and, as a self-taught artist, works with embroidery, felt, and zines. On banner making, Daye outlines the subversive nature of sewing. Rather than being another ‘pointless thing women do’, she suggests a political message can be activated just by picking up the needle and poking… hard. Elsewhere, Wyllie uses printmaking in her practice, to foreground and make visible working women in a series of prints, including the oft-forgotten Rosalind Franklin, who made the first clear X-Ray image of the structure of DNA in 1952.
Printmaking has emerged as a key material output of the way women can organise collectively. Offering an insight on the use of craft in East London’s working-class communities, Lottie Whalen’s review of ‘Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s’ looks at the use of printmaking as an inexpensive but powerful way of innovating grassroots politics. The workshop empowered working-class women by giving them access to the tools to speak out about their lived experiences in an otherwise male-dominated, white, heteronormative society. The slow, labour intensive nature of crafting here becomes a process that brings the community together, a crucial way of making connections as much as political posters. The exhibition opens up questions of financial viability surrounding craft, class and labour. Studying design was an option for middle-class women, which in turn opened up a way of generating an income. Meanwhile, the Lenthall Road Workshop found themselves forced to disband when funding ran out. Suzanna Petot’s review of ‘Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking’ also explores this idea of the ‘worth’ of craft. She questions the economic impact on women who make whilst balancing the inspiring nature of modern women artists bringing to life the dynamism, hopes and fears of the 1930s.
Enid Marx’s work, made possible by similar conditions of an upper-middle class status, exemplifies the ways in which innovative making can infiltrate mass-produced design. Lotte Crawford examines the ‘tough, domestic physical process’ that went into Marx’s brand of block making, from hand-making dyes from natural materials to steaming and drying the fabrics. Although best known for her mass produced fabrics, Crawford shows us how Marx found her own distinctive style in the inter-war period through an intensive hands-on approach that led her to selling work in burgeoning craft shops.
This question of money – of earnings – is certainly a pertinent one when it comes to women’s making. The Gee’s Bend co-operative have been making quilts since the 1960s, championed by a variety of artworld luminaries. Unsurprisingly, they too have been plagued with a patriarchal appropriation of their output, with percentages and cuts taken away from the women. As bell hooks writes, ‘The work of black women quiltmakers needs special feminist critical commentary which considers the impact of race, sex and class’. The way in which the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers have earned art world recognition often irons out the conditions in which they have crafted; white critics seem more interested in drawing Op Art connections than supporting their co-op or tracing their abstract designs back to the ‘crazy quilt’ innovated by slaves. Our spotlight feature offers up some examples of their work.
Generating an income from craft brings us to Lucy Lippard’s critique ‘Something From Nothing’ (1978). She wonders if the return to handicrafts is merely bored women appropriating the very real working-class need to make and mend. What for some can be a hobby, for others is a daily necessity. Fetishising a ‘Make, Do, Mend’ mentality obscures the thrifting and crafting that is undertaken for survival. The original book, published in 1943, was filled with wartime tips for ‘thrifty design ideas and advice on reusing old clothing’ but with an updated version published in 2009 by John Lewis, the ‘blitz mentality’ was used to hide the real impacts of austerity and economic recession that have now characterised the UK for the last decade.
In the conditions of austerity, community is paramount and another emergent theme from the work brought together in this issue. Community and resistance can be seen in the co-operatives, the peer-review culture of queer resistance, the activist printmaking and zinemaking. From community skill-swapping to the twentieth-century’s evolving education for women in the arts, ‘women’s work’ is a tool for empowering and enabling people to come together to create and challenge.
We hope you enjoy this issue’s offerings. Thank you to all our readers and contributors and warmly encourage submissions rom all disciplines. Please take a look at our ongoing Call for Submissions or drop us an email.