Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Another contribution from our man in Hamilton, Peter Dornauf.

University of Waikato show

Currently hanging among the large modernists canvases that belong to the James Wallace Collection at the Waikato Art Academy (University campus) is a small modest exhibition of women’s textile craft, curated by Joyce Stalker. Running 11 March - 4 April 2008

The exhibition title, Ladies’ Handiwork; Pretty Patters or Subversive Stitches? puts forward the theory that the conformist embroidery patterns and stitching on doilies, aprons, cushions etc. made during the decades of the 30’s 40’s and 50’s in New Zealand, were somehow subversive.

Examples show images of faceless young women in Dolly Varden/Sunbonnet Sue set patterns surrounded by sweet English flowers and pretty decorative frills.
What we seem to be looking at are the products of conventional female fantasies projecting back to a period one hundred years earlier, produced by women who were still locked up in a “Women’s Weekly” paradigm, aspiring to some pastoral, poodle, upper middle class Jane Austen vision of things.

The women who created these pretty winsome images of femininity, far from being subversive, were still colonized not only by an English class system but also embedded in a pre-feminist world where a woman’s place was clearly demarcated.
Stalker argues that simply allowing women the time to create these works and the fact that they perhaps altered some of the pre-set colours, amounts to a form of defiance.

That seems a bit of a stretch. The real revolution in this area was happening elsewhere and long before in the work of women like the feminist Dadaist, Hannah Hock and the abstract modernist, Sonia Delaunay. As well, during the Russian Revolution, a number of female embroiderers worked on pieces, in a Constructivist style, that attempted to align art and craft with the politics of the period.

Stalker does well to alert us to the historical context of embroidery work via this exhibition, although as one visitor to the show remarked in the comment book, is this research or simply stating the obvious.

A measure of how far we have really travelled in this field in this country is to note that among New Zealand guilds there still persists a strong pull that discourages too much adventure outside the conventional boundaries of the craft.


Deborah Cain said...

Enjoyed reading your review Peter, you raise some very important points that seem to be missing from the exhibition. What concerns me is the lack of reference to Rozsika Parker's 1984 discussion & book: 'The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine'. As an aside, and in line with a point made by Ozenfant in 1931 about the breakdown of the art hierarchies between applied & fine arts, Parker mentions Sophie Tauber as introducing the painter Jean Arp to embroidery and notes that Arp's contribution to the 1st issue of a Dada magazine, July 1917was an embroidery! ...Altho' stereotypically dismissive of it as "outside culture", Tauber & Arp did utilize the medium to good effect to subvert set traditions, and so have many others since.

Also there is no mention By Stalker of other work attached to the exhibition blurb, for example, of Rosemary McLeod's book 'Thrift to Fantasy', which covers similar territory. This is a surprise given this is an academic research project making claims about women's work. Yet the Weekend Herald's [29/3/08] story in Canvas Magazine on the professionalizing of Op shops can refer to several other academic studies in the field.

At Te Tuhi gallery there is an installation in the current show 'Land Wars', where the Australian Pat Hoffie includes local craft work: 131 knitted & crocheted blankets. Hoffie acknowledges the contribution of the guild in the adjacent wall text, where the blankets sit piled up like cargo in a container ship, and represents the plight of the 131 Afghani refugees from the Tampa.

History & a nod in reference to prior sources is not a hard thing to do. It seems as if this Hamilton exhibition is re-inventing/discovering the stitching-wheel, and calling it subversive.

Lesley Turner said...

These repeatedly worked motifs of the anonymous female with wide hips standing amongst flowers and trees warrants closer analysis. Have voiceless disenfranchised women in the 19th & 20th centuries subversively stitched the Earth Mother/Life Cycle narrative?