Nisha Ramayya on craft, creation & ritual

Nisha Ramayya is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. Her recent book, States of the Body Produced by Love was published by Ignota in 2019. She has kindly allowed Decorating Dissidence to feature a ‘ritual selection’ of her poetry, which resonates with the rituals of craft, creation and this month’s theme of witchery. Jade French speaks to Nisha here about her process of crafting poetics, the ritualistic elements of language, play, and creation. 

What do craft and the decorative mean to you?

I’ve never fully shaken off my teenage/emo dreams, and the first thing that springs to mind about ‘craft’ is – embarrassingly – The Craft and all those midnight experiments alone and with friends, candles, dried herbs, and heavy-breathing ghosts. The second thing is craft in the context of poetry and literary tradition, and the ways in which it is turned against poets who emphasise sound and performance (‘not enough refinement’), or who experiment with traditions that do not emerge from Europe (‘not enough relatability’), or who tend towards conceptual and procedural writing practices (‘not enough natural talent’). Will Harris has a great thread on Twitter about this.

How you approach the craft of poetry?

I like thinking about writing poetry as creating and entering into a ritualistic space – an early poem ‘Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics’ outlines different practices, methodologies, and feelings about writing poetry that I still find helpful. There are so many contradictory impulses/drives and so many internalised obstacles/enemies that can prevent you from getting anywhere in writing, and so lots of the process seems to be about ‘writing through’ until you find yourself somewhere else, maybe outside yourself or in a make believe space. Tantra refers to mythical and ritual traditions as well as the act of weaving, which is something I explore – over-indulging in the metaphorical possibilities – in Threads (a creative-critical pamphlet co-authored with Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil) and in States of the Body Produced by Love.

Can you speak to the way ritual informs your work and the ways in which you work with language?

Approaching poetic practices as ritual practices can be really generative and fun. For example, setting up particular rules or rites (such as time of day, or finding your voice via quotations from others, or listening to a piece of music on repeat); meditating on a symbol or image (in my book, it’s yantras/mandalas and goddess iconography all the way); or focussing on something you want to transform (like an emotion or a relationship or a social/political situation). Also, ritual can provide a safe space in which to dwell on, respond to, and even perform violence, fury, revenge. Not that I think those things should be defanged in language according to some distinction between art here and life there, but that poetry can be a place to try on and sharpen those fangs! For example, writing my antinationalist poem that’s really a diatribe against right-wing Hindu ideology and rule really helped me to identify and articulate my feelings and my political position, and then to channel it outside myself into the world.   

Tell us a bit more about ‘States of the Body Produced By Love’ and working with Ignota Books…

Ignota first published Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry and have gone on to publish an amazing catalogue, including the Ignota Diary, which is intended as ‘a tool for discovery in the practice of everyday life’. Sarah Shin, one of the editors, has been – quite literally – a dream come true. She has encouraged and supported me and my writing, read my work more closely than anyone and helped me to say what I’m trying to say, organised events and done the sort of promotional work that is anathema to many poets, and helped me to reach so many different people and readers for which I am endlessly grateful. It was important to me to work with a woman of colour (somewhat uncommon in poetry publishing) and with someone who understood and shared my twofold approach to spirituality and politics. I didn’t actually think I’d meet that very person and am so glad that I waited as long as I did to publish my first book – in that way, it’s been pretty romantic!

Could you tell us a bit more about your work in creating a ‘rackety bridge’ between Tantric poetics and black studies?

This bridge – oscillating between safe crossing and descent into the depths, set to the music of Alice Coltrane – is how I am trying to get across the many holes in my research interests and poetic practices; there are many bridges crossing back and forth, like weaving, like suturing wounds. I’m currently thinking about performance as sacrifice, the poetry reading as ritual space and as bloody offering, which will hopefully lead into a research project on Fred Moten’s discussions of blackness and non-performance, the correspondences between legal language and spellcasting, and the fascistic shadowlands of Tantra…

Check our Nisha’s ritual poetry here

Spotlight: Xenobia Bailey’s Aesthetic of Funk

Portrait of Xenobia Bailey by Daisy Chen

Xenobia Bailey’s career is as eclectic and colourful as the spiral crochet patterns that form a key part of her aesthetic. Having studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute, she went on to work as a costume designer for Black Arts West and learnt to crochet at the Greenpoint Cultural society in Brooklyn. Her crochet hats infiltrated pop culture in the 1980s, appearing everywhere from United Colors of Beneton advertisements, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, to Elle magazine. 

“Crochet works well for practicing my craft and developing the aesthetic. It is labor-intensive, but it becomes a meditation, like counting prayer beads”

Bailey’s first influence, however, was her mother – “She created a beautiful ambience with nothing. She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.” Bailey’s refers to her art practice as an ‘aesthetic of funk’, which celebrates the idiosyncratic, the improvised, and folk art traditions that were built on thrift and any scraps of material at hand.  

$ Bopped – flow Mandela cosmic tapestry of energy flow of charged currency (a minor event), 1999,  Hand crotchet, cotton, acrylic yarns, 5’8in. Image courtesy Stux Gallery

“There isn’t a commercialised or industrialised African-American aesthetic, it’s more of a craft, and it goes through the music, the poetry, the food and everything. There is a mysticism that surrounds our aesthetic. It’s important for African Americans especially to have a place of being and sense of presence’

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Tent (installation view, John Michael Kohler Arts Center), 1993; acrylic and cotton yarn and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Central to Bailey’s ‘aesthetic of funk’ is the mission to make something joyful from ‘the legacy of trauma’ central to the African-American experience: ‘we can make a joyful noise in that funk…From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”  Mothership 1: Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, which draws inspiration from Obeah healing rituals, is a striking example of the ways Bailey combines vibrant crochet, folk inspired patterns and ceremonial fabrics to create afrofuturist work that celebrates the cultural legacy of African American women. Her tent offers a space of sanctuary and solace, whilst evoking the dual nature of funk as both based in trauma but signifying joy: Bailey describes its title as referring to “Sistah Paradise, a fictional African medicine woman, or ‘Obeah,’ who was brought to the US as a slave… It’s a message of resistance, renewal, and racial pride through the process of crochet.”

Sistah Paradise: The Lead Mystical African (Haitian Aesthetic) American Folk Character, for rural, urban and suburban bedtime medicinal folktales and contemporary bedtime medicinal lullabies. Photography by Xenobia Bailey

Bailey has also created large scale artworks that translate her ‘aesthetic of funk’ into public spaces. Funktional Vibrations is a large scale mosaic that decorates the roof of 34thStreet – Hudson Yards station on the New York subway. A mystical, cosmic scene made of her signature mandalas, as well as light rays and shooting stars, Bailey wants this work to function as an ‘activator; it’s not only to be pretty, but to inspire’. 

Xenobia Bailey’s blog is available to view here. See below for a video of Bailey discussing her project “Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk”

A Doorway In: My Own Way In

A Doorway In

As I settled into my new routine, I began to explore the country, visiting Loch Lomond and the Hebrides, the Highlands and Orkney.  While I felt such joy in each new place, I still had trouble connecting to the place-specific energy of the land. And so, I developed A Doorway In as a way to reflect upon my relation to this new place and also to experience more deeply the land around me.

My artistic background is primarily dance based.  Therefore, I began by finding quiet places to improvise dance.  This developed into a regular practice in which I would find small subtle ways to dance in new environments.  I noticed that the movement was different in each place because I needed to respond differently to the landscape.  This was my doorway into the energy of the land.

Video: A Doorway In Land

When I was not travelling, I began to explore different artforms as doorways inward.  I began with my long-time fiber art practice, knitting, spinning and weaving. These are slow and methodical, therefore meditative, artforms and thus provided me with an opportunity to center and ground into my own energy.  To this I added a new artform, sculpture. I picked this up in order to give form to the archetypal character, The Figure at the Gate, who stands at the entrance to ritual space and asks the participant to release all things but the true self before entering in.  Working with the shaping of the clay and forming a relationship with each statue as my hands worked helped me to enact that letting go. Finally, I turned my focus to the processes of felting using locally sourced wool and naturally dying fabrics.

