This post, which could also be titled ‘remembering my 1990s feminist self’ is a re-emergence of some thinking I did a long time ago in my early years at university. After leaving school, I completed a Fine Art degree, followed by an Honours year. I’m writing this post as a way into self-inquiry, a way to write myself towards my hunch that my early days as a feminist-textile-artist-writer have underscored my more recent PhD work and academic writing. Big thanks to Katie Collins whose wonderful blog post on subversive material metaphors in academic writing sparked my thinking.
I was a painter from a young age, thanks to my artist mother, but I chose to study textiles as a major in my undergraduate Fine Art degree, rather than painting. This choice was due to the meanings inherent in textile materials, processes and products. A textile artist can weave in metal or print on latex. They can make work in the blacksmith forge or the sculpture studio. They can work with cardboard or furniture or paint or dye or thread or canvas or wire or plastic or found objects. The visceral and sensory experience of working with materials is central to the artistic process.
The materials a textile artist chooses, and the scale at which they magnify or miniaturise those materials, are deliberate meaning-making choices. The artist can choose needlework and hand-dying, or industrial Warhol-esque mass printing. They can applique or cut away. They can build or melt. They can assemble or destroy. They can stitch or slice. They can focus on the macro or the micro, staggering their viewer with enormous size or encouraging the viewer to come in, up close and personal.
Textiles is personal and political. It is also a subversive arena for artists, and often a feminist one. It pushes or rails against the stratification of ‘Art’, which has often meant the dichotomising of cerebral, thinking highbrow Art (upper-case ‘A’, often seen as done by men), and functional or decorative art (lower-case ‘a’, often associated with women and femininity). Historically, women were objects of art: she the body to be gazed at and sculpted. Or objects of art were personified as women: she the landscape to be scrutinised and painted.
The art historical devaluing of textiles pivots on its early treatment by critics, galleries and institutions. Aesthetic disciplines depend on recognised ‘powers that be’ to promote and uphold them. Early galleries and history books excluded textiles. Unlike painting and sculpture, textiles was historically seen as an unimportant discipline, undeserving of discussion, not worth deconstructing for message or meaning. The association of textiles with the devalued domestic space of the home, the opposite of the glorified public space of the art gallery, contributes to its dismissal.
So, why am I back here, thinking about textiles as feminist discourse or subversive act? Because Katie Collins’ post brought memories of my past self bubbling to the surface. And I am wondering to what extent my long-ago thinking and artistic practice, around the meanings inherent in working in and writing about textiles, has influenced my current and recent research and academic writing. On reflection, my PhD incorporated disruptive elements. While fitting largely within an accepted academic paradigm, it quietly challenged the ways that knowledge is traditionally written about. I used narrative method, literary metaphor and created three multimedia illustrations for the thesis, corporeal expressions of my thinking.
Now that I’m back in the eye of this needle, I need to think further about how textiles might provide a metaphor for research and academic writing.
In the meantime, below I will type an extract from a paper that won me the Allport Writing Award in 1998, and was published in Textile Fibre Forum. It was an analysis of Vivienne Binns’ artwork Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat. The piece gives a sense of where my thinking was around textiles as feminist activism in the late 1990s. I have deliberately omitted an image of the artwork as I’m wondering if the text itself can paint the picture for you.
(For non-Australian readers, Captain James Cook was a British explorer who claimed to ‘discover’ the south eastern coast of Australia in 1770.)
Extract from ‘Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat: Rewriting history through cloth’
by Deborah M. Netolicky (1998), Textile Fibre Forum, Volume 53.
Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat may be read as one woman’s attempt to rewrite and reinterpret human history. Here Vivienne Binns contributes to the discourse on journey, adventure, and historical significance, telling the pain-filled woman’s story of discovery and adventure—the burden of waiting and worrying, as opposed to doing and dying. Through this work she questions platitudes of the day, such as “men work and women weep”. Binns demonstrates that women were not passive, but were actively working contributing, storytelling, and recording their own histories, written in needlework.
