Done? Who’d you think of? Michelangelo. Rembrandt, maybe. Leonardo Da Vinci. Maybe even Andy Warhol. Names we all know, names that are synonymous with ‘art’ itself. But it doesn’t take much to recognize the glaring commonality among these illustrious individuals. They’re all (white) men.
The fact that women’s art has been erased from our consciousness isn’t an accident. On the contrary, it’s a result of years of devaluation. Domestic and textile handicrafts have always seen high female participation — not for any innate ‘biological’ tendency, but because it was one of the only areas of art women were allowed/encouraged to participate in. Largely confined to managing the home, women formed small knitting or quilting groups where they explored the craft, shared grievances, and connected with one another.
However, these pursuits were never considered equal to the awe-inspiring paintings and sculptures men created. After all, quilting, sewing, and embroidery were associated with the ‘home’, and by default, the always weaker ‘feminine.’
It was in the 1960s, with the rise of radical feminism, that this hierarchy was first challenged. Feminist artists worked to elevate ‘women’s art’ to the level of ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art, leveraging it as a means to communicate female experience and disrupt the status quo.
Take for instance Faith Ringgold, who used ‘narrative quilts’ to tell stories — of growing up during the Harlem Renaissance, her experiences of racism as an adult, and the glaring absence of African American women in the art world.
In 1972, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, co-founders of the CalArts Feminist Art Program, put together Womanhouse — a feminist art installation and performance space. The month-long exhibit gave 21 feminist artists the opportunity to present and perform work about stereotypically ‘feminine’ tasks and subjects such as scrubbing floors, ironing sheets, crocheting, knitting, makeup, menstruation, and so on. To say this was a landmark would be an understatement — it was a monumental reclamation of what was considered the ‘private’ sphere, and positioned traditional female experiences as those with immense political and subversive potential. By the 1980s, feminist activities related to domestic handicrafts begun to permeate other areas of culture. Examples of needlework appeared in the collections of top fashion designers. ‘Women’s art’ was finally in the mainstream.
Cut to the present, and ‘domestic arts’ are once again having their day in the sun. In an instance of history repeating itself, women once again took to embroidery as a form of protest post Trump’s 2016 win. Female anger was palpable, and stitching seemed to be a good way to not just process this rage, but also display it for the world to see.
Soon after the win, Shannon Downey, a Chicago resident and founder of
Badass Cross-Stitch, got more than 20,000 likes and 8,000 retweets on a photo of her Women’s March protest ‘sign.’ It included a hoop holding fabric that was hand-stitched to read, "I'm so angry I stitched this just so I could stab something 3,000 times" alongside a fist clutching a needle thread.
Her work could be considered part of a larger contemporary movement known as ‘craftivism’. The term was coined by knitter, writer, and artist Betsy Greer back in 2003 — to denote the use of one’s creativity for the greater good. Consider it the realm where craft and activism unite.
At Jurande, we have always believed in the beauty, significance, and power of women’s art. 63% of our products are made by women — individuals with unique life stories and a passion for their indigenous art forms.
Take Zahra for example, who specializes in the knotting technique typical of Marmoucha rugs. She lost her husband in the Gulf War and became the sole provider for her children. Zahra then used the training she received as a little girl from the women in her family, and learnt to knot high-quality rugs. She was soon discovered by the Moroccan Ministry of Artisanship and acquired a quality label; she was also recognized as the ‘best artisan’ in her field.
Here’s what she has to say about working with Jurande:
"We're grateful to work with young women like you - we are normally dependent on the bazaar owners for a living and don't have control over how much we earn. While working with Jurande, you not only encourage us to be creative, but you also help us calculate our wage and charge a fair price for our labour. Thank you."
A day meant to honor the socio-economic, cultural, and political achievements of women felt the most appropriate to celebrate the extraordinary women artisans of Jurande. With every stitch, they are doing more than just creating breathtaking products — they are upholding a legacy of resistance, and continuing to rewrite history.
And we couldn’t be more thankful.
Shamolie is an experienced copywriter and editor. She currently co-manages a team of writers at a leading communications agency in Bangalore, India. Her areas of interest and expertise include women's rights, gender and sexuality studies, and mental health. You can follow her writing in her personal blog - https://bicyclewithoutafish.net.