Monday, May 29, 2017

Exploring Gender and Sexuality through Making

"Gender, Sexuality and the Sensory" was the title of an amazing one-day symposium recently held at the University of Kent. It asked what significance explorations of the sensory have for contemporary analysis of gender, sex and sexuality. Alongside a a line-up of brilliant speakers I offered a drop-in feminist craftivism workshop during registration and breaks. The idea was to allow people a hands-on sensory experience in exploring the symposium's main themes by making their very own feminist felt badge. I had provided a selection of templates of background shapes and gender themed motifs such as the letter Q for queer, the female sign, ovaries and elongated oval shapes which could be combined to form an abstract resemblance of a vagina. The base material was felt and people could use some mesh fabric, loads of different beads and pearls and of course lots of colourful thread to embellish their badges. 

The results were absolutely stunning!! Most people used the templates as a starting point for creating their own designs and I am truly impressed by the dedication and creativity people put into their pieces. I suggested that people should take needle and thread into the lecture theatre so they could continue working on their badges while listening to the presentations. Many reported afterwards that it actually helped them concentrate - something I've picked up a long time ago. Unfortunately, it's not yet something the academy has come to appreciate. Often, I don't dare to take out my sewing during a lecture because I feel that people would perceive it as extremely rude and as a sign of disinterest. I guess from now on, whenever I give a talk, I will make a habit of letting people know in the beginning that I don't mind if they engage in some kind of quiet creative activity while listening because I'm aware of the benefits.

Some recent scholarship has also come to appreciate practices of making as forms of meaning-making (Cvetkovich 2012, Gauntlett 2007 and 2011, Sedgewick 2003). During the act of making (a painting, a knitted hat, a clay bowl or a felt badge) materials, ideas or both are connected and turned into something new. The maker hereby inhabits a curious position; he or she not only connects the individual materials, but is also provided with the opportunity to connect with the materials themselves and his or her own physical presence in the world through a sensory and kinesthetic engagement with them (Gauntlett 2011). For instance, as the cool metal of the knitting needles rests against the skin of one’s hands, the regular and rhythmic motion of knitting provides a space for body and mind to rest and wander as well as an outlet for feelings of agitation and despair. As such, creative practices of making provide an opportunity to “maneuver the mind inside or around an impasse [as] forms of agency that can take the form of literal movement and are thus more e-motional or sensational or tactile” (Cvetkovich 2012: 21). 

One of the participants in the workshop expressed unease about which design to choose because she was worried about its implied message regarding gender and sexuality. A concern I can relate to as one naturally does not want to offend someone else or perhaps send "the wrong" message. But rather than looking at these badges as definitive statements about gender, sex and sexuality, they are, in fact, an invitation for conversation and a means to raise awareness. If asked by someone about your awesome flashy vagina badge, hopefully, this will provide an opportunity to engage someone in a meaningful conversation about gender, sex and sexuality and, for example, allow them to reflect on the constructedness of gender categories. In the spirit of the so-called 'Craftivist Movement', your felt badge is evidence of your dedication to interrogating gender and sexuality because you have invested skill, time, and effort in creating a handmade object that encourages critical engagement with the topic (Greer 2014). As such, making is not only about connecting materials, but also about bringing together ideas and people (Gauntlett 2011). 

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression : A Public Feeling. Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2012.
Gauntlett, David. Creative Explorations : New Approaches to Identities and Audiences. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
–--. Making Is Connecting : The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge : Polity, 2011.
Greer, Betsy. Ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press , 2003.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Cuban Textile Encounters

"Hecha a mano! Handmade! Alles Handarbeit!" - When walking down the narrow alleyways of the crafts markets in the central Cuban town of Trinidad, visitors can hardly avoid the overzealous stall sellers advertising and praising their goods. The majority of the stalls are manned by women and feature items of pulled and drawn threadwork as well as embroidery and the occasional crochet and patchwork objects. The women highlight in multiple languages the handmade nature of their work as the unique selling point. Most pieces are done in white thread on white linen or cotton, but some also offer items with coloured thread on white background. Popular motifs are the so called 'Flower of Trinidad' and the 'Star of Trinidad'. 

I was given the fantastic opportunity to spend three weeks in Cuba and to visit Trinidad and other places as part of a scholarship offered by my university. Little is known about Cuban needlework history or current trends and practices in the field, though some contemporary Cuban artists like Aimée García and Celia Ledón have embraced fibre within their artistic practices. The needlewomen of the Trinidad craft markets readily report that their work goes back to needlework techniques introduced to Trinidad by Spanish colonizers from the seventeenth century onwards. The very small collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century textiles in the Museo Historico Municipal Trinidad seems to confirm this. However, it remains unclear to me why practices of whitework and threadwork came to inhabit such a continuously prominent position in Trinidad specifically when Spanish colonizers settled all across the island. Its prominence today is certainly partly due to the thousands of tourists that visit Trinidad ever year and serve as potential customers to the needlewomen. Yet, this is also the case in many other Cuban towns such as Viñales, Varadero, and the capital city Havana. And while craft objects such as small wooden boxes and hummingbirds, leather sandals and jewellery made of seeds and cow's horn are sold all over the island, the threadworked and embroidered table cloths appear to be rather unique to Trinidad. Indeed, Casa de la Obra Pía in Havana which houses a small museum of sewing machines and needlework in Cuba does not particularly address any tradition of white- and threadwork, but displays a collection of ‘standard’ embroidery samplers and bobbin lace artefacts similar to the ones common at the time in the UK and continental Europe. Perhaps this is just part of an orchestrated effort to attract more visitors to Trinidad? Maybe, though the beautiful colonial style town next to the tropical forest of Topes de Collantes seems to have enough on offer as it is.

