Editorial #3: Craft, Making, & The Environment

‘Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other – outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.’

Ursula Le Guin, ‘Women/Wilderness’

Assembling our ‘Craft & the Environment’ issue whilst the Amazon rainforest burns thanks, in part, to the arrogance of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsanoro, it’s almost impossible to feel anything but despair as the world lurches ever closer to an irreparable climate catastrophe. In June, Bolsanoro attacked European interference in his administration’s exploitative environmental policies with the proclamation that ‘the Amazon is Brazil’s – not yours’; his statement evokes regressive attitudes that have seen the world carved up and controlled by a capitalist, patriarchal system that set itself above women, people of colour, the nonhuman, and the environment. As we are discovering, the consequences of ignoring the fact that the world is a shared home, a home that we need to cultivate and build an ethical relationship with, are dire. In spite of the gloom, we hope that this issue will serve as a reminder of the ways that feminist art –and, specifically, craft – can reimagine the world and play an intensive role in the regeneration of our environment. Craft shapes our world and exists in an intensely physical dialogue with the environment; it can help build a sustainable future and raise awareness of excessive consumption and environmental exploitation.

Contemporary artists and makers across the globe are connecting the dots of this ecological crisis. Recycling and regeneration form a large part of this practice, from Jasmine Linington’s sustainable textiles made with Scottish seaweed, and Kenyan artist Kioko Mwitiki’s junk sculptures made with waste materials dumped in Kenya by Japan, China, and America, to our featured artists and makers Hala Kiaksow’s hand-woven, naturally dyed fabrics that draw on the richly diverse traditions of Islamic dress and Nnenna Okore’s abstract sculptures made of an eclectic mix of biodegradable materials. Okore’s contemporary practice also presents profound encounters between artist and environment. In her interview, Okore reflects on the varied and transient ways in which the natural world encourages conversation with colour, shape, texture and abstraction within her pieces, which are made from biodegradable and recycled materials.

A sense of global community has been an emerging theme of this issue, and is, of course, central in fighting back against the wilful destruction of the planet. GroundWork Gallery in Norfolk, reviewed here, show how small local gallery spaces are engaging with global artists.  Pioneering marine biologist Rachel Carson’s research into the poisoning of her local natural landscape developed into her ground-breaking work Silent Spring, a text that drew attention to the global, interconnected nature of the planet’s ecosystem. In an interview with Jade French about her Rural Modernism project, Dr Hope Wolf suggests that many modernists were attuned to the way that by looking ‘microcosmically, even myopically, at a place, you begin to see that there are many connections with the wider world’. Modernism has often been viewed as a masculine movement that thrived on the speed of trains, planes, and motor cars, a newly electrified world, and the emergence of exciting new visual technology – or, as Alexandra Harris points out, ‘the wasteland, and not the herbaceous border’. Yet the ecocritical turn in modernist studies combined with a new focus on marginalised modernist artists and modes of making is creating a shift in how we understand the nature of modernism. Hattie Waltersreview of the enchanting ‘Botanical Modernisms’ conference, which took place in the idyllic surroundings of Virginia Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House in Sussex, highlights innovative work currently being carried out on horticulture in modernist texts, such as Katherine Mansfield’s ‘vegetal encounters’; the garden emerges as a sensory, material space that shaped the modernist imaginary.

Like Hope Wolf’s Sussex modernists, Scandinavian artist Hannah Ryggen turned to the rural landscape of her adopted Norway. Weaving fiercely political, anti-fascist tapestries from local wool hand-dyed with organic materials, Ryggen’s art reconceptualised our relationship with the nonhuman, creating ethical art works that remind us of the bonds that connect us to each other and our environment, even in the darkest moments. The Royal Academy’s current Helene Schjeferbeck exhibition, offers a fascinating perspective on another overlooked Scandinavian artist who was intimately in touch with the environment around her. Jenni Raback’s review shows us how, through Schjerferbeck’s airy, atmospheric compositions, we enter into light-filled spaces of her physical world. 

Contemporary writer Marianne MacRae similarly opens up modernist art to new, ecologically-minded interpretations: in her poem ‘“A Kind of Fretful Speech” for Marianne Moore, MacRae ‘[dives], headfirst through the thirsty crest of a wave’ with Moore, bringing into focus the arch modernist’s Moore’s proclivity towards animal otherness and the natural world. Moving away from the traditional centres of modernism reveals further surprising and inspiring encounters with the natural environment. Elsewhere, sisters Holly Froy and Willa Froy play with myth-making and the figure of the sun as a scorned (or scorched) forgotten lover whose temperature rises. Their poetry and accompanying illustrations interrogate a current-day ambivalence and disconnect with the natural world, as temperatures increase, icecaps melt and rainforests burn. 

There is always a risk of essentialising both the environment and craft as the ‘natural’ home for women. In the experimental work featured here, we instead suggest that craft opens up a difficult and important dialogue between human and nonhuman, where the relationship formed isn’t easy or expected but rather worked for and respected. As Donna Haraway notes in ‘Situated Knowledges’, a reconception of nature not as passive matter or an object of study, but as an active subject, is central to the process of revising our actions and our language towards our ecosystems. In this issue, we see artists, poets and curators working with (rather than taking from) the environments around them, returning us to the wilderness that is both our home, our equal and our responsibility. 

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