TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Politics in the World of Fiber

I have been reading Obama's books, given to me by my Auntie Nyla. I finished "Dreams from My Father" and am about half way through "The Audacity of Hope". I would have voted for him even before reading the books, but now I feel even better about him. Only six months older than me, much of his experience as an organizer in Chicago coincided with the work I was doing at the same time in social service. While he worked in Black neighborhoods, I was mostly on the North side working with Latinos and mixed populations.

I also identify closely with his search for identity, growing up in such a mixed and multicultural environment. I was raised in Brazil (1962-1980), mostly in Maringa, Parana, a pre-planned city that grew out of new immigrants and settlers. My parents were Lutheran missionaries to a German congregation, my best friend was Japanese, another friend down the street was from Lebanon, my brother's best friend was of Italian descent, and many of our friends descended from African slaves mixed with Dutch colonialists, French, and so on. I was always perceived as an American. Then, when returning to the United States and going straight into a white, Lutheran school, St. Olaf College, where almost everyone looked like me, I experienced a terrific culture shock. My natural disposition connected me like a magnet to the other international or foreign students. Over the years, I continued to feel more comfortable with people who had either spent time overseas or who were from other countries. My father told me as a teenager, "You will be able to live anywhere, but will never be at home anywhere." How visionary of him!

Now, living in the South, it is almost like being in another country, or at least it feels more similar to the Brazil I grew up in. Time moves more slowly, values of friendship and family continue to have priority as compared to the constant rush of the city. Thinking about all of this, has brought back images of art, political debate, culture, and dissent that has had an impact on me in the past. I thought I would reflect a bit on this for today's post.

From Wikipedia:

Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. The term is generally applied to behavior within civil governments, but politics has been observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions. Politics consists of "social relations involving authority or power"[1] and refers to the regulation of a political unit, [2] and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.[3]

From Artworld Salon, article on dissent.

So, art relating to politics usually gets our attention when it comes in the form of dissent or protest. Several famous people and political leaders have declared dissent as a core pillar of democracy:

Evelyn Beatrice Hall: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. (paraphrasing Voltaire)
George Orwell: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
Harry S Truman: Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
John F. Kennedy: Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed -- and no republic can survive.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
Mohandas K. Gandhi: Non-cooperation is a measure of discipline and sacrifice, and it demands respect for the opposite views.

Words have always had a powerful effect on my thinking. I remember very few of them, but retain the impact of what I read, if that makes any sense at all. I do remember some t-shirts and posters that were big twenty years ago:

  • We are the strangers our mothers warned us against.
  • Join the army. Travel to exotic places, meet interesting people and then kill them.
  • Nuke the gay whales for Jesus.
Syracuse Cultural Workers is one of the long-time suppliers of posters, t-shirts, buttons, and popular dissent tools for activists in issues concerning social justice. Here are some of their posters:

Che Guevara was one of our heroes when I was growing up in Brazil. Just the image of his face was enough to convey a whole system of thought. Thus, images have even more potential for moving people out of complacency into action.

What I am showing here is pretty tame compared to what is out there. Sometimes, a message can backfire when it is so in-your-face that the viewer becomes turned off and shuts down whatever feeling of empathy might have been had. I think this can happen with images of extreme hunger or war. Humor often works really well for me. Monty Python's "In Search of the Holy Grail" is loaded with wonderful jabs at society. This little piece finds King Arthur in an argument with a peasant. It's even subtitled!

My favorite political satire site, Jib Jab, can be pretty raunchy sometimes, but I think they nail the big issues of the day on the head. Here's one from their site:

It's interesting to look at some of their older ones and realize how quickly much of what is debated in the public arena becomes obsolete so quickly. This is certainly a challenge when an artist decides to address political ideas through his or her work. In examining and recording the decision-making process between those who have power and those who don't, artists interpret history and society from their own unique perspective. Fiber mediums, especially, demand both an enormous time commitment and a viewing platform that are more accessible to other art forms. Historically, the elite have had access to the materials and the time to either execute or commission tapestries, weavings, embroidery, or other fiber work that recorded political events, thus also controlling the message of the piece. This video of the Bayeux Tapestry has been animated and edited to show some action, but look at the size of this thing! 230 feet long! The poor king loses his head in the end...

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux) is a 50 cm by 70 m (20 in by 230 ft) long embroidered cloth which explains the events leading up to the 1066 Norman invasion of England as well as the events of the invasion itself. The Tapestry is annotated in Latin. It is presently exhibited in a special museum in Bayeux, Normandy, France. (Wikipedia)

There is also the ephemeral quality of fiber art. Perhaps there were more reactive pieces that have not survived the passages of time. In more recent history, we have documentation of fiber artists who have told their own stories from their perspective, given coded messages, or profited from political movements. Quilts played an important role during slavery, giving hidden messages to runaways about whether a house was safe on the underground railroad or how to proceed from there.
After the Vietnam War, the Hmong recorded their escape through embroidered Story Cloths. The soldiers, in this case, are good guys, helping them out of harm's way.

Baluchi rug makers began making war rugs to celebrate the defeat of the Russian invasion in the 1970's. These became so popular and collectible, that they now make 9/11 rugs and war rugs with a US theme, some pro, some against, and some just for the sure sale to soldiers and tourists.

Political symbolism comes and goes. The images and text that endure are ones that hit upon universal truths. Obama speaks in his books about the complexity of issues and the difficulty of problem resolution facing our times. His challenge to us all is to build on common ground. It will be interesting to see, if he wins, whether he can take the rhetoric and move it toward workable policies.

Meanwhile, I am especially inspired by artists who address our political problems by offering visions of hope. Hollis Chatelain is one such quilter. I have seen several of her pieces here at the Quilt Museum, and was especially enamored by her huge Tuareg portraits. She uses thread as her color palette, filling up space with machine quilting which can only truly be appreciated when viewing in real life. Many of her quilts are social commentaries, inspiring us towards unity and conservation of resources.

"In February 2002, I dreamed “Hope For our World”. The dream was in purple and Archbishop Tutu was standing in a field. Children from all over the world were approaching him like he was a Pied Piper. The dream seemed to be speaking about World Peace and the Future of our Children. Desmond Tutu represented Hope." Hollis Chatelain

I would love to hear back from the rest of you on what you think the role of art is concerning politics. One article I read about textiles and politics awhile back stated that the general preference is to create "nice" work- flowers, color, pretty scenery, things that don't rock the boat. I like beauty as well as the next person, but I know that when I walk through the Quilt show, the stoppers for me are images that speak about something in a new way. So, is there a place for you in the world of political fiber?


  1. This is one of the best postings I've ever seen in blogland. I am going to make a special mention/link to it from my blog. Thanks, Rachel - you are a superior educator. You should put together a course to teach at your local college.

  2. Another thought provoking post.


  3. Dear Rachel,

    Thank you for writing to me. I loved what you wrote in your blog and am
    honored that you included me. Not only was I interested, but I read the
    entire "Politics in the World of Fiber" and watched all of the u-tube films.
    This was a first for me!! You are a wonderful writer and I will continue to
    check back on your blog regularly.

    Take care,


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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