One thing that struck me about the textiles on offer in Trinidad is that while their handmade character is repeatedly stressed, they do not offer much in terms of individuality of design. Instead, they feature standardised patterns and designs and one can barely tell one woman’s work from that of the other. In fact, I suspect that some of the women are only the sellers and not the makers of the textiles, although they of course assure you that they have made each and every object in their stall themselves. Some can actually be seen working on pieces as they wait for customers. I have, however, also seen museum guards work on table cloths similar to those on offer in the stalls as they sit and observe the tourist pass through the exhibition rooms. It seems fair to assume that these cloths are being produced for sale and that the women are partnering with stall owners. The prices charged for the pieces are ridiculously low given the fact that they are clearly handmade. A large table cloth with matching napkins can easily be purchased for around 30 to 40 Dollars. Sadly, this is reflected in the quality of some of the pieces which upon closer inspection show the occasional loose thread or sloppily finished raw edge. The more surprised I was to see large numbers of middle aged German tourists buying the rather traditional looking table cloths. A good look in their mothers’ linen closet would most likely procure items very similar in technique and style and of potentially higher quality. On the passing of their mothers, however, these handmade textiles are too often thrown out or given away, which is how they regularly end up in my possession. Yet, purchased for little money in a picturesque town on a Caribbean island the handmade embroidered and threadworked table cloths seems to acquire a different kind of value.

I am extremely grateful to the scholarship’s donor and the University of Kent for making this trip possible and hope to develop some of the themes and ideas collected during my time in Cuba in more detail in the future. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Pause in the Method

"Does your quilting help you with your writing?" - an interested reader asked this almost two months ago and it got me thinking about my work process regarding my PhD research and my quilting. Generally, I seem to be spending a lot of time wound up in a seemingly unproductive state in which I am neither writing nor quilting, but well ...planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, procrastinating, and above all thinking! I create mental images of what kind of quilt I would like to make or think about what I should do with that layer cake of 10 inch squares that's been sitting in my closet for two years. I'll watch some Youtube or Craftsy videos on certain patchwork techniques, read up on them in magazines and books and garner inspiration from Instagram and Pinterest. Similarly, I think about suitable graphic representations of my PhD, about how all the different concepts interact with each other. The more I read, research, and engage in discussions with other academics as well as non-academics, the more complex this web of ideas and concepts inevitably becomes. But there are also those ecstatic moments of epiphany when something suddenly clicks into place. The "problem" is that these moments are difficult to measure in terms of actual output as is the process leading up to them. It doesn't seem acceptable to say I spent four hours thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating, when someone asks you about your day's work. Nor does that appear to be an appropriate answer when asked about what kind of quilting project you're currently working on. Especially since I always have more than one project on the go. They exist in various stages of conception and completion. Though some have definitely ended up in the UFO (unfinished object) box because I just no longer feel like working on them, with others, the time spent not directly working on them is definitely part of the process of doing exactly that. Much to the dismay of my grandpa who, for the live of it, cannot understand how I can have a fully basted quilt sitting in the middle of my studio for over a year without doing anything with it. He passes it every time he goes for his daily afternoon nap and while to him it is symbolic of a bad work ethic and procrastination, I take pleasure in having the liberty to spend as much time as I want to on deciding on the quilting design and thread color. As I take a casual or more focused look at it every time I enter the studio, I appreciate the fabrics, design and piecing or don't pay much attention to it at all because I'm in fact all set on working on a completely different project. It's like I'm waiting for the quilt to speak to me about what to do next. In the meantime I may as well be whipping up some other project, make a small pouch or even big bag.

Arranging some fabric strips according to color

With my academic work, of course, it doesn't exactly work that way. There are deadlines to meet, progress to be recorded and things to finish up. After all, this is my job and I'm being paid to produce a measurable end product that can be accessed and cited by others. At times, this certainly proves a struggle because I feel like I'm just not yet "ready" to write or that I'm lacking behind in comparison to others who stick to an impressive and rigorous schedule and appear to be writing all the time. However, two terms into my PhD and besides the general load of things that just "need doing now" I have come to appreciate and value the flexibility academia allows me regarding my schedule and my interests. And no, this doesn't mean that it's all just a wonderful state of bliss in which I "drift" along. There are (regular) moments of self-doubt and of feeling over-whelmed and incompetent as well as some late hours during which I'm frantically trying to finish up some presentation or annotate some book at the last minute. But there's also the moments of ecstasy and elation when I realize that all the hours spent "just" thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating have led to the development of a very strong and nuanced argument that seems to just flow from my mind out onto the page.

The outline for my latest conference essay

In this sense, I guess my academic work and my quilting are quite similar in process. Moments of seemingly not "working," of thinking, planning, napping, designing, loitering, musing, walking, researching, and procrastinating are, in fact, part of the process. Plus, my quilting helps me get through moments of impasse and blockage. When I can no longer focus on the problem right in front of me, though it feels as if the answer is almost tangibly close in front of me, I walk away from it and quilt. The engagement with the material, the colours and the repetitive movements along with the continuous whirr of my sewing machine appear to take my mind off the problem I'm working on. Yet, somewhere in the back of my head, my mind seems to continue to work on it and often, when I go back to it after such a creative timeout things seem to flow better again. 

From the "Entangled - Threads and Making" exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate