Conflict textiles: arts or crafts or something else? (1)

After sharing our experiences in organising and realising the Stitched Voices exhibition, we now turn to some deeper questions that arose in the process. One of those is whether Conflict Textiles are arts or crafts or maybe something completely different, and whether it matters.

Berit: One of the discussions we kept coming back to, among us but also with others involved in the process and conversations of Stitched Voices, was the question of whether the exhibited Conflict Textiles were arts or crafts, and whether their makers were artists or crafts people or perhaps something else. Based on Roberta’s ideas, we even played with this tension in how we set up the gallery, e.g. using an easel – the iconic tool of painters – for an installation of dolls and an arpillera from Colombia.

Easel with installation “Long wait of the mourning women” (Colombia, 2016) and “Cimarrón / Runaway slave” (Colombia 2010)

One way to approach the question “Art or craft?” is to ask how the makers and curators of the textiles think of them. Now, one of the very interesting tensions in Stitched Voices is that while Roberta Bacic, our Chilean curator, would argue that conflict textiles are indeed art – in the case of the arpilleras there is even a crocheted frame around the pieces, indicating that they are not to be used in any other way than as an image to be hung on the wall –, most of the makers do not see themselves as artists – with some exceptions, for instance that of arts PhD student Eileen Harrisson, who has a degree in fine arts.

Christine: If I can come in on this: Eileen Harrison is not the only maker to have a degree in fine arts – so do Heidi Drahota and Thalia Campbell. Actually, the three of them represent three different types of combinations of arts, crafts and politics. Eileen is most exclusively an artist. She came to use textile as an artistic medium when, due to illness, she was no longer able to draw using pencils and paintbrushes – actually, her stitching is reminiscent of brush strokes – and she only recently settled on a political theme, the Troubles, as the subject of her ongoing practice-based PhD.[1] Heidi is first and foremost an artist; much like I just suggested to think of Eileen’s work, Heidi considers her work to constitute “paintings in textile”, and a particular use of thread has come to be her “special mode of expression as an artist.”[2] However, she consciously combines this role as an artist with that of a school teacher and that of a political activist, giving workshops for Syrian refugees and noticing that “themes are everywhere in the world for me [to be found].” Finally, Thalia was originally trained in fine art and worked in this profession for a number of years before, at a later point in her life, her work transitioned to making protest banners. Her artistic training and skill is visible in the designs of her banners, yet she now mostly thinks of herself as a political activist and banner-maker.[3] These, we could say, are almost three ideal-types: the artist who addresses political questions, but fully as an artist; the artist who, while privileging her role as an artist, juggles a number of other hats, including that of an activist; and the artist who left art for political activism. And all three combinations have been crucially made possible through the medium of textile, or as Heidi explained it: “This [textile] work changed everything for me.”

Dani: Many of the makers in the exhibition see themselves primarily as relatives of victims and the disappeared, making textiles to raise their voice, and so these objects can then testify to their experiences (e.g., Mexican embroideries), or to their attempts to raise some money for their searches and activism, or to feed their families (e.g., Chilean arpilleras made in the 1970s and 80s). Others see themselves as political activists using textiles as a way of communicating (e.g., the Welsh Anti-Apartheid banner, the Peace Ribbon, the arpilleraWe are seeds”). And others are craftspeople who think about political topics through their crafts, but do not self-identify as artists (e.g., Deborah Stockdale, the maker of “Digital Death”, and Irene MacWilliam who made “Disappeared”).

Berit: There might also be political reasons why textile makers do not want to be associated with the term “art”. In Northern Ireland, mural painters would refuse to be called artists because artists were those who tried to stay out of politics and would not address the Troubles, while murals were highly political.[4] Whether or not makers see themselves as artists has to be understood in relation to what they understand the established art scene to be.

Lydia: It is also important to consider gender here. There is a clear spatial division of labour – the idea that art needs to be distinct from domestic work. Art needs to be professionalised, displayed, valued, stored, becoming part of a historical archive. This leads us directly to the question of women’s and feminised labour. Stitch has never simply been confined to the home. It can be a space for women to talk about their lives, it can be underpaid and undervalued labour, it is often understood as necessary, functional or decorative, though much less often as political. It’s clear that there is an investment with keeping this form of labour outside of masculinised spaces, such as the art world. Our process took us to people’s homes, exploring the archive of people’s lives and work. For example, many of Thalia and Ian Campbell’s pieces were stored in boxes in the attic, having led long political lives before. It was great that we could bring some of them out and put them on display. Yet, the distinction between domestic and public space seems to apply to stitch and textile because of its status as feminised labour. It is quite common for elite members of society to collect valuable pieces of art for display in their homes as “investment” pieces.

Berit: It’s good that you mention Ian. Maybe we need to qualify a bit what we have said so far about the gender roles attached to art and craft, respectively. We might have given our readers the impression that the Stitched Voices textiles were exclusively women’s work. This is not entirely true. Ian Campbell, Thalia’s husband, for example, has been involved in the designing and making of Thalia’s protest banners, and he has sewn quite a lot himself. Thalia and Ian understand themselves as a team, none of the banners is created by only one of them in isolation. At the final workshop, we also got to see two huge banners made by male Chilean exiles, which spoke about their upsetting experiences during the onset of the Pinochet dictatorship and during their time as exiles in the UK…until finally coming to terms with their new reality after years of external and internal struggle. Also, people of all genders suffer from the violence and injustices shown in the textiles. One of our biggest pieces, the quilt titled “Stitching the Search”, talks about a family’s search for their disappeared sister/daughter and her husband. So conflict textiles are not about the stereotype of men fighting and dying and women mourning and sewing – and I am not sure whether this always came across clearly enough in our exhibition. One visitor commented, for example, that “it is always women left behind to mourn” – I fear that we might have not been careful enough in undoing the notion of “always”.

“Hilvanando la busqueda | Stitching the Search” by Nicole Drouilly, Chile, 2015. Conflict Textiles collection. Photo: Felix Cannadam Photography

Christine: I would like to pick up on the “homely” nature of textiles. I think our exhibition succeeded in challenging the distinction which is still too often assumed between a public men’s realm, in which art proper is to be produced and found, and a domestic/private women’s realm, in which textiles and other crafts are placed. Yet I wonder about the price we paid for this. At our finissage, Lorna Dillon explained that while conflict textiles “emerged from the same experiences as fine art and street art addressing conflict and violence, there is a crucial difference: they are made and stored in the home, and you have to seek them out to see them.” As an exhibition team, we thought that notwithstanding the fact that we displayed the textiles like or as art, the pieces also resisted “becoming art” and maintained their connection to the contexts in which they had been made. But I wonder whether we are deceiving ourselves a little: as we put them in the very different context of an arts gallery, was it not the case that some of their original meaning, connection or “character” was lost?

What do you think, dear reader? Do Conflict Textiles lose their character when displayed in an arts space?

[1] Eileen Harrison at „Whatever you say, say something“, an evening of stories and poems in connection with Stitched Voices, 20 April 2017.

[2] Presentation by Heidi Drahota at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

[3] Conversation with Thalia Campbell, 5 May 2017, Aberystwyth.

[4] Presentation by Bill Rolston at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

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