athena and her loom: crafting for change

Sometimes I get in a serious crafting mood, like if I don’t make something with my hands soon, my overloaded brain will collapse. This happens when I’ve been spending too much time on work that’s based on analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making, when my eyes are bugging out from typing and reading spreadsheets or marginalia, and when my neck is nearly frozen from stress and intense focus. My brain feels like it’s made up of all hard lines and sharp edges that will keep filling up my skull like Tetris pieces until my head explodes.

Because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on goddess archetypes in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (and, clearly, am a little bit of a dork), I like to think of this kind of experience as my Athena problem. The Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena appears to be all about the mind and the shield, and she even sprang fully formed and covered in armor from the head of Zeus. So when I feel her dragging her sword around in my head, I have to subdue her before she busts out with that Gorgon-covered shield and I’m stuck with her battles forever.

What most people don’t know, however, is that she’s also the goddess of weaving. Yep, wisdom, war, and weaving. She invented the horse-driven chariot but also the loom, which is a reminder that one shouldn’t just be an archetype but a well-rounded, multi-dimensional person. So I subdue her by pulling out her spinning wheel, and next thing I know the armor’s hidden under a pile of warm, smelly wool and she’s humming along to her tapping foot.

The Triumph of Minerva: March, from the Room of the Months, detail of the weavers, Francesco del Cossa

The Triumph of Minerva: March, from the Room of the Months, detail of the weavers, Francesco del Cossa

I taught myself to knit from a book about ten years ago when feminists were starting to reclaim the crafts of their grandmothers as a way to redefine what had always been seen as “women’s work.” I’d never really been into crafting before that; it was easy to write it off as an old-fashioned activity for housewives or something. But crafts like knitting were real work. Women knitted and sewed to provide clothing for their families, and they often stitched in groups, where they would support, empower, and inspire each other. If only someone would unearth an old text describing the cultural revolutions that sprouted in stitching circles. For some, of course, crafting was, and is, a livelihood.

I was the laziest knitter for a long time, making only simple projects and leaving them half-finished on a shelf for months. But then I discovered what an antidote knitting is to over-thinking, so now I dig my hands into soft skeins of yarn in many colors and feel sufficiently soothed. There’s something very zen about knitting: the measured click of bamboo needles, slow unraveling of a ball of yarn, trance-like feeling of falling into a pattern.

Pinterest has helped me branch out into other crafts. I’ve fashioned beaded bracelets and necklaces with rope, embroidery floss, and hex nuts. I’ve found new uses for the fabric scraps and triangles left over from my great grandmother’s quilting bin. I’ve recycled old seed catalogues by decoupaging magnets and boxes. I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest. I get ravenous for ideas on how to craft with random things found around my house and in my yard, and it makes me feel very self-sustainable and accomplished. Also, as a writer who has written so much that no one will ever see, it’s a relief to finish a project that’s meant to be shared, and it’s particularly satisfying in an ever-pixelated world.

In fact, crafting is very much about community. I love feeling more connected to history, to the women who came before me, to a handmade life. Crafting, especially with materials found in nature or repurposed from thrift stores or your home, can be a good antidote to corporate industry and overconsumption. There’s a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, which chronicles the stories of women in twelve countries who turned their lives around by making and selling traditional handicrafts. Then there’s Knitting Behind Bars, which started knitting circles with male prisoners in Maryland, a project that transformed how the men saw themselves and each other. Reading about it will fill your crusty, old heart with joy.

I propose we draw up a new Athena. Perhaps she’s got a skein of yarn attached to her belt or a pair of needles stuffed in the Gorgon’s mouth. We need some way to remember that sometimes she takes off her armor and settles down with a mug of nettle tea and a basket of wool. Sometimes she drops her sword and just crafts the revolution.

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for further exploration: music, art, film, and creative solutions

The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.

More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)

Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.

From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.

Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace. 


expanding the “beloved community”

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US, so I want to point you to some excellent creative work being done to change power relations in different parts of the world. King was adamant about recognizing how injustices around the world are connected, reminding us that the “destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”

No matter where you are in the world, decide today to make your work less insular. Find similar groups in other countries, explore art from a different continent, and notice how the same themes resonate. Paying attention to what people are doing on the ground thousands of miles away can change the way you see your community, your work, and the world.

First, reconciliation through music! Drumming is traditionally a male activity in Rwanda, but twenty women, both Hutu and Tutsi, came together to form Ingoma Nshya, a powerful drum ensemble spreading a message of healing. These are women who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and they came to the group  with no musical background. Now they play all over the world and have even performed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo several times.

Next, Mary Sibande is a South African artist working in Johannesburg. Her mixed media installations feature Sophie, Sibande’s alter ego, a domestic worker whose fantasy world reveals the queen inside. In numerous countries, women of color are seen primarily as domestic workers, but Sophie shows us layers and depths that cannot be ignored. Full of life and energy, Sibande’s work demands attention, and Sophie’s shocking blue dress stays with me, as though printed right on the brain. I love them all, but particularly Her Majesty Queen Sophie and I’m a Lady.

Finally, New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas‘s paintings explore female identity and redefine beauty. Her colorful, pulsing work makes me want to dance, and, in fact, she did the cover art for Solange’s EP True. She’s inspired by the kind of women she grew up around, especially her mother, saying, “It’s what I know and what I respect—someone who believes in herself and stands her ground, who doesn’t act according to what society deems as acceptable and expresses herself, her sexuality, her femininity.” Thomas uses the afro to represent that kind of empowered energy and rhinestones to question beauty standards. I love her 2008 album; A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2 and Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue are standouts.

So whose work are you celebrating today? What other artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, crafters, and the like infuse their work with themes of justice, equality, freedom, peace, and love? How are you growing your beloved community?

 


for further exploration: los muxes, street harassment, and frieze

Jesusa by Nicola Ókin Frioli

Jesusa by Nicola Ókin Frioli

It’s that time where we take a look at a few things we should learn more about, so let’s have at it.

I am obsessed with this collection of photographs from Nicola Ókin Frioli. Los muxes, gay men in the Mexican town of Juchitán, are beloved by the community. Families consider them a blessing, a good luck charm. They drink, work, and legislate in traditional Oaxacan dress: flower-embroidered blouses, brightly colored skirts, and scarves wound through long hair. Yet another reason I should figure out how to retire to Oaxaca.

When the subject of street harassment comes up, people usually argue about how best to deal with it. I’ve tried ignoring it, yelling back, giving the finger, and looking straight at them to ask why they think it’s okay to talk to women that way. David Cross has a hilarious joke about what these men might be thinking when they holler at us, but what I really want to direct you to are two women’s artistic responses to street harassment. In City of Brotherly Love, Hannah Price photographed Philadelphia men just after they harassed her. She captures an interesting moment; some guys look uncomfortable with the lens on them, while others don’t seem to care. Likewise, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh captioned her drawings of women with the things she wanted to tell harassers and then hung the posters around Brooklyn. They sparked a community conversation as people scribbled their thoughts in the blank spots.

Finally, Frieze Week–with two major art fairs and countless gallery openings–just happened in London, and it highlighted more African artists than the city had ever seen. Included as a Frieze Master was feminist artist Nil Yalter. Yalter’s photographs, drawings, paintings, and installations typically focus on aspects of the lives of women and immigrants.


celebrating transgender art

It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.

Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.

In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.

I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.

Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?

I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.

Artists

Musicians

Filmmakers and Theatre Artists

  • Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
  • Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions:  produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
  • D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)

Films

  • Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
  • Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
  • Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
  • Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.

