Editorial 7: Crafting the Body

We often automatically refer to an artist’s collection as their ‘body of art’. The physical, bodily processes of crafting go (often literally) hand in hand with artistic creation. These bodily acts can often be therapeutic – we might think of the rhythmic practice of weaving or the soothing feeling of stepping away from screens, quietening our minds as we manually manipulate materials. Craft can impact the body, the physical act of making leaving its mark on the maker, such as the quiet ache of a spine that has been bent over a loom, fingers pricked by needles, skin chapped and cracked from handling clay. This issue feels out the myriad ways in which bodies relate to craft. It reaches into the crevices between creative practice, form and crafting and traces boundaries between interior and exterior. Through exploring a diverse range of embodied craft practices, it considers the corporeal aspects of crafting, of how bodies participate, labour, and speak back in the act of making. 

In a poetic response to artist Alexi Marshall’s ‘The Party’, writer Jess Payn considers how bodies inhabit group spaces and impact on their environments; Bodies sometimes behave differently in crowds, partaking in murmurations of movement, performance, dance, or a jumbled jostle on a busy street – they are repeatedly made and unmade by their environments. Payn’s piece draws out the carnivalesque elements of ‘The Party’, exploring the ways intimacy’s dual promise of intimacy and threat of violence is foregrounded in this scene of communion and cluttered limbs. Making and performing are revealed as inherently embodied, collective acts through which we process the world around us. 

From the way bodies work in social gatherings or intimate encounters, to the ways in which bodies work in capitalist systems – artist Johanna Unzueta states that ‘[h]ands are tools for me’ and her current exhibition, Tools for Life at Modern Art Oxford, unpicks the intrinsic relationship between the body and processes of labour, practice and industry. Cecilia Rosser’s exhibition review reflects on how the industrial is humanised, what craftsmanship means for the individual working body, and how the labour practices craft the labouring body within Unzueta’s body of work. 

Sofia Carreira Wham reviews ‘Threading Forms’, an exhibition curated by Candida Stevens. This exhibition saw live demonstrations of weavers, live machine and hand stitching demonstrations, showing how bodies participate in making, the labour, concentration and rhythm of crafting, stitching and weaving. Whether it’s the politics of labour, or the fundamental human right of freedom of choice over what happens to your body; the body is a political space. Artist Giacinta Frisillo presents ‘the feminine mistake’, reflecting on healthcare and the right to inhabit and have control over one’s own body in a contorted American system that still, forty-seven years after the landmark Roe v. Wade case, is a relentless battle for freedom of choice and power. 

The body is in constant conversation with the world around it. Violetta Liszka works with wire sculptures, photography and poetry to explore the boundaries between human interiority and the exterior forces that shape emotional and bodily experience in her project ‘Je est un autre’. Xuan Ma’s jewellery work also plays with the boundaries of the body, offering playful and intimate glimpses of ‘private views’ of the body. Using geometric shapes and reflective, mirrored surfaces, body parts are shown within the jewellery pieces to highlight these beautiful abstractions. 

Embodied processes of making are at the heart of Enam Gbewonyo’s practice, which opens up a space to both critique racist capitalist discourse and enact processes of healing and renewal. Ahead of Gbewonyo’s performance ‘The Unbinding: a Restorative Act in Two Halves’ – which takes place on 15th April at Two Temple Place as part of the ‘Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles’ exhibition – we take a closer look at the work of this exciting up and coming textile and performance artist. 

Human and non human bodies come together in ethical collective acts of making in the work of Tomas Saraceno, currently on display at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and reviewed for this issue by Jade French; the tiny webbed worlds that are spun by spiders reflect the interconnected natural and man-made structures that our bodies are bound up in, systems and processes that feel increasingly fragile at this moment in time. Saraceno’s work reminds us of not only of our common humanity, but also of our interdependence with the non human and the natural world – as French’s review highlights, ‘the woven patterns that we mimic in craft and making practices are a homage to the biological patterns we pass by and through’. 

We hope you enjoy this collection, reflecting on the physicality of crafting, the work our bodies do, and the power to move and be moved that they hold. 

Editorial #6 Witch/Craft

Witchcraft. Crafting is embedded in witchery, part of the practice of magic. From crafty or cunning crones to charms and casting spells; from spinning, traditions, rituals, weaving, to herbs, botanics and potions – craft, creation, myth and mystery all surround the occult. Witchcraft is intimately linked with ‘women’s work’ and the domestic arts – in this way, traditional modes of making become transgressive. As Constance Classen reminds us, the witch was a woman out of place, on the margins, often elderly and/or widowed; yet she was also ‘in her place, a woman in the home who made use of the very basis of her domesticity – her cooking, her cleaning, her child-rearing, her healing – to defy the social and cosmic order’.

The history of witchcraft is also accompanied by oppression and violence. The Salem witch trials saw many women accused of being witches drowned. Silvia Federici situates the witch trials as a tool wielded by early capitalism, a way of containing any semblance of power that women were gaining through communal living and making. The vestiges of this violence can be found in directly in Anne Jackson’s work ‘The Witchcraft Series’, which commemorates individuals tried and condemned to death in the early modern period. In this issue, she presents her tapestry work, which uses a hybrid of knotting and woven tapestry technique. Elsewhere, Jane Fairhurst’s ethnographic research into wand-making and fetishes have led her to examine the role of the goddess in Viking culture, reflecting on the diminution of the female in the human story throughout history.

From early modern to the contemporary, Anna Nolda Nagele provides a link in her algorithm-inspired textile design, crafting conductive yarns and fabrics into a ‘digital shrine’ for the practice of magical ritual. Indeed, craft can be thought of as a type of ritual itself. Repetitive actions can lead to meditative states. We also spotlight the work of Xenobia Bailey, who combines influences from African, Native American, and African-American cultures with craft techniques to create an ‘aesthetic of funk’. Drawing on traditional African healing rituals, Bailey’s crochet tents offer spaces of sanctuary, healing, and renewal that celebrate the cultural legacy of African American women. 

Poetic craft sits comfortably alongside the elements of making in this issue, words become threads that weave together ideas. We need only look at the work included in new small press Ignota Books to see the way in which poetry is made active through ritual. Publishing the likes of Ramayya, as well as CA Conrad and Bhanu Kapil, Ignota publishes fiction and poetry where technology meets myth-making and magic, allowing the possibility through reenchantment of the world around us through language. Poet Nisha Ramayya has gifted us a ‘ritual selection’ of her poetry, which explores themes of tantric poetics, sacrifice, connection and correspondence. In an interview with Jade French, Ramayya also highlights both the generative and fun elements of writing through ritual as well as the way ‘ritual can provide a safe space in which to dwell on, respond to, and even perform violence, fury, revenge’.

Modernism meets our magic theme in the ‘Modernism & Alternate Spiritualities Conference’, held in January at the Royal College of Arts in London. Aoiffe Walsh offers a fascinating overview of the papers presented on the day, which ranged from an exploration of the history of yoga practice, to retreat movements, ritual, ‘abracadabra language’ and chemical enlightenment. Walsh’s review demonstrates the myriad ways that witchcraft and spiritual practices have acted as a touchstone for modern cultural movements. 

Finally, those wanting to engage in their own rituals can turn to the ‘Black Tarot’, a collaboration between musician King Khan, graphic designer Michael Eaton, and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. The deck follows the  Tarot De Marseilles with each major acana highlighting a black performer, activist or artist, from Tina Turner as ‘La Force’ to Malcom X as ‘X La Rove De Fortvne’. Or you might prefer to follow performer Christopher Croucher’s doorway into nature. He shares with us his own ritual, connecting to nature through a combination of dance and textile. Using an embodied, transcendent art practice, Croucher explores placemaking and impact of the earth’s natural rhythms on our bodies and our sense of spirituality. 

As January draws to an end, we hope these reflections on craft, ritual, and magic will inspire and invigorate you through the new year. In difficult and often dark times, craft’s subversive, transformational powers conjure up avenues of resistance and practices to defy the social order. 

Editorial 4: Materiality & Making

‘Craft’ is a broad term. It encompasses a myriad of disciplines and numerous techniques. It might be hand-made or machine guided. It might start life as a utilitarian object before becoming a historical artefact. Craft is always evolving. But something all crafts have in common is tactility. Through acts of weaving, sculpting, stitching, layering, piecing together and unravelling, craft foregrounds its own materiality and invites us to enter into it, touch it, live with it…

Touch is explored in Briony Hughes’s ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED, which brings to life archival documents in a book that is creased to reveal and conceal different information. Our hands are invited to unfold different elements to create an interactive dialogue with the original letters used as source material. For example, uncovering a letter from Virginia Woolf to Gladys Easdale mimics the way that Easdale would have handled the letter, opening the envelope before peeling back the paper down carefully creased folds. From carefully unfolding to ripping it all up, Izzie Beirne’s collage work explores how beauty cultures merge with porn industries, and questions the effect this has on self-perceptions. For our new feature ‘Practice-Based’, Izzie tells us in her own words about her methods, using a heat press to imprint the collages before folding and scrunching the fabric they’re printed onto.  

In Nadja Gabriela Plein’s artist statement she writes: ‘I work with my fingers, with brushes, paper towels, silicon shapers, sand paper… I work with oil paint, pencils, colour pencils, crayons, oil sticks’. Plein maneuvers a myriad of materials as she pushes and pulls the colours with her hands over the canvases. The physicality of her artwork is reflected on in her essay for this issue, as she questions the gendered adjectives we apply to the simple movement of the brushstroke. In her article, she calls for a ‘radical non-essentialism’ that might untangle gender from the materials and artistic actions used by artists. Sharon Haward picks up on a similar tension between the masculine/feminine and how this dynamic plays out materially in her interview with Jade French. Haward’s practice explores the ‘contrast between rigid structures and fluid forms’ and the recent project HOMEWORK filtered this through an exploration of women architects, contrasting Le Corbusier’s, concept of architecture as a “machine for living” with Eileen Gray’s personal take on the role of architecture as a “protective shell against the world”. 

Emma West’s review of the recent exhibition Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, highlights the ways women artists used varied materials from painting and collage to woodcuts and sculpture. Drawing on her own research interests in women muralists from the first half of the twentieth century, West suggests that through knowledge exchanges and teaching networks, materials were passed down by women through specific traditions. As a public art, murals alter the texture of the shared built environment. They become a part of the community and the very creation of these large-scale works is a labour-intensive, collaborative process. Like craft, public art intervenes in everyday life, bringing us closer to art’s textures, materials, and forms; yet this closeness and familiarity can lead to neglect and a failure to understand the complex cultural and sociopolitical power structures that underpin this work. In an exploration of contemporary attitudes to public art, artist Martina Morger and writer Isabelle Thul ask how we can care for public sculptures made by women artists in ‘Cleaning Her.’ (2018). This concept was initially developed for an open call by the sculpture park Graz last year, a place where only 15.3% of the installed artworks are by female artists. This piece, finally performed in Glasgow, highlights women’s labour (paid and unpaid), as well as the attention that must go into caring for materials laid bare to the elements. 

In an article considering craft’s disruptive role in contemporary art, Katarina Kelsey demonstrates that craft objects are always in the process of becoming: ‘with ceramics there’s an oozing; in textiles there’s a fray’. We are implicated in this intensely physical process, our lives and bodies unfolding, being constantly stitched together, unpicked and repaired, alongside the art object. Craft is close to us, occupying space in our homes, against our skin, but its place in the market economy as well as in the lasting colonial legacies that allow museums to co-opt indigenous art, can also speak of alienation and violence. Craft can cause discomfort, laying bare troubling questions: as Julia Bryan Wilson reminds us, ‘some [craft] is vastly undervalued but central to the mechanisms of capitalism, while some is triumphed as ‘revolutionary’ and posited as a form of economic refusal.’ Multimedia artist Enam Gbewonyo strikingly explores the permeable boundary between closeness and estrangement present in man-made objects; in her art and performances, she works with tights to reveal how textiles enclose us in ways that can be protective or alienating, depending on gendered and racialised power structures. 

