Stitch (Slut) / Embroider (Bitch): Crafting a Feminist Praxis
The interweaving of traditional craft techniques into feminist art practice and theory.
Danica van de Velde
Anyone fortunate enough to have visited the South London Gallery for the exhibition Minky Manky in April-May 1995 would have been struck by the unassuming presence of a blue tent alongside the work of established British artists, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume. The tent, which was for all intents and purposes one that would be used for a camping expedition, unusually featured the dates 1963-1995 appliquéd on one side. The significance of the time frame was made clear upon reading the title of the artwork, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995).
Obligated to enter on their hands and knees, the viewer encountered 101 appliquéd names stitched into the walls of the tent with the phrase, “With Myself / Always Myself / Never Forgetting” at the centre. The names woven into the tent’s interior ranged from the sexual, in the the form of lovers, to the platonically intimate, such as the artist’s grandmother, to the confronting, with the inclusion of aborted foetuses. Viewing the work placed the act of sleeping within the odd context of a tent, drawing associations with camping, the outdoors and childhood and, by extension, a sense of innocence that was decidedly at odds with the work’s content. Moreover, the ambiguity of the details of the artist’s relationship to each name was mirrored in the liminal space of the tent – a private space transposed from its proper context of a backyard or the wilderness to the sterile, white and, most significantly, public confines of a gallery. This liminality further extended to the materials used to construct Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 with the found object of the tent juxtaposed to the hand-sewn appliqué letters composing each name, immediately evoking the tradition of quilting to create a tension between domesticity and discomfort while questioning what does and does not belong in a gallery.
The confessional, almost scopophilic, nature of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 and its resurrection of craft techniques drew both fans and detractors in equal measure and, by the time of its unfortunate destruction in the Momart warehouse fire in 2004, gained the woman at its centre both fame and infamy. What I have purposely omitted is the name of the artist, for anyone with a cursory interest in contemporary art will know that it is one of the pivotal artists of the 1990s YBA (Young British Artist) movement, Tracey Emin. More than a momentary slip of the mind, failing to mention Emin until this point was entirely intentional so as to focus on the materials and construction of the work itself rather than the notion of celebrity that has so often been bound up with Emin’s autobiographical use of the self within her practice. Indeed, in the 2012 update of her seminal work, The Subversive Stich: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Roszika Parker takes Emin as a contemporary subject and argues that Emin’s celebrity status is a point of departure from the ideological work of 1970s feminists and that the appropriation of embroidery in Emin’s art practice is sexually exhibitive rather than sexually assertive. Finally Parker concludes, “It remains to be seen whether Tracey Emin’s success will have an impact on the position of women in the arts.”1
Employing Emin as the first example of a female artist who utilises techniques and materials more often seen in acts of crafting or women’s work is important, as there is no consensus on whether Emin can be labelled as a feminist artist. If Parker’s comments are convincing, Emin is not contributing to the work of second wave feminists who used craft as a subversive tactic; however, this would appear to suggest that there is only one feminism and that its value is set within static, immovable parameters. Given the complexity and diversity of female experience, it is more useful to think in terms of feminisms and, although Emin may be outside the canon of the second wave – even going so far as to not associate herself with feminism at all, she nonetheless contributes to female artistic expression through the means of craft. Indeed, Rosemary Betterton, writing on Hellter Fucking Skelter (2001), an appliqué blanket that manifests as a visual expression of violent language, argues that:
Active and passive, contrived and confessional, performative and truthful, the work refuses any simple reading of female identity. Emin has developed her own language for dealing with sexual inequalities, which is neither traditionally feminine nor feminist, but articulates a new kind of independent and iconoclastic femininity in all its complexity and contradictions.2
The key to Betterton’s analysis is her reference to language, which is particularly manifest in the series of appliqué blankets that Emin produced in the late 1990s. Despite using the form of a handmade quilt and being entirely reminiscent of old-fashioned patchwork, Emin’s work crystallises the distinction between art and craft and, more specifically, why her work is presented in a gallery setting; namely, through using appliqué as a discursive and conceptual strategy to give voice to female experience. While her blankets can be appreciated on an aesthetic level, it is hard to get past the messages that are forcefully thrust in the face of the viewer: “Burn in hell you bitch” (Hellter Fucking Skelter), “Pysco Slut” (Pysco Slut, 1999), “And I said fuck off back to your week world that you came from” (Mad Tracey from Margate. Everyone’s Been There, 1997). The palimpsest of floral-patterned squares and misspelled words in these works creates a disjuncture between medium and message to produce an instance where, to quote Emma Lavigne, “Semiotics offers a striking short-cut that explodes the feminine stereotype of the ‘home-maker’.”3 In so doing, Emin’s voicing of marginalised and private agony effectively recoups craft from “stich ‘n’ bitch” circles.
