‘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.
Enid Marx (1902-1998) was an influential British designer of the twentieth century. Born in London to an upper-middle class family of German Jewish émigrés, she was educated at the independent school Roedean, Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art.… Hands on: Enid Marx, constructing block prints & concocting vegetable dies
Seleena Laverne Daye‘s material of choice is felt. The fuzzy texture is the perfect fabric to bring their politically, pop culture driven work to life. As a self-taught artist, Daye creates personal narratives in her art and tackles topics relating to race, class, sexuality and gender. As the co-editor (alongside Em Ledger) of Poor Lass Zine, she has provided a platform for working class voices across eight issues with a podcast and live event in the works. We caught up with Daye to ask more about her projects, the importance of skill sharing, and the ways in which working class voices can be facilitated better in the arts…… Interview: Seleena Laverne Daye on making zines & crafting change
Leaving behind the New York avant-garde ‘80s writer with little more than a few mentions, this was an evening that allowed for a celebration and championing of a contemporary, queer avant-garde.… Event Review: Class, Queers and the Avant-Garde at the ICA
Artist Denise Wyllie is a London-based visual artist whose roots are in working class Haringey. In this interview with Eddie Saint-Jean, she reflects on her experiences at Kingston University, where she studied Fine Art and Printmaking, and discusses how craft, class and gender intersect, feature in and inspire her day-to-day work. From presenting lectures on famous women artists, to work celebrating Rosalind Frankin’s scientific achievements, Wyllie’s practice explores the legacy of female artists whilst also highlighting current need for better representation on art gallery walls.
‘One of Audre Lorde’s poems talks about the master’s tools will never dismantle a master’s house. I think there was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master’s tools but women’s tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women’s ways to create change.’
- Suzy Stiles, worker at the Lenthall Road Workshops.
If you stepped through the ordinary-looking front door of 81 Lenthall Road in the 1970s and 80s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled on a covert military operation. In this shabby townhouse down a quiet street in Hackney, East London, you’d find women kitted out in boiler suits, respirator masks, and thick gloves moving around chemicals and heavy-duty equipment. The artist Claudette Johnson, a member of the Lenthall Road Workshop, recalls feeling like ‘guerilla fighters’, ready to ‘change something in society’. The revolution they were planning, however, was a peaceful one: their weapons were cameras, screen-printing materials, and the power of a community united by desire for social change, and they were fighting to ‘change how women were viewed in society’. Posters and other printed material made by the group are currently on display in a small but inspiring exhibition at the Hackney Museum, which traces the history of the feminist Lenthall Road Workshop from its beginnings as a community silkscreen and photography service in 1975, to its collaborations with groups such as Women’s Aid, the Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, and Hackney Urban Studies Centre throughout the 1980s, and ending with its ultimate loss of funding in 1993.
The workshop was set up as a reaction against the invisibility of women, and, in particular, BAME and disabled women, in male-dominated, white, heteronormative representations of public life. From its inception, the Lenthall Road Workshop focussed on empowering, rather than speaking for, the community – Suzy Stiles notes that the group wanted to give women ‘access to the means to enable their voices to be heard’. To achieve this, the Workshop arranged skill-sharing sessions and offered affordable classes on screen-printing and photography. By learning these skills, ordinary women gained the tools they need to gain both a place for themselves in society and a platform to shout about issues affecting their lives and communities. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Hackney Girls Project, a youth initiative set up by the Lenthall Road Workshop to provide a safe space for girls to play sport and hang out with friends, but also to learn practical skills such as self-defence. Crucial to the Hackney Girls Project and the Lenthall Road Workshop’s wider mission was the sense that activism and revolution start at home. To empower women in their everyday lives, the group organised lessons from electricians and other tradespeople; members could gain the skills they needed to improve their own homes and also become more employable. In Eithne Nightingale’s memories of the workshop, she fondly recalls learning to make curtains to liven up her grotty flat.
Perhaps the most striking element of the exhibition is the Lenthall Road Workshop’s total commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Posters that the group created to promote the many feminist festivals, screenings, and workshops they helped organise throughout Hackney consistently proclaim that events support LGBT members, are accessible to wheelchair users, and include crèche facilities. The exhibition includes images publicising a vast range of causes and initiatives, from the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights’ Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and photographer Gonul Zeki’s prints and t-shirts declaring slogans like ‘HETEROSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL, IT’S JUST COMMON’. Equal representation was something that the Workshop viewed as an ongoing process: by the mid-1980s, its core group of organisers were all black working-class women, in an effort to encourage more women from this section of the community to participate. In this way, a genuine concern with engaging and empowering local people was consistently at the heart of the Lenthall Road Workshop’s operations. Beyond offering practical skills, it also facilitated a supportive network for working-class women. The exhibition repeatedly reminds us that it functioned as a crucial space of communication and exchange in a pre-internet era, a place where women could share stories, discuss ideas, and build confidence together. One poster promoting Shintaido lessons features a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, which encapsulates a key part of the Workshop’s ethos: ‘all these are the powers and privileges of friendship’.
Stepping out from the museum back in to the Hackney of 2019, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration. The racist, sexist, and ableist society that the Lenthall Road Workshop challenged seems sadly all too familiar: rising hate crime against minority groups, the hollowing out of London’s youth services, and a racist, chauvinist egotist as our soon-to-be prime minister make it seem like little progress has been made. Conversely, Lenthall Road today feels like a completely different world – now a smart street with houses selling for well over a million pounds, it’s impossible to imagine that this could be the site of radical activism and community action. ‘Women on Screens’ ends on a call to harness digital technology and online platforms in the continued struggle for women’s empowerment and freedom of self-expression, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that in-person activism and print publications such as OOMK, Gal Dem, and Doll Hospital are still essential agents for change in our digital age. ‘Women on Screens’ is an important reminder that small acts can revolutionise our everyday lives, as well as the need – now as much as then – to build bonds in and across the community, share knowledge, and leave no one behind.
Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s, at Hackney Museum, London, between 14 May – 31 August
Words: Lottie Whalen
With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain.… Exhibition Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking
Gee’s Bend is a small piece of land, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. In this location, a community have crafted quilts for decades. In 1966, 150 quilt-makers in the rural area formed the Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative. In light of the Civil Rights Movement, this co-op represented a chance to earn a living from the creative output being generated. This collective approach was led by makers Callie Young and Estelle Witherspoon. However, as Linda Hunt Beckham suggests in her article Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, And The American Dream there is a tension between the maker’s output and the power dynamics of the contemporary art world. Something the quilters are currently seeking to rectify. Although there has been some financial reimbursement and a larger audience for their work they have also impacted by the shady dealings of art-world gate keeper Bill Arnett. Arnett has historically decided which of the Gee’s Bend quilts have ‘artistic merit’ (unsurprisingly the one’s his family owns make the cut and which spoke reductively to ‘modernist’ sensibilities) and has simplistically painted the community as an ‘unchanging’ backwater. But there has been innovation and engagement with the political nature of their work. The Gee’s Bend tradition has been carried on by women like Loretta P. Bennett, whose mother introduced her to quilt-making. Her contemporary take on the quilt uses bold, sparse geometric shapes, hot pinks and cobalt blues, and materials like corduroy and velveteen, as in the piece ‘Two Sided Geometric Quilt‘. The Gee’s Bend quilts are emblems of a tradition of women’s craft, community creativity and Civil Rights.
I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.– Loretta P. Bennett
‘I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it’– Essie Pettway