I stand in cold stacks. My hands run over the pale green boxes scored with pencil marks. I rummage. A syllabus, a letter and tangled endings. An under-stairs cupboard filled with pornography. S&M dyke night flyers with tea in the living room. Email trails: reaching out, and toward something…
My PhD research at Manchester School of Art is titled Quilting the Lesbian Archive. Yet, unlike the USA, there is no dedicated Lesbian Archive in the UK. The project has therefore led me on all kinds of adventures in the search for archival fragments; from institutions such as The Women’s Library (London School of Economics), to community focused museums (Glasgow Women’s Library), and into the homes and email inboxes of women who created – and still are creating – lesbian history, including Phyllis Christopher, Karen Fisch, Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright. Quilting gives me a thrifty strategy for approaching this archive; gathering fragments, re-arranging with tender inquisitiveness, and forming a new arrangement that might offer a different ways of knowing the familiar.
Quilts have long been a powerful tool for women’s expression; a visual language within the home as well as creating networks of female connection through friendship quilts, quilting bees and even through public politics – such as the anti-slavery and temperance movements in the USA. Quilts however, have been marginalised as an artform and dismissed as an amateur pastime for women, used to keep idle hands busy in domestic spaces. Since the 1960s feminist artists have used the needle in order to subvert and challenge temporal-spatial restrictions placed on women through the gendered division of private and public space, and the repetitive labours of domesticity and maternity. One only has to look to the work of people like Faith Ringgold, Harmony Hammond and Judy Chicago for this to become apparent.
Rooted in this history of gendered marginalisation, quilts can also be a powerful material language for disrupting discrimination, erasure and marginalisation; such as in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Such themes still prevail in the work of other contemporary queer artists too, such as Aaron McIntosh, Josh Faught and Jeffrey Gibson who all continue to draw on the powerful politics of quilting.
Lucy Lippard famously argued that quilts were the prime visual metaphor for women’s lives; as a ‘diary of touch’ reflecting the repetitive and compulsive behaviours that are necessary for housekeeping and invoking over decoration and ‘female fussiness’. The quilts that emerge in this project are also a ‘diary of touch’; acting record of encounters in the archive. They are cut and stitched into my own fussy, femme aesthetic that indulges in rich pink hues, satins, sequins and dense decorative embroideries.
The loving attention and protective qualities of the quilt offer a reparative site for investing in lesbian archives inherently bound to a history of injury and marginalisation. In their cumulative nature, quilts often have no centre defying conventional rules for formal, painterly arrangements – this non-linear, materially driven form can offer a site for exploring the unruly experiences of the lesbian bodies, temporalities and affects. Although quilts have traditionally celebrated the milestones of a heteronormative life – birth, marriage, children, death – this project subverts this tradition and proposes the quilt as a space collapsing linear time and encountering the unexpected affects of the Lesbian Archive.
Words:Sarah-Joy Ford (she/her)
More of Sarah’s work can be found here.
About the Artist
Sarah-Joy Ford is an Artist, PGR and Associate Lecturer at Manchester School of Art. Exhibitions include Banner Culture, British Textile Biennale (Blackburn), Queen, COLLAR (Manchester) and Weaving Europe: The World as Mediation, Shelly Residence (Paphos). Projects include Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism, The Portico Library (Manchester) and Hard Craft, Vane Gallery (Newcastle). Her work has been commissioned by The Yorkshire Year of the Textiles, Processions: a hundred years of suffrage and Beyond the Binary at The Pitt Rivers Museum. Her AHRC funded PHD research examines quilting as a methodology for re-visioning lesbian archive materials.
All images are of installation work ‘Time Binds’ exhibited at Proximity, Paradise Works, Manchester, 2019. Artwork by Sarah-Joy Ford, Photography by Anya Stewart-Maggs.
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 Lippard, L. (1983). Up, Down and Across: A New Frame for New Quilts,. In C. Robinson (Ed.), The Artist and the Quilt. New York: Knopf.