Craftivism: the Art of Craft and Activism

May 21, 2014

I have been feeling a bit small recently, small and glum, small things made, small achievements, small amounts of time…small.

But reading Betsy Greer’s new book, Craftivism: the Art of Craft and Activism has reinvigorated my outlook.  Small can still be significant. I am reminded of the powerful stories within Paul Kelly‘s great song, ‘From little things, big things grow’. Actions that change and transform can start very humbly and there is probably nothing more humble than home crafts like stitching and mending.  Greer’s book documents and celebrates the revolutionary potential of craft as a vessel for change.

craftivism courtesy Arsenal Pulp Presscourtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

Craftivism: the Art of Craft and Activism is published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is an edited collection of essays  and interviews on that wonderfully productive intersection between craft and activism.   In recent years, I have read quite a few books exploring this intersection including, Hoopla – the Art of Unexpected Embroidery (2011) by Leanne Prain, Yarn Bombing (2009) by Mandy Moore and Craft Activism: People, Ideas, and Projects from the New Community of Handmade and How You Can Join In (2011) by Joan Tapper. These are all great, energetic books but Greer has made something quite different in Craftivism: the Art of Craft and Activism.  

Craftivism is an incredibly engaging conversation with the broadest range of folks using craft as political activism. It explores the fullest breadth of contemporary practice encompassing knitting, cross stitch, mending, fashion design, upcycling and quilting. It expands the reader’s expectations of what is possible whilst at the same time demonstrating the power of the smallest action. We meet everyone from Sayraphim Lothian leaving handmade gifts for strangers in Melbourne streets to Kailash Prarsad Singh and Ramsati Devi of the Adithi Collective in Bihar, India reviving quilt making traditions for income generation and empowerment for local women.

The book is organised into four main themes, each concisely introduced by Greer:

Personal Threads explores individual responses in craftwork.  Kim Werker’s work undermining the constraints of Beauty through ugly making was particularly provoking and in Jamie Chalmer’s discussion of cross stitch as vehicle for the political, I finally understood its potential. He says ‘Cross stitch is inherently populist and can be enjoyed by all.  This is the root of its greatness’.

Kim WerkerKim Werker, courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

Refashioning Craft deconstructs and transforms traditional ways of making and consuming. Amongst the many gems in this section, I particularly enjoyed Becky Striepe’s explanation of the impetus of up-cyling as ‘crafters picking up the slack where conventional design has failed’.

Craft as a Political Mouth Piece explores examples where craft is used as political action. The stand out essay in this section for me was Heather Strycharz’s exploration of how Chilean women used the traditional embroidered tapestries commonly sold to tourists as a way to bypass censorship when Pinochet came to power.  These hand stitched, joyful-looking works documented torture, imprisonment and the disappearances of husbands and children.

Activating Communities explores craft as a vehicle for engaging and uniting groups of people.  From Suffragette banners to Uterus flags and a community space for making in Bandung, Indonesia, this section like the rest of the book makes a  point of presenting a diversity of craftivist responses.

And that is really one of the great strengths of this book.  Greer has included such a broad company of activist craft practitioners from conceptual artists to prisoners to quilters.  The range of voices, backgrounds and works is quite startling and always inspiring.   Greer masterfully steers a course between the practical and the intellectual, the craft and the art, challenging and provoking the reader without alienating them. This is not a book that prescribes action or directs it.  It is rather, an expansive historical document of what is being done that leaves you to respond in a unique way. It is a handbook of ideas without ever straying into the constraints of a manifesto.

Sayraphim LothianSayraphim Lothian, courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

Seek this book out! It is a terrific read and beautiful too, with many photographs included. There are a range of places you can buy it as a hard copy or ebook. Ask your library to order a copy, I just did!

You can also have an explore of Craftivism, the blog.

Thank you Besty Greer for sending me a copy to read and if I liked, to review.  I liked it immensely.