For the felting, I took inspiration from the waulking traditions of the Hebrides and created large felted wool pieces.  For the natural dying, I used recycled materials and food scraps to impart designs and colors. These crafting traditions all felt like ties to the past, using slow processes and materials at hand to create lasting and useful works. Little has changed in the form and function of each tradition and the magic(k) associated with them over centuries of time. The process of creating something with the hands links the crafter with the creation and reflects the inner and outer landscapes experienced by the artist, making them tangible. 

Into the felted pieces I incorporated the use of a symbol from Celtic stone carvings, the triskele, a three-armed spiral pattern.  The triskele opened yet a deeper doorway into discovery of the land, bringing the practice full circle. One of the many modern mythological associations with the triskele is to the concept of the Three Realms of Celtic myth: Land, Sea and Sky.  These are a form of the elements of life, most often seen as Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, also including the Spirit in many traditions. In the case of the Three Realms, they relate more specifically to the landscape of Britain and Ireland which is mountainous and windswept and high cliffs connect the sky and the sea to the land.  The process can be used with any symbol but the use of the triskele which has more localized links allowed me to explore in a more connected way. I began to focus my improvisations on the connection to Land, Sea and Sky and I found within that practice my own link to the land and to myself.   

Video: A Doorway in Sea

After a year of this creative operation linked so closely with my spiritual practice, I began to notice the patterns of the year and the seasons and felt a deeper connection to the new place in which I found myself.  The early stages of this project, as it is still ongoing, culminated in an exhibition of examples of work and videos of the improvisations in a gallery setting that I transformed for the purpose of ritual. Now the process continues and is likely to for a long time if not forever.  Endlessly changeable, I have found this intention-driven practice of self-discovery through art to be a perfect way to create while looking both outward and inward seeking connection.          

A Doorway In is an artistic ritual practice that developed from a long-term project in which my goal was to connect to the land through my spiritual practice of Paganism and magic(k).  Having recently moved to Scotland from the United States and from rural to city living, I struggled to find satisfaction in a new and different landscape. As incredibly beautiful and exciting as I found my new surroundings, I had much more difficulty connecting with the unfamiliar land than I expected being that I wanted to live in Scotland for many years particularly for the landscape.  Much of my eclectic spiritual practice was derived from the folklore that inhabits the area and I, mistakenly, believed that the transition from my old home to my new would be a simple and straightforward one. How wrong I was.


Christopher Croucher is an artist, dancer, and long-time practicing Pagan currently living and working in Massachusetts in the United States. Having lived in Scotland for an extended period and hoping to do so again, he is a recent graduate of the Master of Letters Program in the pathway of Performance during which he developed for himself the process presented in A Doorway In. With a background in classical and modern dance technique, fiber art and other eclectic media, and particularly in nature-based spirituality, Croucher’s artwork is an amalgam incorporating all of these in varying degrees to create experiences for the viewer. His aim is to make work that acts as a Doorway into…

To see more work and to contact the artist, Christopher can be reached at:
Web: http://www.ccroucherpointe.com
Instagram: @manenpointe
Facebook: /manenpointe

Editorial 5: The Domestic

‘Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived.’

John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

The praxis and history of craft is intimately intertwined with the domestic. Its domesticity is linked to the status it has long held as a devalued art form: craft is women’s work, a pastime or simply a way of creating decorative items that find their use in the home. Art belongs, we have been told, behind glass cases in galleries and institutions, whereas the products of craft live amongst us in the everyday, at home. However, the fact that the art world is beginning to take notice of craft and value it on its own terms raises questions about how craft enters the gallery space.

If home, as John Berger suggests, is the untold and unseen story of a life, craft weaves itself into this rich interior life of the domestic. Craft objects dwell in familiar everyday spaces. Their materiality records the experiences of our daily lives: the cracked piece of pottery, a frayed blanket, a snagged jumper, these all speak of our intimacy with the objects around us. It works to bring people together in a shared home or community; to think through the threads that connect us to our environment. 

There is a long history of silence, untold stories, women and the domestic. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) installation critiqued the patriarchal erasure of women’s place in the history of civilisation, through a process of domestic labour and craft. Nicole Horgan reviews Patricia Kaersenhout’s community art project Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, in which the artist expands on and challenges Chicago’s project by inviting 39 black women and women of colour across 2000 years of history to the dinner party. Biographies of women like Queen Amanirenas and activist Marsha P. Johnson are included among the translucent glassware and table runners (made at community ‘stitch-in’ events) at this ‘table of disruption’, offering a new perspective on the canon of art history. Alis Shea discusses Ghada Amer’s Private Rooms, highlighting the tendency to view Amer’s use of embroidery in relation to English sewing practices; in the process, she notes the historical Orientalist fascination with and appropriation of Eastern crafts. Private Rooms, Shea suggests, utilises the domestic craft of embroidery to ‘unite diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures’.  

In this issue on craft and domesticity, motherhood inevitably emerges as a prominent theme. There can be a tedious and time-consuming element to domestic art, with its relentless rituals of washing, cooking, mending, and sweeping. Sarah Cameron reflects on how the crafting of a family home impacts on and speaks to artistic making: in sweepRANT, Cameron laments the ennui the everyday tasks of the domestic, but plays with its ritualistic and repetitive nature to create a poem that weaves together her roles of artist, mother, and homemaker. Cameron reflects on these roles in an accompanying essay, ‘Two Heads, Two Hearts, and the Mother Goddess’. The crossovers between domestic and creative labour and the labour of childbirth are picked up on in Alessandra Leruste’s review of Spilt Milk’s (a Scottish social enterprise that promotes the work of artists who are mothers) recent showcase Re: Birth. Exhibiting artist Laura Ajayi’s We Used to Be So Much Closer – a soft sculpture that evokes the umbilical cord, but which is made from lint collected out of her family’s tumble dryer – reminds us of the interconnected nature of these intimate forms of crafting, creating and making. In this month’s spotlight feature, artist Blandine Martin similarly dismantle narratives of quotidian objects to question and transform their relationship to the domestic. Handwoven tapestries from recycled materials, sand, timber take on a new form; their title – objet sans importance – seems to pose a question, asking us to reassess the roles these items play in our lives and our connections to them. 

It is Hull-based artist Ella Dorton who blurs the lines between the gallery, the community, and the domestic with her striking fabric works. In a recent exhibition, she turned the Humber Street Gallery into a space that ‘you could relax, sit down and feel at home in’. Her domestic portraits draw parallels between the ‘worn-out-ness of the fabric’ and the ‘worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives’, using the intimate setting of the interior to explore broader socio-political issues. In an interview with Lottie Whalen, she discusses making art that creates material and conceptual connections between the domestic and the global, situating personal narratives within the context of broader political crises. 

The artists and makers in this issue each highlight craft’s potential to shatter cosy notions of domesticity, transforming the home into a site of subversion, activism, and resistance. Appealing to the senses, craft creates intimacy and draws our attention to the embodied experiences of modern life; it opens up a space where the stories of our daily lives collide with global narratives, foregrounding the interconnected nature of our domestic and public worlds.  

Interview: Ella Dorton on Craft, Community, and Culture

Back in 2013, when it was announced that Hull would be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an Arts Editor at the Times tweeted ‘Hull for UK City of Culture 2017. *blank*’,  adding, by way of an explanation, that they knew ‘nothing about Hull…nothing at all’. This attitude is, of course, typical of London-centric arts media, but it also speaks of a wider cultural contempt for a post-industrial Northern city that has struggled to find a place and an identity in the twenty-first century. Battling deprivation, economic decline and austerity, Hull has suffered from a lack of opportunities, hope, and vision. The City of Culture year gave its reputation a much-needed boost, as well as an injection of cash and a 365-day diverse programme of events that inspired confidence and creativity throughout the city. Yet some local artists criticised the organisers for focussing too much on big budget spectacles that brought in artists from outside the city and not enough on supporting long-established grassroots arts and culture organisations. Although the media might not know it, Hull has long been a creative city with a distinct voice. Poet Philip Larkin, a resident of Hull for thirty years, summed it up as a ‘a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance’.

