‘Crafting Democracy’ in ‘Current Seen’: Crafting Makes Political Points

Robin L. Flanigan

Can craftsmanship change the world?

In a new local exhibit, more than 30 works of art from across the country pay homage to contemporary craft activism – a protest movement that uses materials traditionally targeted at women to provoke and engage viewers in political discourse.

Yes, craftsmanship can be controversial. In one piece, a terry cloth American flag is attached to the bottom of a Swiffer Sweeper, made by Oregon visual artist Christy Bailey to represent “how a symbol can represent power and purity but also with dirt in its history”.

Through yarn and fabric, North Carolina-based conceptual multimedia artist Stephen L. Wilson gave the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster a contemporary twist, using purple hair and tattooed skin to symbolize ownership. of self and the expression of identity.

And the purple wool sweater knitted by Betsy Liano of Brighton – the hue representing the main color of the suffragist movement – has inspirational quotes from women stitched around the bodice, including one from Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai: ” When the whole world is silent, even a voice is powerful.

These and other works have been selected for the “Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism” exhibit at the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County. The exhibition is part of “Current Seen: Rochester’s Small Venue Biennial for Contemporary Art”. The pieces, chosen for their diverse viewpoints, techniques and visual impact, make powerful statements about socio-political, cultural and economic issues around the world.

Soft matters, hard truths

"Written on my chest" sweater by Betsy Liano.

“Artists are taking something that’s considered traditional, soft, loving, warm, safe and feminine – fiber and thread – and turning it on its head,” says co-curator Hinda Mandell, associate professor at Rochester’s School of Communication. . Institute of Technology. “There is a subversive and subversive act in there. It gets you thinking, asks you questions, and engages you in debate and dialogue.

The exhibit includes 31 artists from across the United States and South Korea. About half of contributors work professionally in the arts.

Materials used include cotton, linen, embroidery floss, polyester, paper, felt, thread, wool, and oil paint. All the work of “Crafting Democracy” has been created since 2015, to keep the presidential election and its aftermath as the main objective.

“We were looking for pieces that addressed the theme of how fiber can engage as a form of resistance and activism, and they had to hit us in the face,” says co-curator Juilee Decker, associate professor at museum studies program. at RIT.

The news pushes them to create

Liano wanted to participate after reading the call for entries in a Rochester Knitting Guild newsletter. Having learned to knit at the age of 5 from her mother, she finds that “having a craft in your hands is an excellent topic of conversation”.

For her entry, titled “Written on My Chest,” Liano used quotes chosen by herself and her three daughters.

“I believe systemic misogyny has contributed to our current political situation,” Liano says of his work. “It is imperative that women stand up and take action.”

Mandell’s activism grew out of the 2016 presidential election. The following year, after a Jewish cemetery in Rochester was vandalized, she created six-pointed stars with hearts in the middle to place near headstones broken. When 11 people were killed at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, she helped organize artisans to make and install 2,500 of the same stars there.

And for “Crafting Democracy,” she knitted five hats to examine how hats are used to indicate political and identity allegiances, as well as to explore how they’ve been used to discipline people who step out of line.

Mandell, who is also the publisher of the upcoming book “Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats,” originally had different plans for the exhibit. She had wanted to combine a miniature art exhibit with a symposium held after the publication of “Nasty Women and Bad Hombres: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election,” a book she co-edited. But after speaking with Decker, she realized the exhibit needed to be much more comprehensive and self-contained.

Even watching it is activism

At the time, Decker, who believes that “conceptualizing, executing, and visiting exhibits can serve as a form of activism,” had recently helped curate the exhibit “Because of Women Like Her…Winning the Voting in New York State” from the library. , which was visible at the library in 2017.

Decker and Mandell wanted the exhibition to have longevity, so they partnered with RIT Press on a 122-page exhibition catalog including images of the work, artist statements and eight original essays – on the craftsmanship as a tool for social change – by curators, activists and scholars. Betty M. Bayer, former chair of the board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, wrote the foreword.

Knowingly or not, Decker explains, contemporary craft activism – in which makers are called craftivists – grew out of and drew inspiration from feminist works of the 1970s, with women such as Faith Ringgold “who used art as a weapon to sensitize women and women”. the roles of women. The Guerrilla Girls followed in the 1980s, an anonymous group of feminist female artists who fought against sexism and racism in the art world.

As part of “Crafting Democracy,” Decker and Mandell led a craft intervention and wire installation on August 21 to bring vitality and color to a parking lot — the former site of historic Corinthian Hall, once Rochester’s first boardroom.

But activism is a matter of points of view. “I want to be clear that politically engaged craft activism doesn’t have to be partisan,” Mandell said.

Decker adds, “We don’t interpret what the artists are trying to say. We let the work and the text speak for themselves. For me, it’s a way for people to rethink how they perceive certain pieces in the series.

Robin L. Flanigan is a writer living in Rochester.

If you are going to

What: Reception for the exhibition Crafting Democracy: textile arts and activism

When: Until November 17

Where: Howard Hacker Hall, Rochester and Monroe County Central Library, 115 South Ave.

Details: craftingdemocracy.com or http://bit.ly/2OhDGTi.

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