Where the language of Emin’s stitching bespeaks trauma and violence, Melbourne-based artist Clara Bradley’s textual embroideries distil a raw feminine softness – an alternative view within the prism of feminisms that was a feature of the Sleepover Club Initiative’s 2015 exhibition, Solidarity. In works such as Masticate (2014), which features the cross-stitched prose “He’d squirm and / Concave beneath me / Blue moonlit jaw / Clenched with / Elusive Eroticism,” Bradley fuses the tactility of embroidery with sensory somatic experience: the intricate stitches create a connection to the body unfolding with the precise movement of the needle and thread as guided by Bradley’s fingertips. While Parker writes that “To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women,”4 Bradley’s work conveys a personal history and the intimacy of touch through the execution of thread.
This is perhaps no more evident than the pale pink kimonos and the black and white photographs of men donning them in the work, Coalescence (2015). The text woven into the back of the kimonos, “You can do this / But if it’s too / Hard you can / Always stop. I’ll / Be there for / You if you / Need me,” appears as a barely discernible trace that mirrors the ephemerality of the message that was composed from text messages she received from the male subjects in the photographs.5 Significantly, the men featured do not speak, but they convey language through wearing it, specifically in the form of a garment that has been the subject of feminist critique. As Murakami Nobuhiko writes, “For hundreds of years, up until the twentieth century, the kimono has unilaterally insulated the female sex and caused women to suffer. It has prevented free expression and impeded natural growth.”6 The kimonos in Coalescence, however, casually yet elegantly drape the bare-chested physiques of Bradley’s male subjects and become a means to communicate emotion and connection, thereby releasing them of any perceived gendered oppression. Rather, in Bradley’s hands the joining of fabric and stitch does not merely construct a form of attire, but is an expression of a feminine patois.
Although she has employed text as a part of her work, Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s embroideries predominantly take the female body as their central subject. Where Emin’s portrayal of sexuality is explicitly upfront in its language, Amer is a little more insidious in her representation of the sexual feminine. Viewing works such as Untitled (2000) and Big Drips (1999), the viewer’s eye searches the intersecting webs of thread woven into the canvas for some cohesive meaning and, like an erotic strip tease, Amer’s work slowly reveals itself with probing fingers, legs thrust open, moaning mouths, provocative stares. In most cases, the threaded subjects, which are lifted from conventional pornography, return the gaze of the viewer and work to transcend their status beyond mere sexual object and assert a sense of power. Indeed, the feminist intention at the heart of Amer’s work is made evident by the artist herself:
With the series of erotic scenes, there is a cut, a strange collage between the technique used and what is shown. Here the sewing technique is used to the extreme. It is an aberration to spend days sewing images of women taken from pornographic magazine for men. I am here participating to the double submission of the woman, i.e. the woman sewing and the woman sewing her own distorted image!7
However, this double submission actualises a means of breaking sexual bondage by representing female sexual experience as one that is owned entirely by the woman and without the presence of men; that is, the seduction is enacted not through objectification but via reciprocation whereby the perceived movement of the masturbatory finger is paralleled in Amer’s tweaking of needle and thread.
Significantly, Amer’s explication of her practice is aligned with the concept of “femmage” that was developed by Miriam Schapiro and Melisssa Meyer in the 1970s, which is defined as:
a word invented by us to include all of the above activities [collage, assemblage, decoupage, photomontage] as they were practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art-sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing, cooking and the like – activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women […] We base our interpretations of the layered meanings in these works on what we know of our own lives – a sort of archeological reconstruction and deciphering…8
Transforming traditional women’s activities so that the act of viewing becomes a process of decipherment is key to Amer’s embroidered bodies where any trace of the homely or domestic is replaced by the erotic and the seductive. Similarly, American artist and activist Heather Marie Scholl’s ongoing The Self Portraits (2013-) series exemplifies the fractured composition of femmage while also drawing on instances of buried female sexuality. Concerned with addressing “larger issues of what it means to be a woman,” works in this series play with the viewer’s perceptions, with one work in particular first seemingly presenting one experience of femininity before undermining this initial representation.9 By looking at the work front-on, the lace doily features Scholl’s embroidered body with small red beads cascading from her open vagina, appearing as a representation of menstruation. By tilting the angle of the view, the red beads in fact are emanating from a giant phallus attached to her body. Despite the rather quaint embroidered composition of the piece, Scholl complicates the viewer’s position by leaving open questions such as whether the red beads are truly symbolic of blood, what power dynamics are at play and the motivation and emotions of her embroidered self. In much the same way as the artworks discussed previously, it is the questions of ambiguity (How many of the people in Emin’s tent did she actually have sex with? Who are the women in Amer’s embroidered canvasses really performing for?) that foreground the bodily expression and corporeal physically bound up in producing textile-based work that traverses the line between art and craft.