Hull-based artist Ella Dorton’s fabric portraits creatively capture the unique spirit of the city’s residents, giving a voice to those who have been left behind by society and, indeed, by the City of Culture year. Using recycled textiles and a collage-based technique, Dorton pieces together images of people in their homes, captured as they sit on the sofa discussing their life stories, dreams, and fears. Through the use of discarded textiles and the depiction of marginalised, working-class people, Dorton challenges the conventions of portraiture; her work disrupts the gallery and picks at the boundaries between art and craft, private and public space.  

For her recent exhibition ‘Journey to the Centre of the Couch (Couches & Other Good Ideas)’, she transformed the Humber Street Gallery into a living room: the stitched fabric scenes were hung to form a long circular wall, creating an intimate space which invited the viewer to get close to Dorton’s subjects and their stories. Cushions and lamps enhanced this atmosphere; Dorton wanted visitors to ‘relax, sit down, and feel at home’. Dorton is skilled at connecting domestic scenes to larger narratives of social inequality, late capitalism and ecological crisis. Her subjects voice their own sense of being implicated in challenges faced by the wider world, with one woman, a recovering heroin addict, explaining that ‘I can relate to the destruction of the planet because of my own destruction of my own body’. Many of Dorton’s subjects express ‘[grief] at the state of the planet’, fear, and depression but there is also a clear sense of hope, recovery, and care running throughout the work. 

Building community is at the heart of Dorton’s practice: she is a founder of Ground, an artist-run workshop and community space, and works on a number of community arts initiatives, including Mad Pride (2017), a project that aimed to ‘talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell’ and ‘bring people together so we can help one another better navigate all this madness and build together a more beautiful world’.

I caught up with Ella to find out more about her practice, methods, and motivation…

 Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Ella Dorton, I’m 28, from Hull. I’m a care-worker, and I co-run ‘Ground’- a community arts and activist space in Hull, with a bunch of friends. I am also an artist! 

Tell us a bit about ‘Journey into the Centre of the Couch (Couches and Other Good Ideas)’, your current exhibition at Humber St Gallery – how did it come about? What inspired you to create this show?

In previous years, I’d been making large fabric portraits of people in my community, as well as fictional dystopian scenes of Hull flooded, an ocean of plastic etc. When Humber street gallery asked me to make some art for a show, I had an idea to combine these two ideas: I wanted to make portraits of people in Hull, and somehow incorporate some fantasy, slipping in bits of our conversations together and ideas they had about the world, in picture or word form. I found my sitters just by asking or being asked, often through Ground and ORTs (a sewing group for vulnerable women). 

I started with a woman called Cassie, who comes to Ground. I went to her house a few times, and we drank tea together, ate a bit, and I drew her and wrote down snippets of conversation we had. Cassie wanted her life describing with 4 animals, which represent different parts in her life: adventuring, her victorious battle with heroin, losing her son. Other people were less pictorial and conversations were directly stitched or painted onto the work.  

Climate change is on my mind, and I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about it through my art for a while. I didn’t expect that it would come out so naturally in many of the conversations I had with people I drew, so the work inevitably became a lot about that, as well as other subjects: motherhood, homelessness, addiction. 

I planned to make 6 of these portraits, and sew them into a circular room that you could relax, sit down and feel at home in [the gallery]. 

 

The use of old bedsheets and scraps of material is so effective, what motivated you to use these textiles? 

The fabric is all used. I like the aesthetic of using worn fabric; when someone gives you a pile of clothes there are loads of colours and patterns in there that I might not have chosen myself, which pushes the work in different directions and gives me a big range to choose from. The worn-out-ness of the fabric matches the worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives. I like to recognise bits in the work….there’s my dad’s shirt, there’s Sally’s scarf, a bit of so-and-so’s sweaty shirt armpit there – and I think other people enjoy this too.

It’s important to me to make art out of scrap instead of buying new stuff. The fabric industry causes something like 10% of all greenhouse gases, the making, washing and disposing of it, as well as loads of other harmful effects on the environment, and the people that make it. 

It also means, of course, that making the art is virtually free (except for glue, thread, and machine upkeep), meaning I can sustain myself on a low wage.

What drew you to the concept of home and the everyday? Do you view the domestic as an inherently political space? 

I like drawing people in their own homes: the home is an extension of someone’s personality, and you can get to know a person through their stuff, their taste in décor, their messiness. In the home, people are in their own habitat, their own territory, and are often more relaxed and up for chatting. They can also seem more vulnerable and exposed, depending on the person and how they feel having someone coming into their space. I make good friends this way. 

I find a lot of beauty in the mundane, and enjoy drawing people doing everyday tasks, eating, cleaning, sleeping – we all do these things (or we should), yet we do them so differently. 

 

I love the way you stitched the voices of the community into the fabric. How important are issues of class and community in your practice?

I was brought up on North Bransholme, which is a council estate in North Hull. It had a bad reputation but it was a great place to grow up, because there was a lot of green space and not many cars. My parents are middle class from the South, and when I was younger I felt embarrassed of that, not wanting to be seen as ‘posh’ (there’s a lot of reverse snobbery going on). I’ve always found class a massively interesting and difficult subject to talk about, I find the diversity in people’s taste and culture in the UK a wonderful and interesting thing. However, I have seen pretty horrendous poverty in Hull, and a whole host of social issues that arise from that poverty and startling inequality. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it through art. The way I’m doing so at the moment is by talking to people and sharing peoples’ stories and ideas about the world. I started by asking my neighbours if I could go round and draw them, as a way of getting to know them and feeling part of a community. People usually seem to quite like being drawn, being seen as ‘art-worthy’ and interesting when often they don’t think they are. It’s exciting to be able to make and show work about these people and their ideas.

Finally, could you describe the work of Ground and what it means to you to be a part of an arts collective & community space? 

I set up Ground with some friends about 4 years ago, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We found out about a building that hadn’t been in use for a good 5 years and needed a lot of attention, and we loved it back to life. Thankfully, a lot of people were up for helping us out, and a pretty solid community around Ground grew. 

It’s situated on Beverley road, which is the main street into and through Hull, a street drinking hot-spot. Ground is opposite a methadone dispensary unit and a giant mattress shop, and next door to a Kurdish shisha bar. It’s an unusual place to have a gallery but we like that as we get a lot of different people through the door.

Ground is a space for art and activism, we run workshops, gigs, exhibitions, talks, and have studios upstairs. I love being part of an arts collective but it’s been hard work, it’s emotionally demanding and the organisational and admin stuff can be heavy at times. The best thing about it is teasing art out of people who think they can’t draw or make things, and collaborating together – the walls and ceilings are jam packed with peoples’ art and words. 


Interview by Lottie Whalen

sweepRANT by Sarah Cameron

I don’t want to sweep the floor any more
I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore
I must have swept it 10 times today
I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore.

It’s dull, monotonous, dreary, drab
irksome, humdrum, nut-dummin’ banal.
I havna nothing ‘gainst sweeping per se
I quite like it actually;
but to do it quite as much as I do
steals my intellect, vibrancy, my derring-do –
I wager it would steal yours too.

ENNUI
the tedium of R e p e t i t i on
day in day in again,
shall I say it again?
R e p e t i t i o n
day in day in again.
R E P E T I T I O N
tition Re Tit ion ion Re Tit Tit ion
shall I say it again?

Annoying isn’t it?

That’s what I feel like about the floor.

O the dishes too AND the shopping,
the cleaning,
the tidying
the washing,
O! Everest o’ Washing
A summit o’ grime
No pristine peak
an’ pennin’ ma name in a HIStory Book
The Cleaning
The Tidying
The Washing
The Sewin’
The Sortin’
The Binnin’
the peggin’ o’ clothes to dry again
foldin’ them makkin’ them neat
pairin’ the socks
seekin’ the space inby the drawers
squeezin’ an’ stuffin’, huffin, puffin’
clenchin’ gr’und teeth
takin’ a breath
overwhelmed wi’ mess
‘shit how to detox this LOT?’
an’ when I think I’ve done it aw
boo hoo No Luck,
it’s to do aw over when I look up.

