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

Exhibition Review: re: birth by Spilt Milk

Spilt Milk is a Scottish social enterprise whose main goal is to promote mother artists and give them more opportunities. Anyone who identifies as a mother can become a member, and all members can exhibit in their members’ show. This year’s theme “re: birth” has inspired the artists to submit a variety of works, ranging through an incredible array of media and subject matters. It invited many interpretations, with works addressing questions on pregnancy, breastfeeding, one’s relationship with a child, or one’s identity (or loss of identity) as a mother. Themes of domesticity underlie this exhibition, highlighting the complex ways that motherhood and domestic spaces go hand in hand in our collective imaginary.

‘We Used to Be So Much Closer’, Laura Ajayi

In the first corner of the exhibition, Suzanne Little’s Discharged (2019), with its crochet-ed stains on white cotton knickers, tells the story of a difficult pregnancy; Kasey Jones’ round belly contrasts with her pyramidal cage in Patriarch Confinement: The Business of Birth (2015), condemning the unnatural, sometimes damaging ways modern medicine manages childbirth; The Birth (1997) by Josie McCoy is a blunt depiction of a wrinkled child’s head coming out of a vagina. In the middle of these visceral considerations of childbirth lays Laura Ajayi’s intriguing sculpture We Used to Be So Much Closer (2017), a cord she weaved with lint she collected for eighteen months from her family’s dryer. Meaning is created and nuanced in the interaction of all these different creations treating different facets of such a complex topic as motherhood. Surrounded by these images of pregnancy, Ajayi’s soft sculpture invites questions about labour (birth) as well as domestic labour, and the sometimes-difficult negotiations a parent and a child must make around their relationship as it develops.

‘Unfold’, Charlene Scott

It is worth listing all the “ingredients” that make up Charlene Scott’s Unfold (2019): household paint, ink, graphite, milk, natural dyes and inks – made from cabbage, avocado, rowan tree bark, charcoal & sandstone – on satin, calico and canvas. Elements from one of Scott’s former projects were cut and stitched together to create this new piece. The textiles were transformed through various colouring processes involving everyday food scraps, household paints, and inks the artist created from charcoal and local sandstone. Given the nature of the dyes, the colours and patterns will inevitably keep changing through time. The artist says she likes the idea of the piece evolving beyond her. It is easy to draw parallels with the domestic work involved in raising a child who will also evolve beyond the parent’s control.

Mya Cluff explores what it feels like to occupy a body as a mother with Offering in White (2019). The uneven ceramic shows a body covered in stretch marks, surrounded by what looks like a white blanket. The series of photographs Ritual (2019) by Alexandra Knox also explores themes of the mother’s body as food, but in a very different manner. Whereas Knox’s piece is sexual, provocative and humorous, Cluff just confronts you, softly, with the fact that a mother makes a gift of her body and this will leave marks on her body forever. Similarly, Jill Skulina’s ceramic And Repeat (2018) shows a woman lying on her back, a tired look on her face, surrounded by breastmilk pumps. Skulina tells the story of how her baby was taken to the N.I.C.U and a nurse told her that her breastmilk would give her daughter better chances of survival. She had to pump regularly everyday for weeks, and this story is represented in the vessel. The many meanings of the word vessel make ceramics a perfect medium to discuss the role of a mother’s body as food. The way the mother is presented, with a stylised nimbus around her head, is reminiscent of the imagery of saints. The shape of the bowl vaguely resembles the shape of a baby’s body, but also calls to mind a baptismal font. The tedious, almost mundane task of pumping milk is elevated to a spiritual, sacred status. 

[From left to right] Toni Pepe, ‘Via Lactea’; Victoria Smits, ‘A Doll’s House: Nora’s Acumen’; Jill Skulina, ‘And Repeat’; Imogen di Sapia, ‘Chromosome 17’

What unites most of these pieces beyond the theme is the importance of the medium, the materials, in conveying affects and meanings. There is a physicality to them. We can sense the body involved in domestic labour or taking care of a child; it is palpable in the artwork. The last two pieces I want to discuss best embody this. Imogen di Sapia weaved Chromosome 17 (2019) as a reflection on her craft in relation to her matrilineal heritage. She discovered that her grandmothers were weavers as well and it posed questions about heritage, even when one is not aware of it. Drawing from both tradition and technology, she weaved her DNA into this tapestry; each line contains information about her and her ancestry. Di Sapia encourages the public to touch and smell her pieces, get physical with them. Finally, the piece that dominated the exhibition room was Interruptions, an installation by Mother Art: Revisited. Two texts intercut one another: a stern voice recites a manifesto, demanding good living conditions for all, while another says “it could have been my brother/cousin/neighbour/etc.” Footage from a laundrette is projected onto a wall; between the projector and the wall is a laundry line. On the line hangs an accumulation of textiles, textures, colours and messages: the manifesto’s text on a tablecloth, a jacket saying “Mexico”, a kitchen apron with paint stains, a baby blanket with crosses stitched on it, a child’s political questions on handkerchiefs.  This overwhelming set-up forces the spectator to analyse each detail in isolation in order to reconstruct meaning. The ensemble gives the impression of mothers organising politically as they perform domestic tasks. A home is a complicated, messy, layered place. Interruptions shows us how politics affect our domestic lives, and vice versa. This sentence has become a cliché but still holds truth: the personal is political.