Perth-based artist Anna Dunnill’s recent show, Skin Envelope, further exemplifies this multi-disciplinary play on craft techniques elevated to artistic practice. Where works such as Enclosed, but gently (2015) – which takes linen embroidery thread, stonewear and watercolour as its materials – are, at first blush, entirely reminiscent of a traditional embroidery hoop, Dunnill is in fact engaging with more evocative ideas surrounding the body. As the notes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition elucidate, “In body theory, ‘skin envelope’ refers to the post-eighteenth-century idea of the body’s margin as an enclosing vessel or garment, with specific openings. Before this, the body was often envisioned as a kind of porous sponge, with no clear boundary between it and the world.” Indeed, Dunnill’s work encapsulates a gentle body politics that harmoniously conflates all surfaces, whether it be skin, ceramic or textile. That Dunnill was present in the gallery for the majority of the show piercing her imagery into skin using a stick-and-poke tattoo method gestures towards a new rethinking of appropriating embroidery and stitch techniques in contemporary art, whereby the flesh of the gallery attendees is transformed into a moving canvas. This idea was also mobilised in the hand-bound book that accompanied her work A Short Lesson in Embroidery (2014), in which Dunnill writes, “To anchor the edges of your body, take a needle and thread. Poke the needle under your skin. Pull the thread through. Make your stitches small, and close together. Start at the feet and work upwards, continuing in this way.”10 Here, the embroidery hoop is replaced by the interrogative site of the stitched/tattooed body, radically altering the medium and execution of needlework.
In the preface to By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art, Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro write that the assimilation into the contemporary art world of practices previously tied singularly with craft has produced a movement whereby “[a]ctivities historically associated with feminine conventions are stunningly repurposed and, as a result, become disassociated from their quotidian contexts.”11 Notably, female artists such as Emin, Bradley, Amer, Scholl and Dunnill have successfully worked to remove craft techniques from everyday rituals of homespun domesticity; however, they have continued to interweave feminine and gender issues through their resulting work, predominantly focusing on the space of the body in relation to their individual practices. These artists use craft techniques as a veil; what lies beneath is far more evocative.
Words by Danica van de Velde
1 Roszika Parker, Subversive Stitch, The Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), xvi.
2 Rosemary Betterton, “Why Is My Art Not As Good As Me?: Femininity, Feminism and ‘Life-Drawing’ in Tracey Emin’s Art,” in The Art of Tracey Emin (London: Thames &Hudson, 2002), 38.
3 Emma Lavigne, “A Room of One’s Own,” in Women Artists: elles@centrepompidou (Paris: Edition du Centre Pompidou, 2009), 156.
4 Parker, ix.
5 See Clara Bradley, “Coalescence.” Available online: http://clarabradley.net/COALESCENCE.
6 Murakami Nobuhiko cited in Liza Crihfield Dalby, Kimono: Fashioning Culture (London: Vintage, 2001), 153.
7 Ghada Amer cited in “Interview: Propos Recueilles par Xavier Franceschi,” in Ghada Amer (Bréigny-sur-Orge: Centre d’Art et de Culture, 1994), n.p.
8 Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer, “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into what Women Saved and Assembled – FEMMAGE.” Heresies I, 4 (1977-78), 66-67.
9 Marie Heather Scholl, “The Self Portraits.” Available online at http://www.heathermariescholl.com/the-self-portraits/.
10 Anna Dunnill, A Short Lesson in Embroidery (Perth: Self-Published, 2014), n.p.
11 Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro, eds., “Introduction,” in By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 7.