Cut Cloth is an exhibition, publication and series of workshops in Manchester that examine the shifting role of textiles within contemporary feminist art practices. The programme is curated and led by Leeds-based textile artist Sarah-Joy Ford. It is a timely project that in its broad and outward looking programme prioritises critical engagements with its themes and central idea. The programme covers considerable ground by exploring subversive or activist currents from the marginal or more mainstream textiles practices via international art practices and local histories.
Elspeth Mitchell spoke to Sarah-Joy Ford about the significance of the project in relation to contemporary art, queer feminisms, activism and Manchester.
[C8]: What inspired you to develop the Cut Cloth exhibition – and why now?
[Sarah-Joy Ford]: The idea for Cut Cloth came, first of all, from the concerns of my own artistic practice. I have been negotiating the relationship between feminist theory and textiles in my own work but I wanted to take the opportunity to explore these ideas with other writers and artists who shared similar concerns with myself. I wanted to curate an exhibition that focused on really contemporary work. The aim is to look to the future of feminism and cloth together. What results is a programme with a range of international, local, established and emerging artists who do singular and important work at this intersection of art/feminism/politics.
[C8]: How did your interest in textiles first emerge?
[SJF]: My passion for textiles came from studying feminist art and theory at the University of Leeds. I became really inspired by researching groups like Feministo who utilised domestic craft to disrupt the boundaries between private and public space. They brought the domestic, uncanny and abject into the gallery space in a double sided process of both celebrating women’s art and craft while also challenging the constructions and restrictions of the domestic sphere and modes of reproductive labour tied to them. In the case of Feministo, and others, bringing textiles into the gallery space was a radical act since subverting the hierarchies of material in the arts (with textiles toward the bottom as “woman’s work” and “craft”) they faced much criticism. Now, however, textile art is much more commonplace in galleries. Artists such as Sheila Hicks and Magdalena Abakanawisc have experienced global success working with textiles.
Maybe it is no longer the same disruptive act in itself to work with textiles in art contexts, nevertheless, I wanted to look at the changes in textile art as a specifically feminist methodology. It is also important to acknowledge that many of the artists who have been hugely successful in their textile careers are predominantly men, for example Yinka Shonibaire, Grayson Perry and Richard Tuttle. This suggests that the use of textiles by artists who are men has played a role in the legitimisation of it. It is frustrating that artists who are men who utilise textiles are seen as making an exciting cultural transgression worthy of acclaim, while for women it has ‘all been done before’.
Nevertheless, it feels like a really exciting time to talk about textiles and feminism in particular, because feminism has gained such popularity in mainstream culture. As the challenges for feminists change and evolve politically, I wanted in Cut Cloth to look toward contemporary practitioners who continue to challenge sexism and patriarchal oppression. It is a question of imagining the transformation of culture, while responding to difficult shifting contemporary contexts.
[C8]: Why Manchester, can you say a bit about the significance of the city for your project?
[SJF]: The project is inspired by the city of Manchester and its histories of activism, feminism and textiles. Manchester has a rich industrial history as an industrial power house, colloquially referred to as ‘Cottonopolis’. It also has a fascinating history of producing fabrics such as wax and shweshwe cloth for east and south African markets. Also, Manchester has always had a bold history of women challenging the establishment. The city was the site of the first suffragette meeting and it was, of course, the home of the Pankhursts. I see some of this rich histories of textile production and feminism continue in the work of Jennifer Harris at the Whitworth Gallery who has really pushed art textiles forward as a medium. This has been through the kinds of work that has been acquired for the Whitworth’s permanent collection but also the 1984 landmark exhibition Subversive Stitch (co-curated by Pennina Barnett and Bev Bytheway) and then also, more recently in 2015, ArtTextiles. The city feels like a really appropriate place to celebrate these histories of women, textiles and the radical challenges to the status quo that have been enacted here.
[C8]: How have you worked with these histories in Cut Cloth?
[SJF]: I wanted to acknowledge these histories and so I have developed an archive exhibition in collaboration with the People’s History Museum, The African Fabric Shop and The Pankhurst Centre that will run alongside the contemporary show at The Portico Library. This is in no way a comprehensive representation of the fascinating history, but it is a nod to the work, stories and experiences located specifically in Manchester that have contributed to ideas present in Cut Cloth and contemporary feminism and textiles.
[C8]: Cut Cloth is a fantastically ambitious programme. Why was important to include a publication, exhibition and workshops in the programme?
[SJF]: The book, workshops and events were not included in my original plan for the project, but as I was developing the exhibition it became increasingly apparent that this was a huge topic to tackle in an exhibition. I felt that the program needed to widen in order to explore the concepts comprehensively.
The book is a way to contextualise the artwork and tackle the ideas in more depth. It has also given me the opportunity to widen the range of perspectives being represented. I was concerned that books on feminism and textile theory are often expensive and inaccessible. I wanted to make a book that would be available open source as a free download to anyone that would want it. My hope is that the collection of essays will both contribute to current textile scholarship whilst also engaging audiences new to textile art.
The workshops are another way to explore feminist textiles in a more accessible way. It is very important to me when dealing with feminist textiles to recognise the activist, community-led and collaborative histories. Textiles have been a successful tool for feminists as the basic skills are easy to teach, easy to share and well suited to collaborative practices and interventions. It is really important to encourage people to engage in workshops. Cut Cloth has the exciting ‘Don’t blow it Handkerchief Workshop’ on Saturday 8 July which is led by craftivist collective founder Sarah Corbett. In the session participants will stitch a hanky for someone in a position of power, a politician for example, to express their concern about an issue that means something to them. This ‘soft activism’ is a really great way for people to engage in change-making in a creative way, while also learning a new skill. The excitement of textiles for me comes from the process of making so it feels really appropriate to share this with others!
[C8]: Why do you think there is a potential in textile art to subvert dominant narratives in culture?
[SJF]: I think that textile art draws its power to challenge dominant narratives from its ability to act both as a metaphor and a language for marginalised communities. Beyond feminism, textiles is increasingly being utilised by artists articulating and challenging identity constructions of ethnic minorities, disability, working class culture and LGBTQ communities. Janis Jefferies highlights this in her essay for the Cut Cloth publication. She says that textile’s marginalised history and its omission from the canon of ‘The History of Art’ make it a pertinent metaphor and medium for communities who have experienced exclusion from mainstream culture and politics. Working with textiles draws upon an alternative history of disobedient objects including banner making, quilting and knitting utilised by suffragettes, feminists and political activists globally. In her book Sister Outsider (1984) Audre Lorde famously said: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the masters house.’ I think that stitching, wool and cloth are tools of this resistance she was calling for!
In my own practice I think deeply of textiles as a queer medium that disrupts the boundaries between private and political, domestic and public, craft and art. Just as queer refuses a binary or fixed identity textiles refuses to allocate itself a singular cultural position. Artists are occupying and reclaiming the term craft as a political one, once used as an accusation of lack of conceptual integrity now becomes a site of agency. This can be seen in the growing global craftivism movement disrupting the traditional notion that all activism takes place in public space. Activism, accessibility and creativity all come together in this form. This is what Cut Cloth critically engages with.
Cut Cloth, The Portico Library, Manchester, 9 June – 5 July 2017.
More information about the events related to this project can be found here.
Elspeth Mitchell is a writer and programmer based in Leeds and Yorkshire Editor of Corridor8.