Novels

  • Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
  • Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
  • Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
  • Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”

for further exploration: frida’s love letters, playwright amy wheeler, feminist comics, artist larissa sansour

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Badass Frida Kahlo in a family photo

A few things you should know about before you take this day any further:

  • Frida Kahlo is one of my ultimates. Every move the woman made was pure art–paintings, clothing, homes, relationships, politics. Given the amount of physical and emotional trauma she faced, it’s amazing that she insisted on seeing life through so much color instead of turning to darkness. It turns out that she could have been a damn fine poet too.  Somehow I had no idea that there were facsimiles of her diaries floating around (see The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, but, look, I hate to link to Amazon, so see if you can find it somewhere else). From this book, Brainpickings offers a few images of Frida’s letters to her husbandDiego Rivera, and they are divine. Here’s a peak [capitalization hers]:

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

Reminds me of Pablo Neruda. Did they inspire each other? Someone research this and write a lovely essay on it.

 

“I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.”

 

  • Warning bells go off in my head and my belly immediately begins stoking dragon fire whenever I hear, “I’m a feminist, but….” Comics are safer than dragon fire, however, so feast your eyes on The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism. I’m not going to pretend not to notice that the afterward comes from the controversial Hugo Schwyzer, but don’t let it stop you from at least taking a look. It’s poignant and clever.

 

“The issue of women’s rights is not only necessary to address for its own sake, but also because it opens a magnitude of questions as to how we perceive reality and why it is important to question the very system by which our humanity is constructed and by how we perceive things.


indignadas: women, art, and protest

Indignadas: June 2013. Turkey María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: June 2013, Turkey
María María Acha-Kutscher

The Woman in Red. She’s become the symbol of protests in Turkey, and the image is fitting: approximately half of the protestors in Turkey are female. And much of what they oppose is Prime Minister Erdoğan’s attempts to exclude women from public spaces by failing to address violence against women, declaring that women should have three children, and promoting abortion restrictions. What better response than to fill these spaces with women who refuse to leave?

Women were instrumental in Egypt’s protests, and they faced frequent sexual harassment and assault–the most chilling approach to keeping women from the public sphere. Look at gender-based violence as a cultural problem, it’s clear that intimate partner violence reflects the idea of women as property, while street harassment and assault serve to keep women from public spaces, to reassert male ownership of the public sphere. Still, Egyptian women continue to fill Tahrir Square, protesting with their voices and their bodies.

And their art. Art has always been central to protest, from creative chants and protest songs that unite marchers and amplify their voices to papier-mâché puppets and performance art calling attention to the protestors’ message. Of course, protest also inspires art that captures the moment and goes beyond the street.

Indignadas (Outraged Women) is a series of images of women in public protests. The first stage focused on Spain, while the second stage, which began this June, expands the project to record the acts of women from around the world. María María Acha-Kutscher, a Peruvian artist based in Spain, turns photographs from witnesses into drawings.

In her own words, “[t]he aim of Indignadas series is to make visible, claim and place the woman at the center of this social struggle. A memory register to remind future generations that social changes throughout history were made by women and men together.”

Indignadas: 25s 2012. Alrededores del Congreso, Madrid María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: 25s 2012. Alrededores del Congreso, Madrid
María María Acha-Kutscher

What makes this project truly stand out is Acha-Kutscher’s insistence on women’s bodies as “support for the political message” instead of objects for the male gaze. This conscious attempt to reconsider women’s bodies in art and in the public sphere reflects a critical understanding of the way that women protest with their bodies by simply existing in public spaces.

Women and girls are so often told where not to go. We are blamed when attacked in certain areas because we were in places not meant for us. But by being present in those places, we claim them. On Sunday, July 1, 2013, more than two years after the Arab Spring, at least 46 women protestors were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. Men keep attacking them, but women keep appearing, linking arms, and raising their voices.

They know that avoiding these public spaces does not necessarily make women safer. It only exacerbates the problem, completely turning the public sphere over to men and keeping women confined. These protestors act on behalf of all women, risking their own physical safety to demand real and lasting bodily integrity.

Their sacrifice should not be forgotten. You can contribute photographs to Indignadas by sending images along with the date and location to  mariamaria@antimuseo.org. Minimum size (horizontal or vertical): 450X650 pixels. Maximum size (horizontal or vertica): 750X950 pixels.

Indignadas: June 2013. Brazil María María Acha-Kutscher

Indignadas: June 2013, Brazil
María María Acha-Kutscher