The cookin’
The cookin’
The COOKin’!
The filin’ o’ plates in the machine
that washes them clean
until they’re dirty aw over again!
The Dinner Breakfast Snacks
the Lunches packt,
shoppin’ again, the sweeping, the SWEEPING
the guilt I’m chucking stuff oot we should be EATIN’!
Evidently I’m no employing The Brain
I should be using
to be choosing
to do things
BETTER.

Regurgitate an’ spew it oot!
Clean it up, aw that muck!
For do you know it’s what I do
‘lang wi billion other wummen too?
Day in day oot, shakin’ oor brains aboot,
sloosh oot, OOT our Ears!
BRAINS spill through drains
ratatat on pot an’ pans
splatter stairs, squirt the sink
plop plop in stew, the bin too, the cat food,
spew atop the grimy floor,
doon the grubby uncleaned Loo…

Oh Sisyphus I am not
heavin’ a rock
up hill
til
it tumbles in punishin’ cycle.
Nor Prometheus.
My liver is intact,
not ramshed, re-growed an’ ramshed once mair
by Eagle beak an’ hungry claw.
Not Tantalus I
foriver tantalised;
nor Ixion spun in perpetuity
on flaming wheel …whit destiny!
Alas, Mythical status is not afforded Wummen’s Daily Chores.
No tale will be wrote o’ bakin’ a pie,
stitchin’ a rip, plumpin’ a pillow
sloppin’ wairm milk intil mashed potato –
though certes it’s mythical in its endlessness, ness, ness
indeed I empathise wi’ Sisyphus…
Forsooth,
I do not suffer like them ancient souls above
For they are Men
An’ wumman are nowhere near the same
A Bloke’s sufferin’ is Monumental
Wummans’ only Temperamental
Downright screechingly Hysterical!
Forsooth
I do not suffer like them ancient souls above
I do not bleed or burn
I’m just fed up o’ sweepin’ the floor
I’ve done it so many times afore
I don’t want to do it anymore.
I don’t want to do it again.


Two Heads, Two Hearts, and the Mother Goddess

I’m a Fraud. I’m a sometime-artist. A sometime-performer. A sometime-writer. A sometimer. Sometimes I’m a non-artist, a non-performer, a non-writer. A non-body. A Nobody. In spite of this lack of entity and identity, an artist is what I am. It’s my safe space. Without my art I’m adrift in dark and deep choppy seas. Defeated. Inert. A Dead Soul.

I’m also a Mother. A full-time Mother. Sometimes, a sometime Mother. A non-Mother, too. A Fraud. NB I put Artist before Mother! Gasp! The Guilt! “What does that mean?” hisses the judging She-Critic in my head, “A BAD Mother? Certainly neither properly Artist nor properly Mother” the cruel critic adds, spitefully.

The truth is I’ve always felt a Fraud. I’ve heard a lot of women feel similarly. I feel especially tricky about myself because I’m a Jack of All Trades Artist – a Sculptor by training, inclination and spirit but a performer too – also a writer, or am I more of a poet? I draw and make installations; after making a short film some years back & continuing to make filmic sketches, I intend to make at least one feature in my life. Sculpture is my language even though I no longer traditionally sculpt. Everything I put my hand to is mapped in 3d form, at least in my own bonkers head; the words I write are dynamic and invisible 3d energy-bombs that shape at your ear & explode, only alive when they quit the flat page; my performances are vigorous, animated lines and planes that move through and beyond space. (Blimey, I’m thinking to myself, no wonder I feel like a Fraud). I don’t fit into a BOX. Once, on moaning to my flatmate about my Jack of all Trades-ness, a woman who was queuing in front of me for a coffee turned to me and with striking generosity of spirit she said, “Sounds to me like you’re a Renaissance Woman.” I was gobsmacked. And chuffed! It was easier to belittle myself than to consider I might be skilled at more than one thing. I never got to thank her but I’ve never forgotten her.

After having my first child, I discovered to my horror that I wasn’t seen as a woman anymore or even an individual, certainly not an artist – only, Mother. Society defined me by Motherhood and little else, at least when my bairns were wee; it came as a huge shock even although deep down I’d known what to expect. When the blue-line had screamed ‘Pregnant’ I fixed my joyful partner’s gaze and hissed, “Don’t ever make me give up my Art.” I’d never been more serious about anything in my life. But I wasn’t really talking to him. I understood our patriarchal world too well. Motherhood should empower us; instead our sterile and soulless society degrades, diminishes and shackles us. Consequently approaching Motherhood filled me with anguish. I was in peril, in mortal danger, an existential force threatened to annihilate me. I was petrified I’d go mad. Making art keeps me Alive. Without it I couldn’t possibly survive – the life raft gone, what would I cling to? I would drown and take my innocent baby with me.

For a while I lived in the dark, choppy seas. After Babe was born, strapped about my heart or snuggled in (my nemesis) The Pram aka The Prison – I became the property of many. My mother, who’d once told me I’d never have children because I was too selfish (in reference to my being an artist I presume?) was either censorious or absent, my mother-in-law berated and undermined me, near everyone else felt they had the right to chastise and scrutinise. The interventions happened on the street, on the bus and tube, at the shops, on the beach even; places where I’d hitherto been joyously free to contemplate and cogitate became war-zones, “Your baby’s too warm!” or “Is your baby alive?’ or “Put a hat on your child! or “You’re an irresponsible and stupid Mother!” The scowls, tuts and sidelong glances were equally demoralising and draining. Not only was I in mortal combat with my own demon, I was assaulted everywhere I went by a She-Chorus of disapproving and cruel faultfinders! On one occasion an older woman attacked me with such vitriol that she stunned a whole shop into silence – to this day I’ve no idea what I’d done to offend her; as a wise hag now, I know it was always only ever her issue – point one finger at me, point three at yourself. My Inner Goddess, never fully formed alas, shrunk to a shrivelled cinder at my heart. My absent mother offered no help. My partner worked long hours and although he had the delightful and glamorous bonus of eating in Michelin starred restaurants at lunchtime, and although his career soared whilst mine evaporated (that’s hard to write) the burden of Breadwinner took its toll on him; the jealously, the fatigue, the anxiety, and the responsibility of motherhood took its toll on me. When I ventured out to parties, which I assumed would be safe, supporting spaces, I realised I was fair game there too! At my sister’s birthday do, a woman advised me that my ever-hungry son was only hungry because my breast-milk was inadequate. At two separate birthday gatherings, two different men unknown to each other and on hearing that I was writing a book asked if was I “doing a children’s one?” the implication being that from a male perspective at least (twice was surely too much of a coincidence) mothers were only capable of writing children’s books; these guys simultaneously and with ease managed to degrade both children’s literature and mothers in one fell swoop – two for one! At another party, a man who worked in publishing and who’d also assumed I was writing a children’s book, went on and on for ages about how easy it is to write children’s books and how he churned them out when required. At the same party a fellow whose wife is responsible for a huge London Art Fair, on asking me what I did (I dared to reply ‘Artist’) spat, “Was I a real artist? Did I know what it meant to be an artist? Had I suffered for my art? Really suffered? He had friends, you see, who had endured penury!” Can you imagine this man daring to say that to another man? It crushed me. WAS I AN ARTSIST? I wondered, befuddled by lack of sleep and dizzyingly out of body with my aching, leaking breasts. COULD I CLAIM TO BE AN ARTIST? The pasting got bloodier still when my old friend, a mother herself, piped in as if revelling in the attack, “You’re not an artist, Sarah! Not a visual artist! I mean what do you *do?” Suffice to say, she’s no longer my friend.

I grew isolated and resentful. Domestic chores became mind-numbingly imprisoning. Bejewelled wi’ posset and a belly that surely wasn’t mine I marvelled that the life I’d lived previous was but an imagining brim-full of theatre, cinema and art galleries; long nourishing walks about my city; wild cycles through Soho or along the canal; travel, exciting projects and exciting people; unlimited, uninterrupted stretches of meditative time. I no longer recognised myself, either in spirit or changed body. With no escape in sight, I disappeared. No one valued me as Mother. No one recognised me as Artist. I didn’t recognise myself. You’re only as visible as your last piece of work, mocked The She Critic. In spite of my deep love for my Boy, I felt few loved me back. Patronised and dismissed, I found myself drowning. I became Nothing.

