Art and Activism: Feminism in London conference 2014

Author and activist Gail Dines concluded her speech at this year’s Feminism in London conference with, ‘Feminism is not for each individual, it only works as a collective movement. We’re all in this together’. This sentiment of community over individualism was clearly popular: her speech ended with the entire audience cheering on their feet. The rest of the day, in the form of discussion panels and a range of workshops, revolved around these ideas of feminist activism at all levels, from large-scale demonstrations to small craft socials.

‘Crafting politics’, the workshop I attended, concerned not only Dines’ reiteration of the importance of a collective movement but also the relationship between art and activism. The speakers included Sarah Corbett of Craftivist Collective, Lauren O’Farrell of Knit The City, Catherine West of Significant Seams and Laura Price from Royal Holloway.

So how can art become a political tool? For Sarah Corbett, it’s a way of ‘engaging people with politics but in a way that invites conversation’. She recalls a time when she was knitting a quilt on the bus and the people sat around her initiated conversation about her work and inspiration. Corbett describes craftivism as ‘gentle activism’, in a way that does not preach but is still provocative in public spaces. She cites her mini protest banner project as an example, in which one banner campaigning for ethical fashion outside Topshop read ‘Kate Moss – £3 million to endorse a line of Topshop clothing: Mauritian factory worker – 21p per hour to sew clothes for Topshop.’

However, craftivism isn’t necessarily always explicitly political. Catherine West explains that her community project in Walthamstow, Significant Seams, is a way of creating a community through craft, allowing vulnerable and disadvantaged women to form a network of support and friendship. She explains that of all the crafts, ‘sewing has been proven to be medically beneficial to survivors of trauma and those experiencing anxiety or depression’ and that sewing in a group is ideal for personal and intimate conversation. A movement is not a movement without community and individual support – and Significant Seams provides exactly this. Lauren O’Farrell’s Knit The City project, too, while not overtly political in its messages, has raised money for various charities through knitted art installations, including Childline.

Craft’s role in activism, of course, is not without its flaws – and the panel acknowledge this. Corbett says, ‘It troubles me that craftivism is taken up as a get-out clause or a replacement for other forms of activism. Craft shouldn’t replace activism, but should be another tool of it. We still need people on the streets.’ She also notes that personally engaging with textile work encourages self-critique that isn’t always possible in other forms of activism and that craft allows us to reflect mindfully on our individual role in justice issues, whether we are part of the problem or part of a solution.

The discussions that followed the speakers were in turn heart-warming, intelligent and hopeful, proving that craftivism is ideal for many women. A mother of two told us that she had taken up embroidery when her children were asleep as it allowed her time to think about politics in a quiet, therapeutic, more personal way that her busy day usually didn’t allow. Another woman, an artist and member of her local government claimed that she often found the two sides of herself ‘difficult to reconcile’. She said that political art offered a good middle ground and that she had recently begun crochet work on portraits of cultural and political female figures.

So what’s the real point of art in activism? In a world which is all too often focused on the negative state of politics, craftivism provides a release which Corbett describes as ‘joyful activism’. It focuses on creating something positive out of anger and is a product of careful physical work and emotional investment. The personal becomes political here: a single textile piece becomes part of a wider ongoing dialogue about inequality; an individual group of friends knitting can grow into a larger community of skill-learning and political communication. Even the ‘Crafting politics’ workshop initiated important conversations about the role of art in politics, its health benefits and its benefits to those who feel uncomfortable with or are unable to participate in other forms of activism. Craftivism should by no means replace demonstrations, campaigns and conferences, but it is an important (and often overlooked) tool of raising awareness and starting activist dialogues crucial to real change.

You can view some of Craftivist Collective’s project ideas here.

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