Tuesday, November 26, 2019

On the Politics of Needlework at the Knitting and Stitching Show

For the first time in the more than five years that I've lived in the UK, I finally made it to the Knitting and Stitching Show in beautiful Alexandra Palace. And sure enough, the building itself and its grounds are well worth a visit. Unlike other shows I've been to, the Knitting and Stitching Show did not center around one or more feature artists or galleries accompanied by additional smaller displays. Instead it was made up of numerous, and at times quite small galleries, by a number of different artists and collectives. These displays were surprisingly varied and unique ranging from three-dimensional goldwork embroidery to woven rugs. Indeed, I was positively surprised by the innovative character of some of the works.

Soft sculptures by Daisy Collingridge

I was also struck by how many of the artist statements referenced a conscious exploration of the relationship between femininity and textile crafts. In a post-Pussyhat era this should probably not be particularly surprising, though given the audience to which textile show like this cater in the UK (i.e. white middle-class and middle-age women with an increasing number of younger women who have discovered a passion for the hand-made), it was still unusual to see this topic explored in so many of the galleries without it being a central theme of the show. Unfortunately, my initial excitement about this was soon flattened and I more than once cringed at some of the sweeping generalisations that, in my opinion, very much reframed needlework and femininity within the restrictive binary categories that the pieces supposedly thought to redefine. In fact, more than once, they appeared to reinscribe the idea of 'women's work' as something that exists outside the realm of public politics.  

Take, for example, this sentence found in one of the galleries: "Before women had a political voice, they used domestic arts as a covert form of protest and activism". Firstly, the sentence literally implies that there was a time when women had no political voice whatsoever. As such, it basically questions the political validity and efficacy of the 'covert form[s] of protest and activism" it refers to. Not only does the statement create a hierarchy between good and bad activism, but also around definitions of 'the political'. Subsequently, the abstract then goes on to equate suffrage with 'political voice', thus, grounding the political and political voice firmly within the realm of state-sanctioned acts of citizenship like voting. And low and behold, with a general election around the corner in the UK, I am by no means saying that voting isn’t important.  

An Ideal Woman? Who blazed your trail? by Jen Cable

However, I do think that we need to move away from conceptualisations of the political and political voice solely within the context of normative citizenship and 'measurable' or quantifiable perceptions of practical politics that often focus on policies, government spending and voter turnout. These concepts themselves are deeply tied to patriarchal and colonial systems of knowledge and governance that have always attempted to relegate 'women's work' as inferior. If this then is the framework against which we examine "domestic arts as a covert form of protest and activism," I am afraid that it will always be found lacking. My suggestion? Let's try and avoid this binary way of thinking and focus instead on the kind of political acts practices of needlework make possible. How can they provide a means to rethink our understanding of concepts like the political, political voice, and citizenship?

Touching Corner by Luisa Desanti

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Exploring Protest and Social Unrest at Dickens Universe

Afternoons filled with Victorian tea parties with dainty cups and saucers and little sweet treats, evenings of post-prandial potations and days full of lectures, workshops and seminars: the 39th annual Dickens Universe certainly lived up to its reputation as a unique week-long celebration of everything Victorian paired with a rigorous academic conference. This July, around 100 academics and graduate students came together on the beautiful University of California Santa Cruz campus and met with as many interested members of the public, undergraduates and pupils from local high schools. The featured novel was Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, originally published in serial instalments in 1841, and one of the lesser known and studied texts of Dickens’ oeuvre.

Foshay High School students performing

Barnaby Rudge, one of only two historical novels that Dickens authored during his prolific career, chronicles the London Gordon Riots of 1780 and the struggles of a number of characters explicitly or implicitly involved with the riots. Variously defined as historic novel, melodrama, Victorian gothic and/or mystery and crime fiction, the novel left many a passionate Dickensian utterly frustrated, because it is so ‘unlike any other Dickens’. Yet, it also proves surprisingly relevant for the contemporary moment as it raises a number of important questions: What motivates individuals to support populist agendas that, contrary to popular claims, don’t have these people’s best interest at heart? When or what turns a protest into a riot, when does a crowd become a mob? Can family life provide safety and reassurance when public life is marked by chaos and contention? What happens when language breaks down and no longer works in the service of communication?

These and many more questions were discussed during the faculty-led graduate student seminars and the general discussion groups for the public that were co-taught by graduate students. More so, however, I found that the joint meal-time in the college’s dining hall provided an ideal space for further conversation and an easy route to connecting with fellow PhD students from all over the US, Canada, the UK and Israel. Besides all the fun and stimulating intellectual discussions, a number of professionalisation workshops were also on offer for graduate students: pedagogy, publishing in scholarly journals, academic writing, and presentation skills. I attended the daily presentation workshop which due to its intimate set-up of only five PhD students with one instructor meant that I received detailed feedback on my body language and voice projection skills. In addition, I attended an excellent talk about the US academic job market that provided me with invaluable insight into the workings of the US higher education sector and the large variety of institutions it encompasses.

A map of the Foshay neighborhood

A personal highlight for me was a performance by students from the Foshay high school in south Los Angeles as part of their exhibition LA 1992/London 1780: Sounding Out A Crowd. Their wonderful teacher Jacqueline Barrios has been collaborating with Dickens Universe for a number of years and students in her final year English classes read the Universe’s featured novel. But not only did this year’s students read the novel and write essays about it, they also designed a large-scale project inspired by it that compared the London Gordon Riots of 1780 with the LA riots of 1992. The students created a music album titled Never Say Die, A Sonic Tribute to the LA 1992 Rebellion, which provides a sonic map of and response to the LA riots in relation to the student’s own neighbourhood Foshay, a key site during the LA riots. As a so-called Title 1 school with more than 80 per cent of the children qualifying for free lunches, Jacqueline Barrios’ work with Dickens Universe and the Neighbourhood Academic Initiative has been life-changing for many of the students. The majority of them now continue into further education and earn a college degree. At a time when funding for the humanities is repeatedly cut, I found this project extremely heartening and inspiring to me as a teacher.
The week ended with the grand Victorian Dance – complete with dance mistress, dance cards and a live band called Great Expectations Orchestra – and, of course, the big reveal of next year’s featured novels: the Dickens classic David Copperfield (1849-50) and Iola Leroy (1892) by African-American abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. My week at Dickens Universe was intellectually stimulating and very enjoyable and I am extremely grateful to the School of English and the Centre for Victorian Literature and Culture for funding this brilliant experience.

Each student created a special music track
This post originally appeared on Kent's School of English Blog.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Reactions to Social Justice Sewing Academy Quilts at QuiltCon

As a researcher, it's important to me to keep the interest of my stakeholders (for lack of better term), i.e. the people and institutions I write and think about, in mind in whatever I do. That's not to say that I'm afraid to criticise them or anything they do, but I do pay attention to the modes in which these critiques are issued (as really one should do in any kind of situation). I’m especially mindful of these relations when working with marginalized groups that I don’t belong to, for example, women of colour. While I strongly believe in the value of intersectional analysis that highlights marginalized voices in an attempt to counter dominant oppressive discourses, recognizing my own complicity (conscious or not) and privilege in these structures is paramount. Consequently, it is important to me that my stakeholders feel that there is some value attached to what I do from their point of we.

SJSA Community Quilt

You can imagine, that I was really pleased when the wonderful Sara Trail from the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) asked me to be their volunteer for QuiltCon 2019 and to collect viewers’ responses to their quilts. Utilising my skills as a researcher, Sara and I devised fours question to ask viewers after they had a chance to look at the SJSA quilts on display and to record the responses. The result is a 15 minute audio clip that gives an interesting overview about the effect the quilts had on people and their general thoughts about quilting as a tool for social justice activism. You can listen to the clip under the testimonials section on the SJSA website.

Doing the interviews was so much fun for me and quite insightful and inspiring! Not only did people provide amazing and thoughtful responses to the questions, it was also super interesting to simply observe people’s physical reactions to the quilts. There were surprised and irritated frowns when some viewers saw themselves confronted with topics such as racism, mass incarceration, or date rape in a space in which many clearly did not expect to be. Often, these expressions then quickly changed to admiration as people stepped closer and read the artist statements by the youth who had made the quilts featuring social justice issues they are deeply concerned about. While some also passed on quickly - almost hurrying to get away from the bleak reality of contemporary American society, others lingered to take in every detail of each block, snapping pictures with their phones and quite a few were moved to tears.

While doing the interviews and then during the editing process of the material, I noticed some interesting patterns emerge from the responses given. The first two questions asked about the effect the quilts had on viewers and whether any of the topics portrayed in the quilt were relevant for their personal situation. Three common types of answers where discernible in the responses. On group of viewers felt that there was no connection to their personal lives. These seemed to be connected to people's impression that the quilts were 'only' about race and racism and as such not relevant to white viewers. However, another significant group of viewers took this same observation one step further and recognized and willingly acknowledged their personal privilege in relation to race, class, gender and age. They realised that because of these privileges they are not directly subjected to discrimination based on the issues portrayed. Yet another group of respondents concluded, however,  that it affected them indirectly albeit of their privilege  because live in the same racist and patriarchal society as the quiltmakers. They recognized the liberation of others as a foundational part of their own liberation.

The third question was aimed to find out viewers' familiarity with the long tradition of political quilts. The AIDS Quilt was one of the most common answers to that question. Mention of the Underground Railroad system was also quite common. A surprisingly large number of people also mentioned the quilts from Gee's Bend, even though these quilts are not usually framed as political - though that's of course not to say that they aren't. It seemed that many viewers were reminded of the Gee's Bend quilts because they are highly publicized as an instance of so-called African-American quilting (see Mazloomi for a discussion of the problematic of this term). It seemed that the prevalence (or at least perceived prevalence) of racism as a main issue for social injustice and discrimination in the quilts on display led viewers to connect the SJSA quilts to the category of African-American quilting. One respondent, however, stood out! She identified the Gee's Bend quilts as political because they constitute practices of survival. As feminist critics of color like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Sara Ahmed (as well as others) have powerfully argues for decades, survival of those whose lives are constantly under attached in a white supremacist and patriarchal culture, is a political act! To use quilting as a means to earn a small income as well as in order to keep you and your family warm, and, almost more importantly, to lift up your spirit through practices of creative making, is a political act!

SJSA Community Quilt

The final questions asked whether viewers believed that quilts and/or the practice of making a quilt can be helpful tools for fostering social change. I was quite struck by the large number of people who confirmed this notion based on their understanding of quilting as an art practice. To see so many people have faith in the power of art was really inspiring!

Further reading:
Mazloomi, Carolyn L. And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations. Schiffer Publishing. 2015