As our Boy grew, I gleefully found snatched bits of time. I drew. I wrote greedily – when my son started nursery I became a writer obsessed. Sunlight shone through the dark. But when I discovered I was pregnant for a second time, and fearing I’d be unable to cope with two we’ans, I finally sought help. Near a year ago, I finished 14 years of invaluable therapy that changed my life. It was a tough ride but as I healed, my confidence grew. I performed again! Being a mother inspired my writing and my making, gifting both a profound new dimension and gravitas; without being a mother, my novel would have stuck stubbornly and 2 dimensionally to the flat page and would never have been published or made into a solo show. A host of brilliant women helped me back into work and into the world; my partner has given and gives tremendous encouragement and support too – though we still lock horns from time to time! Our kids are now 14 and 10. They’re great. It’s still a challenge; there are a few dark days here and there. I’m still frustrated by the imprisoning four walls, the cooking, the cleaning – the boredom. I ache for uninterrupted time so I can fully immerse myself in a long project. I rage at patriarchy and rail at misogyny – I discovered my inner Goddess was a fiery Feminist. My journey as a maker and a mother has been a hard one. It’s still a tough juggle. Working from home makes it tougher. Currently, I’m in a fallow field. Will I ever make again? I am A Fraud, you see – a non-artist, a some-timer, a dabbler as an ex once mocked after watching me dance at Sadler’s Wells. The truth is, being a mother taught me, inspired me, encouraged me, challenged me, allowed me to love myself and become a better human-being. Without children, I may have just destroyed myself. Motherhood gave me the kiss of life. Motherhood gave me the tools to survive. Motherhood empowered me.

words by Sarah Cameron

Sarah is an artist, performer, writer and mother. Born in Dundee, Sarah studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art and theatre at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Sarah has worked extensively in theatre and has collaborated for many years with Clod Ensemble; with whom she created The Red Chair (published by Methuen) an award winning solo show.

You can follow her on twitter and instagram @sarahcam3ron

Spotlight: Blandine Martin, ‘Objets sans importance’

Our spotlight this month is the mixed-media artist Blandine Martin. Martin works with materials including sand, recycled paper and timber to combine the organic with the abstract. Looking at objects and their place within the domestic sphere, Martin questions and transforms everyday objects, their assumed function and associated rituals, particularly rituals involving women. Objets sans importance explores the weight and lasting legacy of female history, and how society has objectified women.

Passengers Installation at the ugly duck gallery, 2019. Textiles and suitcase.
Bud, 2019. Metal fork with orange felt.

“Blandine plays with conceptual ideas and the art of dismantling objects and their purpose along with their narrative”

Artist’s Statement
Spilled dreams, 2018. Metal bowl with plastic.
Reserved, 2019. Cut up chair and textiles.

See more of Martin's work over on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Navigating Cultural Liminality: Private Rooms by Ghada Amer

Image result for ghada amer private room

Offering a critique of imperialist thought, Edward Said’s Orientalism created a paradigmatic shift in understanding the relationship between Western (Occidental) and non-Western (Oriental) cultures. Yet Orientalism still pervades mainstream representations of non-Western cultures, which oscillate between intense fetishization and demonization, often in almost the same breath. See for example Dalia Dawood’s description of the Aladdin remake, released this year, as ‘yet another example of Hollywood constantly misrepresenting the Middle East either as a barbaric place of war and terror or exoticised as one full of allure and belly dancers.’[1] Self-Orientalism, then, is when the East or non-Western individuals represent themselves through the eyes of the West, reflecting the unequal cultural relationship. Cross-cultural representation is therefore fraught with difficulties, and culturally liminal artists are often tasked – willingly or unwillingly – with negotiating these difficulties.

Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but moved to France at a young age where she was then educated, she now lives and works in New York City. This background places Amer firmly within the precarious culturally liminal zone. In Private Rooms (1998), Amer negotiates the danger of eliciting the Western desire for the culturally Other whilst simultaneously employing explicitly cultural material for Western art consumption. The piece explores the themes of culture and sexuality, both sites of intense Orientalist interest, further complicating Amer’s negotiation task in avoiding the pitfall of self-Orientalising.

Private Rooms is emblematic of Amer’s oeuvre in its use of embroidery, calligraphy and allusion to the female body. These material and visual techniques all speak in some way to Amer’s thematic concerns surrounding sexuality and culture; a sculpture comprised of fifteen suspended satin garment bags, dyed with rich saturated tones of blue, pink, green, orange and grey whose shape mimic the body of a woman in chador. The satin of the garment bags shimmer responsively to the light and are offset by the clinical white gallery walls. These material characteristics lend the piece a voluptuous beauty and life-like presence within the gallery space. On closer inspection, one will find embroidered across the satin garment bags all of the sentences that speak about women in the Qur’an, translated into French.

Embroidery

By using the medium of embroidery Amer participates in the tradition of feminist embroidery art which aims to elevate the medium of needlework, a medium which has been historically feminised and thus not considered a ‘high art’ form. Rozsika Parker aptly describes how embroidery ‘has provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness.’[2]  We can see clearly how this consideration might be applied to the female body and sexuality, a site of both power and oppression. Thus, by applying embroidery directly onto the chador-like figures, Amer brings this allegorical comparison into sharp relief.  However, Amer complicates the Western focus of the feminist embroidery tradition. Whilst Amer’s use of embroidery has been discussed in reference to English sewing practices, we should note the historical Orientalist interest in oriental carpets that it also connotes. This complicates Amer’s allusions through embroidery because they come to represent not only the relegation of female arts, but also the Orientalist fascination with Eastern craft products, an interest which was served and perpetuated by an unequal system of cultural and economic imperialist relations.[3] Rather than reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them, Private Rooms through its use of embroidery unites diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures. Rather than using Eastern cultural imagery/material to cultivate an Orientalist sense of ‘authenticity’ or intrigue for Western art consumption, she situates her materials within a universal framework.

Calligraphy

Through use of the embroidered word, Amer makes reference to the calligraphic tradition which is so central to Islamic art. However, Amer interferes with the visual language of Islamic calligraphic traditions through her use of heavy-handed stitching, inclusion of loose dangling threads and use of capitalised roman script.[4]  This unorthodox use of the calligraphic medium reveals the possibility of operating within the aesthetic boundaries of a culture whilst inflecting it with a unique sense of identity. Another dimension is added to the calligraphic element of the work by the fact it represents words from the Qur’an: due to the special reverence for the Qur’an in Islam as being both miraculous and inimitable, this could be considered inherently subversive. However, within the Islamic tradition, once the Qur’anic word is translated it no longer possesses the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original. Amer therefore simultaneously demonstrates cultural respect, or desire to avoid offence, by not using the original holy Arabic, whilst gently challenging the tradition by asserting her right to use and reflect upon the text (and to assert a specifically gendered reflection through the inclusion only of verses which refer to women). Thus, Amer demonstrates the ability to be simultaneously respectful and critical of a culture through her ambivalent use of the Qur’anic word. Furthermore, the use of translation foregrounds an important thematic concern: that of the inevitable translation effect in encounters between different languages, and more broadly, between different cultures.

Female Dress and The Female Form

Whilst not being a figurative piece Private Rooms is saturated with allusions to female dress and the female form. As Fereshteh Daftari perceptively observes, the loose threads in her embroidered works evoke ‘the reverse side of a highly finished sartorial item.’[5] As previously mentioned, the suspended figures evoke an image of chador clad Muslim women and the use of clothing bags as the primary material only serves to make this link more lucid. A multiplicity of meanings are latent within the sartorial body imagery of Private Rooms. The female form is symbolised as hanging lifelessly, as closed within a metaphorical chador, evoking a claustrophobia that is enhanced by the use of bags which create a symbolic double enclosure. This claustrophobic imagery is then further enclosed with textual embroidery. We must peel back many layers to reveal the physical body which lies beneath. In this way, Amer successfully reflects the layers of coded social meaning, as well as physical layers, which wrap the female body. This is particularly pertinent within the framework of the Western fascination for Islamic veiling practices, as well as revivalist Islamic movements’ emphasis on the same. Amer demonstrates how women are encased within sartorial expectations, as well as the weight of tradition. The Western art spectator adds a final layer of ideologically coded wrapping as they view the piece.

Even in her use of Oriental cultural material then, in this instance cultural sartorial material, Amer is able to avoid over-simplification by consciously questioning the layers of meaning which are piled onto the female form. Furthermore, she brings the Western art consumer into the process of meaning-making, encouraging them to question their complicity in the process of ideological entrapment of women in general, and Muslim women in particular. Additionally, the sensual beauty of the fabric and colours used in the piece act to offset the dark and heavy image associated with Islamic restrictions of dress and thus undermine Orientalist perceptions of the traditional Islamic woman.

Through her use of embroidery, calligraphy and imagery of the sartorial female form, in Private Rooms Amer presents a nuanced and sensitive vision of cultural difference. She avoids reasserting tropes from the ‘Occidental script’ and thus reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them. Instead she unites diverse experiences of oppression across cultures and undermines Occidental notions of Islamic womanhood in various ways such as through presenting diverse Qur’anic views on the subject. Furthermore, she universalises her materials, as can be seen in the use of embroidery, or shows the potential to adapt cultural material, as can be seen in her subversion of the Islamic medium of calligraphy. Importantly, she demonstrates consciousness of the Western consumer of her work, and consciously creates room for this viewing dynamic within the piece and in doing so takes control of this viewing dynamic: the very antithesis of self-Orientalising. The piece thus utilises Amer’s status as a liminal artist between cultures to bridge the cultural dichotomy between Us and Them rather than reinforce it.


Words by Alis Shea


[1] Dalia Dawood, ‘The new Aladdin film is shot in Surrey, but that’s the least of its problems’, Gal-dem (28 May 2019) http://gal-dem.com/the-new-aladdin-film-is-just-as-orientalist-as-the-last/ [accessed 24th October 2019].

[2] Laura Auricchio, ‘Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures’, Art Journal (2001), p. 27. 

[3] Brian Spooner, ‘Weavers and dealers: authenticity of an oriental carpet,’ in The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appaduri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224.

[4] Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2003), p. 177. 

[5] Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, p. 177. 

Performance: Cleaning Her

Though conceptualised for the sculpture park in Graz, the performance piece Cleaning Her by Martina Morger was first executed in Glasgow’s Merchant City in 2018. In the run-up to the performance, the concept for Cleaning Her evolved to relate to the industrial past of Scotland’s largest city more specifically. Historically a point of intersection for international merchants and local retailers, Glasgow’s eastern city centre is now busy with bars, restaurants and cafes. Glasgow’s industrious past remains, however, written into the fabric of Merchant City’s architecture and cityscape. In this environment, Martina Morger chose to focus on the themes of both work and legacy. Being specifically interested in women’s history and domestic labour, her investigation centres around sculptures created by women artists. Within the performance, the artist cleaned the following five sculptures: Gorbals Boys by Liz Peden; Slow Down by Jacqueline Donachie; Mercat Cross by Margaret Findlay and Edith Burnet Hughes; Thinking of Bella by Shona Kilnoch and Dug-out Canoe Found AD 1871 by Louise Crawford and Ian Alexander. With three hours of labour ahead, the artist set out with a tin bucket of water, a household cloth and blue worker’s dungarees. Most of the sculptures were in poor condition and clearly in dire need of care. Assuming the guise of a maintenance worker, the artist traced the surfaces of each sculpture in both a caring and cleansing act towards these forgotten legacies of Merchant City’s female sculptors. The performance was not officially publicised, the authorities had not been informed and thus, this carefully devised work process went largely unnoticed.

Though the blue overalls are dissimilar to and thus distinct from those worn by the council’s employed maintenance workers, nobody stopped to question Martina’s Morger’s position. It seemed as though the blue work-wear suit rendered her largely invisible to the public eye. Wishing to utilise as little foreign objects as possible for the performance, the “costume” was kept as minimal as possible. The carefully devised aesthetic, however, allowed the artist to play with the tropes of an archetypal maintenance worker, a role which, as exemplified by the artist’s performance, goes mostly unnoticed by urban society. The fact that the artist herself is female draws further associations between this public service and domestic services which were traditionally (and are statistically still) performed predominantly by women. Through this association, the performance piece aligns with a history of female artists performing maintenance work in public spaces to draw attention to hidden and undervalued labour. Despite the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles having framed maintenance art as feminist practice as far back as the 1970s, the themes then addressed are still more than relevant in 2018. By cleaning the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum for example, Mierle Laderman Ukeles drew attention to the large number of women in service roles in stark contrast to their lacking representation amongst the museum’s management. Furthermore, the labour-intensive practices of both Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Martina Morger bring into discussion the many roles which female artists in particular must adopt to sustain themselves. Through the arduous and repetitive labour of cleaning, parallels were and are thus drawn between artistic practice, the hidden labour taking place within the home and the labour of maintenance workers caring for public spaces and buildings.

Arguably, the cleaning of public objects has gained new relevance in the age of social media. As the artist, Martina Morger states, our society has become even more obsessed with material values and aesthetics. Public artworks now feature as backdrops to pictures circulating on Instagram and the value of the works is thereby reduced to their outward aesthetic. Though the artist’s work is likewise focussed on the surface of the sculptures through her symbolic cleaning and maintenance, the time and care that has been given deliberately to sculptures made by female artists points towards a more focussed engagement with the history of the objects. The time taken to clean the sculptures somewhat mirrors the time and labour invested in their making. Questions arise around the identity of the sculptor, their intentions and the process by which the individual objects came to be. By tracing the objects with the cloth, the artist engages with the sculptures through a bodily experience that goes beyond the visual. Martina Morger describes her interactions with each sculpture as highly individual and intimate. From having to climb up onto the plinth of Thinking of Bella, reaching through a construction fence protecting The Gorbals Boys to being hindered by the fortress-like plinth of Mercat Cross the engagement with each sculpture is individual and physical.

The performance piece was concluded by the artist demonstratively pouring out the bucket of now filthy water. The layers of dirt that had gathered on the surfaces of the sculptures had become a testament to the negligence towards these public artworks. The process of cleaning within Martina Morger’s performance is best described as spiritual labour rather than maintenance work as the sculptures were thereby neither repaired nor revived. The artist does not propose that her performance breathed new life into the objects but rather sees her process as an act of care. By caring for our material possessions, we assign value to them, what then happens when public possession such as sculptures are no longer cared for? Would they have been better maintained had they been made by male artists? The performance piece Cleaning Her gives no answers to these questions raised, but rather proposes a heightened engagement with public art, particularly the still very few commissions given to female artists. The opportunity to engage with public sculptures in this manner is not to be limited to the artist and thus she has chosen to publish a score encouraging others to re-iterate the performance in a location of their choice.

You will need:

A tin bucket

Filled with clean water

A bright neon cloth

Your work uniform


Go and clean public art

made by female artists.

written by Isabelle Thul

score & performance by Martina Morger

images by Wassili Widmer


Martina Morger is a performance artist who also works with multimedia. She reflects on femininity as a device, and claiming space as a political body. Through her work, one discovers an engagement with the limitations of individual freedom in regard to technology. Her main practice is inspired by cyberfeminism, body, code and biopolitics. her work is primarily concerned with women’s placement within society, but also queerness in regards to cybernetical hybridisation.Exploring female and queer voices – or lack thereof – domesticity, repetitive action and labour she works primarily with performance and enjoys investigating the borders to other media. her embodiment of different personas speaks to fluidity and its possible implications in society. 

Isabelle Thul is an independent curator from Germany working in Glasgow and Berlin. Within her practice, Isabelle researches and implements an environmentally conscious and ethically driven approach. Furthermore, Isabelle looks to make artistic practices approachable to a wider range of audiences by becoming aware of and tackling the obstacles, which may stop individuals from feeling that an exhibition or project’s audience may include them. Isabelle is also active as a writer and journalist with published articles on ArtMag.com and in the magazine Vegan Connections. Employed by the arts organisation WAVEparticle since early 2019, Isabelle works with a team of artists and cultural producers to lead urban regeneration arts projects and creative workshops for community consultations. 

Disruptive craft in contemporary art: ‘A quilt is an art object when it stands up like a man’

‘Kalba’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is a craft inclination in art that can put people at unease. It ebbs in popularity. Three years ago at an event at the ICA I was speaking to a sculptor who, when asked if they were still working on the same body of work, replied oh no, they only wrote now. It was one of several similar encounters I had, and whilst it can be common to move away from art after art school, we all seemed embarrassed that we had once been making. This idea was enforced by artists like Katrina Palmer, who moved from installation and sound sculpture, to published texts and plays. I’ve since been told in turning-point tones that Katrina Palmer is making objects again. 

The ‘Live Form’[i]of an object – the awareness of its having been made that survives in its visual seams or pressed shape – provides a hook for us to lean into and place ourselves and our ideals into. What survives is its becoming: with ceramics there’s an oozing; in textiles there’s a fray – from fricare meaning ‘to rub’, or affray meaning ‘to disturb’. This threat of active non-existence also carries the possibility of the object to exceed itself and its boundaries in our direction, and that is how we lose ourselves in it, how we are alienated towards it.

I came to what I had seen as a domestic – craft – lean in art exhibitions over the past two years with discomfort. As something that was looking inwards, I saw it as concurrent with millennial pastel: the rise of ‘millennial pink’, Pantone’s colour of 2016, adopted by luxury and high street brands. These shades’ strong relationship to the market spoke of home at a time of growing consumer and environmental crisis, in a way that felt soft and obfuscating. If this were to be my only reaction to the rise of craft objects, I would miss the uncanny through this tenderising and the addendum to the actuality of domestic.

Images and news reports of disasters such as the industrial fires in Karachi in 2012 cemented textile manufacturing in the UK’s mindset as gendered and racialised to little or no effect, with fast fashion still being the norm, and no alternatives providing solutions to those workers manufacturing in dire conditions. This is not an issue for artists to solve any more than it is one for all of us. To make works strongly linked with craft, however, is to work with a highly political, capitalised object: ‘in the context of early twenty-first century discussions about the supposed evaporation of handmade things, it is essential to ask questions about whose handiwork, exactly, is at issue: some is vastly undervalued but central to the mechanisms of capitalism, while some is triumphed as ‘revolutionary’ and posited as a form of economic refusal.’[ii]

‘Sprout’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

MH Sarkis’ art, headlined as ‘rugbiotics and techstyles’ on her website, sits with the tech that is embedded in contemporary textiles manufacturing. ‘Motherboard’ uses rug pulling that invites touch to produce soundscapes. This interaction between user and object grounds ‘use value’ in the work. Blurring the distinction between high art object – with its own frame of cultural and economic capital – and low craft object (all rugs are interactive) as useable, potentially affordable, readily available and anonymous. In returning to the familiar object in her work, we then find it other.  Keying in to the human interest in creating artificial life forms whilst using internal, bodily colours, and referring to her work as ‘born’, rather than made, forwards the procreative, domestic narrative of gendered making. The crisis of self in a technologised legacy, with AI seen as both technologically vulnerable and threatening, unravels in tendril-like forms. Its corporeality, with titles such as ‘Medium Rare’, troubles the separation of object and self further. Sarkis’ work expresses a feminist speculative futurism: envisioning a ‘soft power’ that presents objects with the capacity to respond to those around it, it is as if the work exists in a received, technologised future. Her work cuts an oppositional narrative through a feminised craft medium.

Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

The value of craft in art and its association with women’s work, as ‘taught by women aimed at men’[iii], is something of a cliché. Anne Carson has written about silence, evident as catastrophe, as a confrontation of cliché. It’s a kind of noise that exceeds– as an answer to, or evasion of – the sense of a question that merely seeks affirmation[iv]. In Lindsey Mendick’s show The Ex Files, work pushes its forms and bursts into kitsch – an excess where the narrative that the work is taken from, here a breakdown of a relationship, is repeated back in fragmented surfeit. A standard and contemporary office is strewn with ceramic smashed marmite jars, disembowelled t-shirts and a textile, bi-corporeal, headless, self-fucking office chair sprouting an arse, legs and heels. The walls are covered with ceramic post-it notes, hand-written. The glazing techniques strongly ground the work in the twentieth century, where it can move in and out of relatable nostalgia and memory. Being within temporal reach and within the mundane, it has a greater scope to move through its cliché. The blurring of domestic and office environment, ornament and textual creates boundaries to then seep through, embodying the ‘Live Form’ that is emphasised through explosive objects and the detritus of a has-been relationship.

‘You’ll Have to Pay for That’, Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, ceramics. photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

When we use kitsch there is a risk we snub or fetishise what we deem as ‘low’ culture. However, the choice of what is deemed low can also be a political act: the refusal of an excluding notion of success, as queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure explores. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson voices the artist Harmony Hammond’s claim that in existing between public and private, ‘ “the instability of textiles” … in some instances might be felt to be queer – that is, how they propose different sorts of bodily orientations and create volatile interfaces between public and private selves’ [v]. Of course there is no universal in this, and the crux is in who chooses what. 

The Live Form and frayed bodies of Mendick and Sarkis’ work goes across the boundaries of high and low. As shifting narrators, they disrupt our reading of these bodies through hazed and broken memory and speculative futures. These haptic and seeping qualities confront the cliché of the gendered body within craft- they move in a constant, disruptive unanswering of the same tired question. 


Words by Katrina Kelsey


Sources

[i]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p74

[ii]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p10

[iii]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

[iv]Julia Bryan Wilson, Fray, p28 

[v]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

Making with Archival Material: ‘ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED’

ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED investigates the folds and creases of letters displayed within the recent ‘Rights for Women Exhibition’ at Senate House Library, University of London. Examples include a letter from Virginia Woolf to Gladys Easdale and a letter from Emmeline Pankhurst to the WSPU’s membership. The bookwork archives the language which falls on the fold and the ruptures created by the fold, bringing into question what lies beyond the fold and how we handle archived objects. Hand-crafted from 50gsm Offenbach Bible Paper, the reader is invited to approach the bookwork delicately, whilst simultaneously completely unfolding and refolding each page in order to access the text. As a result, the reader approaches the folds of the page as both archivist and original folder.

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ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED, titled in response to an Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘fold’, investigates the creases of letters found within the Rights for Women Exhibition at Senate House Library, University of London.[1] The following letters were treated as found objects within my practice, selected due to their folded physical appearance:

  • ‘Letter from Sophia De Morgan concerning anti-slavery campaigning’ [c.1850]
  • ‘Letter from Emmeline Pankhurst to the WSPU’s membership concerning temporary suspension of militant activity’ [1914]
  • ‘Letter from Eleanor Rathbone to Sophia De Morgan on social reform’ [c. 1890]
  • ‘Memorial signed by women doctors addressed to the University of London’ [1877]
  • ‘Letter from Virginia Woolf to Gladys Easdale’ [1936][2]

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The bookwork archives language which falls upon and around the fold to consider the way in which folding disturbs the surface of language within written letters. My work considers ‘archiving’ as a critical term which, in conversation with Susan Hiller’s ‘Working Through Objects’, refers to the ‘excavation’ and piecing together of fragments to establish a reconstructed whole.[3] I consider the bookwork to be an archive in itself, collating a history of movements and manipulations made onto the space of the page, alongside anticipating further folds and creases to be enacted by the reader.

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The following methodology will place ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED in conjunction with Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold, a text which theorises representations creases within artwork and architecture of The Baroque.  I am interested in how Deleuze is not concerned with ‘how to finish a fold, but how to continue it […], to bring it to infinity’. [4] In conversation with Deleuze, the bookwork functions in extending the possibilities of the fold, as opposed to bringing the folds of the letters to closure.

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Within the space of the exhibition, we see the letters bound within a book and laid upon the shelf behind glass. The exhibited letter complicates Deleuze’s theorisation of the fold as an ‘endless’ movement, and instead presents the fold in a static position.[5] In contrast, my bookwork subverts the stationary archived fold in order to create an alternate archive of the fold in motion.

