Feminism can be hard work sometimes, but when it involves collaboration, creativity and wit it can also be joyous. I have been rediscovering some creative ways in which women have been challenging the patriarchy. It began with a recently published book and took me back to an experience in the 1980s that has been very influential, and on the way, I had occasion to revisit a quilting exhibition, the Magna Carta and to remember Vienna.
Unravelling Women’s Art
For several years I have been following the twitter account of #WomensArt (@womensart1) because all kinds of imaginative visual treats are available: ethnic art, weaving, crochet, tapestry, quilting, painting and more. Her recent book discusses women’s textile art and covers a great deal of ground. The chapter that I enjoyed most was the Politics and Textile Arts featuring many acts of activism (craftism). She features women suffrage campaigners, Sojourner Truth, quilters from many projects, including the Broken Treaty Quilts of Gina Adams, banner makers, rug weavers and embroiderers.
Unravelling Women’s Art: Creators, Rebels & Innovators in Textile Arts by PL Henderson, published by Supernova Books in 2021. 279pp
Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party
Of course, PL Henderson’s book refers to Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party. For anyone unaware of this seminal work, it is a combination of ceramics and needlecraft, displayed on a huge triangular table, set with individual places for 39 women, and with the names of many more women written on the ceramic floor.
I saw this work when it was displayed in White Lion Street in Islington, probably in the early 1980s. It was so impressive: a collaborative piece, a celebration, a display of superb needlework and ceramics, and an affirmative experience as well as a visual treat. It can be seen today at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
A review of Judy Chicago’s second volume of autobiography, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago(2021) in a recent edition of LRB, and PL Henderson’s remarks, sent me back to my copies of the two catalogues that accompanied the exhibition.
The Dinner Party: a symbol of our heritage by Judy Chicago (1979) published by Anchor Books. 256pp
The Dinner Party Needlework by Judy Chicago (1980) published by Anchor Books. 288pp
An exhibition of quilting at the V&A, before Lockdowns, was another treat. The exhibition featured quilts from many parts of the world, from different times, and made by different people for different reasons. One I recall was a coverlet made in Changi Prison by 20 Girl Guides in 1943. They secretly made 72 rosettes out of any scraps they could find around the camp, and the girls signed and embroidered the central hexagons.
That exhibition was very enjoyable, attended by so many women interested in the construction, stitch work, materials used, and the context of the quilts on display. Many members of my family are quilters, excellent quilters, and so are some of my friends. They have different styles and techniques, and use different colour schemes. I love their creativity.
So much of the needle craft I have referred to is created collaboratively. This was the case for a splendid work displayed at the British Library in 2015, celebrating the 800th year of the Magna Carta. I wrote a post about it, which you can read here.
It was the brainchild of Cornelia Parker, whose work I very much admire. And these aspects of the 13-metre-long embroidery of the Magna Carta’s wikipedia page appealed to me:
- The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. Even the underside gives needlewomen great pleasure.
- The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Most of the stitching was done by prisoners (see Fine Cell Work website below).
- The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
- Our Human Rights Act is in danger.
- Needlework can be a political act.
- Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery carry ideas.
I can’t find out where the embroidery is now. The ideas it represents are more important than ever.
And one of my favourite surprising, joyous, and creative activities is yarn bombing. Here’s an example I came across in Vienna in 2012.
Sue Montgomery is a Canadian Mayor who liked to knit during meetings. She knitted in red when men spoke and green when women spoke. She tweeted her first day’s results in May 2019.
I knit in city council because it helps me to concentrate. Tonight I decided to knit in red when men spoke; green for women. Day 1 results. #reclaiminghertime #women power #listen
I bought this wall hanging in Zimbabwe, soon after Independence. I love the way it depicts so many of women’s roles.
I could have mentioned the banners made for the suffragette marches before the First World War. Can anyone recommend a good book about them?
And I remember seeing a great deal of textile art at Greenham Common. But again, I have no resources on them. Recommendations please.
Stitching up our Rights (Magna Carta)
As good as a Book in Bayeux (Bayeux Tapestry)
Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf (an exhibition in Chichester 2019)
Fine Cell Work (hand made in prison)