Mother Art: Revisited – Interruptions

Find out more about Spilt Milk here.


Words by Alessandra Leruste

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. 

Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too?

Forty years ago, Judy Chicago’s ode to women The Dinner Party served to counter the patriarchal erasure of women’s achievements throughout history, monumentalising both the 39 women in ‘attendance’ and the traditionally female and domestic labour of crafts such as needlework and ceramics. Now considered a canonical piece of feminist artwork, Chicago’s work is not impervious to critique. Perhaps the most damning point of contention – and one that highlights the weaknesses of second-wave feminism – is the table’s unmistakable absence of black women and women of colour. A former school assembly hall in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West neighbourhood is the unlikely but apt setting for a welcome rejoinder to this omission. De Appel’s newly renovated and unusual gallery space is the current host of an ongoing community art project by Dutch visual artist, cultural activist and womanist of Surinamese heritage, Patricia Kaersenhout – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?

Using the visual language of Chicago’s Dinner Party as a point of departure, Kaersenhout invites 39 black women and women of colour across 2000 years of history to take a seat at the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too? table. Akin to Chicago’s piece, the room features a triangular table consisting of glassware and table runners embroidered with glass beading that details both the names of these women and their estimable attributes such as intelligence and steadfastness. Overlooking the table, located on a stage at the back of the hall, are a number of copies of the accompanying exhibition publication which consists of short biographies of each of these woman – some of whom their histories have never been shared with a general public – researched through a multitude of sources including printed references, vernacular history websites and conversations. The Ghanaian adinkra symbols that Kaersenhout allocates to each woman in the publication (and gives reference to in the attributes stitched in the table runners) also ceremoniously adorn the hall’s lofty windows. 

There was a palpable energy in the room at the opening of the exhibition earlier this month, with an attendance to rival an opening of any of the larger institutions in Amsterdam. Kaersenhout made reference to the notion of a ‘communal body’ during her opening speech; as an ongoing and dynamic piece, the various guises through which these communal bodies manifest themselves are manifold. True to Kaersenhout’s social practice, numerous collective actions have taken place in order to contribute to this piece in the run up to the exhibition; this includes community workshops with skilled crafts-women in Dakar, a group of female artists, refugees and victims of domestic violence in Amsterdam Nieuw-West and as part of a ‘stitch-in’ event at De Appel with special guest Emory Douglas – former Minister for Culture of the Black Panther Party. Using this physical object as the platform through which to name and honour this communal body of ‘heroines of resistance’, the swell of lively discussion that permeated the hall took on the form of a shared ceremony by a communal body to keep their histories alive. 

The latest element to join this ever-evolving project is the glassware that sits upon the table and is, for me, the most arresting visual element of the installation. The mesmerising eating and drinking vessels are inspired by pre-Christian ceramics from West and Central Africa and South America and shaped in a way that encourages communal activity; conjoined handles bring multiple mugs together; ends of bowls are pinched for consumption at both sides and wide platters are scattered across the table. Reimagining colonial and patriarchal conceptions of not just who sits at the table but also the relationship between the individual and the collective at this table, Kaersenhout uses hospitality as both an aesthetic and political tool in this ‘table of disruption.’

Revisiting De Appel on a quiet afternoon where I am the only person in the space provides a different experience of the work. Devoid of the buzz of people and fully able to appreciate the table and its surroundings, it is hard to imagine this monumental piece located elsewhere; as Kaersenhout expressed at the opening, the expansive hall provides a setting that can do justice to both the physicality of the piece and the emotional weight of its subject matter. During this quieter and more introspective visit, I was able to relish in the light filtering through the semi-opaque glassware and sit down to read through all of the accompanying biographies (I highly encourage you to consult the online version of the publication here). From Queen Amanirenas, ruler of modern-day Sudan from 40 to 10BC, to 20th century transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, each page reveals the compelling and largely unknown stories of these women who challenge both the colonial narrative and canon of art history.

The tunics that are decorated with these names and stories are somewhat lost in this exhibition context, suspended from a triangular bamboo lattice slightly too high above the stage to be comfortably engaged with. However, I am reassured to find out that they will be coming to life during a Hāka performance – a ceremonial Māori dance by men in honour of women – at the exhibition’s closing event in December. As a social monument, the strength of this piece really lies in the collective actions through which it is activated prior to, throughout the duration of and after the exhibition rather than the physical object itself. The Hāka performance will be preceded by a number of historic encounters that will bring together writers, artists and scholar-activists whose work connects profoundly to the lives of the women honoured. 

As is evidenced by Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, the process of acknowledging and voicing forgotten (or erased) histories of the oppressed in order to engender a form of dignity is at the core of Kaersenhout’s artistic practice. As an audience member, particularly myself as a white woman, it is a privilege to have had Kaersenhout take on the labour of narrating these women’s histories for us through this exhibition. And so, it is now our turn to take on a share of the work by treating this encounter (with exhibition or online publication) with further dignity and by disseminating these histories into the present and into the future. 


Patricia Kaersenhout’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too is running at De Appel until 1st December 2019.


Words by Nicole Horgan

Nicole Horgan is a researcher currently based in the Netherlands, having completed a Masters in Arts & Society at Utrecht University.