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My process involved sourcing and printing off facsimile copies of the letters, and using photographs taken within the exhibition to chart and establish folds in the same position as the original letter, as demonstrated by the following images.

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I performed the role of the original folder, alongside unfolding, refolding, rotating, and investigating the letter within my own hands. As part of my initial research, I contacted the curator Maria Castrillo regarding the record of ownership for each letter examined within ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED. Our correspondence allowed me to trace the hands which have encountered each letter. The movements of these hands became central to the concept of my project. ‘Letter from Virginia Woolf to Gladys Easdale’, was hand-written and originally folded by Woolf, unfolded by Easdale, collected amongst Easdale’s additional correspondence, and donated to the library archives. From the moment of Virginia Woolf’s inscription, to the letter’s current position, the letter experienced a series of folding and unfolding. Deleuze asserts that the unfold ‘is not the contrary of the fold, or its effacement, but the continuation or extension of its act’, understanding folding and unfolding to be corresponding movements within a larger, ongoing process.  Within the exhibition, the page is restrained in an unfolded position, preventing an infinite series of folding motions. In response, I printed language over the folds of the bookwork, physically interacting with the texture of the creased page. Like Erica Baum’s Dog Ear, I examined the language across the folded page, and used this to construct the written content.[6] The title, ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED, falls on the hinge of each folded page. Consequently, the folds physically disrupt and fracture the titular letters, preventing the entire title from being viewed within a single moment. A temptation to confront what lies beyond the fold, exaggerated by the transparency of my chosen paper, encourages the reader to interact with the bookwork in the same way that a recipient would physically pull open a letter, rather than simply witness the bookwork as a static, exhibition object.

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Consequently, ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED attempts to simultaneously confront the letter as both folded object and exhibited artefact. Hand crafted from 50gsm Offenbach Bible Paper, the materiality of the bookwork invites the reader to approach it delicately, whilst undertaking the necessary action of manipulating, unfolding, and refolding each page in order to access the text. Easily crumpled and torn, the page accumulates damage as additional readers interact with it.

As a result, the reader approaches the folds of the page as both archivist and original folder. The bookwork is framed by 220gsm white card, as a gesture towards the binding and preparation of the letters within the exhibition. Featuring a comprehensive bibliography of used found materials, the card provides the reader with a point of entry into the work. The bibliographical inclusion of my found letters gestures towards the works of Susan Howe, such as Spontaneous Particulars: A Telepathy of Archives and Debths, both of which clearly outline Howe’s source texts.[7] I perceive Howe’s poetics to be concerned with curation. Howe carefully pieces together and exhibits fragments of material within the space of the codex, and simultaneously provides the reader with the necessary direction to seek out the objects and texts for their own research.


A small number of copies are currently available in Bookartbookshop, London.

By Briony Hughes


Sources

[1] “fold, v.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018 [accessed: 7 November 2018]; Rights for Women: London’s Pioneers in Their Own Words [exhibition] (Senate House Library, London: 16th July 2018 – 15th December 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Hiller, ‘Working Through Objects’, The Archive ed. Charles Merewether (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006) pp. 41-48.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and The Baroque (London: The Athlone Press, 1993) p. 34.

[5] Ibid. p. 3.

[6] Erica Baum, Dog Ear, (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011).

[7] Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (New York: New Directions Books, 2014); Susan Howe, Debths (New York: New Directions Books, 2017).

Query: The Un-Gendered Brushstroke

“I had asked myself, in a depressed mood: Is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks?”

Laura Owens

Is the brushstroke so hopelessly entangled with male subjectivity that the female painter cannot, unless she is willing to adopt at least a partial male subjectivity, make a gesture with a brush? Does she have to invent a feminine brushstroke? Or, might it be possible to un-gender the brushstroke?

die Lautkraft des Mensches/the loud-strength of the human
2018, oil on dibond, 80 by 120cm

Shirley Kaneda, in her 1991 essay “Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine” proposes a “feminine” abstract painting that disregards the gender of the maker in response to a “masculine” one.[1] She describes gender differences in painting in relation to responses to the sublime: “The masculine response (to the sublime) is conceptual, as if “knowing” or explaining improved the situation. A “feminine” view is no more or less optimistic than the masculine, but the response (to the sublime) is from a sensuous perspective.”[2] She characterises the masculine as being aligned with reason and the feminine as aligned with sensation. This dualism has been existent in Western thinking since the ancient Greeks. It became strengthened when Descartes declared the fundamental difference between mind (aligned with reason) and body (aligned with irrationality and sensation) [3]. Kaneda continues her explanation:

The perfect examples of this difference are Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, both of whom addressed the sublime, one in a “masculine” way and the other in a “feminine.” While Newman address it from a purely intellectual perspective and Rothko from a “romantic” one, … – for Rothko, existence was ephemeral, for Newman it was hard and opaque. …one chooses to objectify it (masculine) and the other chooses to be engulfed by it (feminine).[4]

Is to create a feminine brushstroke to counteract the existing masculine one, the right solution? A hierarchy that places reason above sensation is certainly something that needs to be critically questioned and finally abolished. Yet, if I accept the claim that the feminine aligns with the sensual and the irrational, then I accept the tradition that bars me, as a woman, from rationality and reason. Leaving reason and Laura Owens’s idea of the inherence of mark-making ability to be aligned with the masculine and their opposites with the feminine, even if we manage to make the irrational equal to the rational, the sensual equal to reason, the passive equal to the active, the domestic equal to the public, even if we make them all perfectly equal, aligning them with a specific sex is going to be harmfully restrictive. So, if I then say that I include the masculine traits of rationality and action in my being, they will always remain alien in me, other than my sexual nature.


before the song crumbles
2017, oil on aluminium, 180 by 125cm

We must finally and fully accept that the tradition that aligns the masculine to reason (and action, power, dominance, strength, the public) and the feminine to the irrational and sensual (and passivity, receptivity, being a helpmate, weakness, the domestic) has been superseded. It has been unmasked as wrong, like other long-held traditions, such as the idea of the flat earth, and shown up as a mere relic of culture.

Claiming sensuality, claiming irrationality, claiming the domestic, claiming emotion and making them positive attributes may be a powerful, affirming act but this should in no way have anything to do with gender. If we allow these to be feminine we also allow their opposites to be masculine and so, inadvertently uphold the regime that bars women from reason and finally even mark-making.


die Strömung der Lautfreude/the stream of loud-joy
2018, oil on aluminium, 50 by 100cm

Imagine we have just unlinked all the above-mentioned traits from their traditional masculine and feminine roles. What do we do now? Do we create a “new feminine”? and a “new masculine”? Do we find new words to describe them, a new positive feminine and a new positive masculine? This would solve nothing. If we describe woman as strong, what of that female who does not feel strong for whatever reason, is she less of a woman? Any such essentialist definitions of masculine and feminine are always going to be restrictive and sooner or later become instruments of oppression.

I advocate a radical non-essentialism and this demands that we see subjectivity itself as non-essential, as never fixed by any character trait but always in flux, subjectivity as a continuous, ever-changing stream[5].

As such I would like the words “feminine” and “masculine” to disappear completely and we each meet ourselves and others with an ever-open attitude, fully acknowledging the ever-changing quality of subjectivity.

We can have forceful, gentle, hesitant, powerful, strong, caring, fluid, solid, rational, irrational, sensual, thoughtful, decorative, bare, hard, soft, bright, dark, pink, brown, blue, red, ochre, turquoise, liquid, dry, thick, thin, runny, coarse, delicate, delicious, sensuous, brutal, compassionate brushstrokes … but none of these must in any way ever be equated with either “masculine” or “feminine” but instead be just things that may arise in any being of any sex.


Art & artist statement by Nadja Gabriela Plein


Sources

[1] Kaneda, Shirley ‘Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine’, Arts Magazine Summer (1991)

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Lloyed, Genevieve, The Man of Reason (London: Routledge, 1993)

[4] Shirley, p. 60.

[5] Plein, Nadja Gabriela “The Intentional Brushstroke” 2019, http://www.nadjagabrielaplein.co.uk/writing/