Binns uses journey as metaphor, identifying with Mrs Cook’s expedition as expressed through the waistcoat for Mr Cook. She challenges the value placed on women’s histories and women’s work by challenging the notion that Mrs Cook’s journey was insignificant in terms of human history. She has chosen to elevate its significance, giving it voice, implanting it in the discourse of high art.
… Captain Cook’s wife is the “Mrs Cook” referred to by the title of the work which tells the story of her laboring over a waistcoat for her husband while he is away on a long voyage. The waistcoat mapnel is larger-than-life, describing the legendary reputation of Captain Cook in Australian myth-making, and the amplified importance that Binns intends to give to the making of the waistcoat.
Binns connects the historical representation and exploration of Cook’s journey with issues of women’s value, women’s history, and the construction of gender. In her version of this story, the ocean water is a metaphor for a bewitching, intoxicating vacillating, unpredictable femininity and female identity … Cook, the white, middle-class male, is discovering, navigating, defining, and fixing the limits of the Pacific Ocean. He is writing the experiences, histories, and memories of and for the water, which has no voice. It is formless, restless, intuitive, irrational, and passive, in need of taming, subjugating, explaining and defining by the rational, scientific logic of male discourse.
Nature is tamed by culture. Binns places herself in the middle ground. She associates herself as water, as a woman employing subconscious, intuitive processes – her own emotions, remembrances, and ideas about certain colours, materials, and ways of working. On the other hand, she calmly calculates, selects, and constructs her images, associating herself with the heroic explorer, just as the artist does on a continuous intellectual journey to discover new meanings. This marriage of antithetical metaphors reflects Binns’ concerns with shaping perceptions of women’s ways of knowing, living, researching, remembering, experiencing, and making. By yoking the two ways of working, she gives equal value to each.
…The waistcoat can be seen as a woman’s way of writing and recording history. Women write history in fabric, men write history in text. Binns makes Mrs Cook’s journey of waiting, sewing, and weeping, as valid as Captain Cook’s journey. The labour and time involved in making this waistcoat explain the wife’s dedication and devotion to her far-away husband. Binns questions the trivialisation of women’s roles surrounding issues of the domestic and ‘crafty’. … She uses the processes, materials, and experiences of women—traditional metaphors of women’s work—to weave a myth about women’s forgotten places in history.
Penetrated openings are created by slicing, cutting, and scarring the fabric, fabric that represents flesh as well a material. … Rolled up papers (the stuff of men’s work) penetrate exposed fabric (the stuff of women’s work); paper penetrates fabric; men’s work penetrates women’s work; culture penetrates nature. The slits in the fabric are peeled back like open sores, mirroring the multiple stab wounds that were the cause of Cook’s death. The ultimate satire of the story is that while Mrs Cook is lovingly creating the waistcoat for her husband, he is already dead, his stab wounds mirrored in her handiwork. This is reflected in the typed and hand-written text, which permeates through a layer of white paint: “Mrs Cook embroidered… this time the Captain did not return and the waistcoat remains unfinished”. This irony elevates her personal anguish, and points to the difference in men’s discourses and women’s ways of speaking through needlework.
…Binns … uses traditionally female and domestic techniques of women’s work: embroidery, pattern-cutting, and sewing. There is a sense of Mrs Cook’s physical involvement in this garment, her time, effort, and care. It is stitched, cut, glued. Elements, images, textures, and metaphors are exposed, denied, revealed, concealed, constructed, deconstructed, veiled, disguised, patterned, decorated slashed, sliced, torn, ripped, reconstructed. The piece is layered with the corporeal stuff of memory.
… Binns does not create a new reality, but reflects and reinterprets the existing one in a way that gives it new meaning. She puts one moment in one woman’s life under the microscope until it boils, making her audience reconsider women’s lives, women’s history and women’s art.