What kind of future can we imagine for design materials? That’s a question posed by a special issue journal ‘Other Biological Futures’. Our review explores the different articles, as well as how the practical meets conceptual; from shrinking humans, to decolonising edibility, and molecular time machines. From mushroom leathers to DNA dyes, the makers, curators, and scientists featured in the journal are all thinking through the way the materials of the planet might ‘better’ our lives. 

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. 

Editorial #2: The Work of the Decorative

‘Women’s work’ – this is how craft and the decorative arts have long been conceptualised. It is a highly reductive phrase in a patriarchal genealogy of art history that privileges the mind over the body, sight over touch, painting over making, and the individual genius over the work of the collective. In this issue, we delve further into the work of craft in order to explore the intersections between labour, community activism, and class divisions through the history of modernism and the contemporary arts.

Editorial #2: The Work of the Decorative

Editorial #1: Craft Power!

Welcome to the first issue of ‘Decorating Dissidence’, an online magazine dedicated to exploring the political, aesthetic, and conceptual qualities of craft and the decorative arts, from the early twentieth century to the contemporary moment. Casting a spotlight on overlooked artists, who work in experimental or non-traditional modes of making, it will explore the legacy of craft’s hidden histories and the alternative practices of contemporary artists. It asks questions such as: how can craft disrupt the spaces of ‘high’ art and culture? Can the decorative be political? What might a feminist genealogy of decorative art and craft look like?

In this issue, we are delighted to introduce you to the work of three exciting contemporary artists whose work utilises craft and traditional modes of making to confront socio-political issues. Jade French interviews multimedia digital sculptor, writer, and curator Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, who combines styles ‘[borrowed] from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture’ with digital technology to create striking works that challenge the commodification of race and gender. Similarly, artist Pinkie Macclure draws on traditional methods of making to explore modern day stereotypes: ‘Beauty Tricks’ reworks styles typical of medieval stained-glass narratives to critique the beauty industry’s harmful effects on women and the environment. Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė also disrupts decorative notions of femininity with her unique embroidered metal objects. Mixing domestic and industrial textures, her work highlights the labour-intensive nature of embroidery and challenges the distinction between public and private space. Her work is in dialogue with the post-Soviet landscape of her native Lithuania and the craft of her mother and grandmother.

Lottie Whalen’s article on Geta Brătescu (1926-2018) highlights the work of a wonderfully innovative multidisciplinary artist, who created tactile, colourful worlds that explore the interconnected relationship between art, the body, and everyday life. The staggering length of her career (which lasted right up until her death aged 92) and its combination of modernist influences with conceptual techniques sets up an interesting link with Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012); like Brătescu, Tanning continued to create innovative, timely work that encompassed both twentieth-century avant-garde practices and early twenty-first-century innovation. Working across mediums, both artists decentre notions of modern art and invite us to contemplate alternative genealogies of feminist art. Polly Hember’s review of Tate Modern’s thrilling Tanning retrospective explores the artist’s representation of ‘unknown but knowable states’ across her diverse body of work. Finally, Suzanna Petot’s review of Lee Minora’s recent show ‘White Feminism’ looks at the ways that the actor’s portrayal of tone-deaf stereotypical pop-feminist Becky Harlowe shines a spotlight on how we are all guilty of crafting woke personas. As we work to construct new feminist cultural genealogies, Petot reminds us that is vital to reflect on our own practices and to be mindful of ‘how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.’

We also chatted to the brains behind modernist digital humanities project ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde‘ who are bringing Mina Loy’s archive to a whole host of new researchers and unpacking the many strands to her life as an artist.

We warmly encourage submissions from all disciplines – art practitioners, curators, makers, activists, academics, writers – as we strive to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to intervene in feminist art history. Take a look at our Call for Submissions and get in touch: decoratingdissidence@gmail.com.