Crafting Space: The Endless Journey of Women (Not) Gaining Recognition in the Art World

Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee, installation view, image courtesy of Met Breuer

By ANA MARIA FARINA, August 2020

In the past few years there has been a great increase in the presence of textiles and craft works within the art world. In New York, three of the main museums have had exhibitions solely focused on crafts in the past year: the Whitney Museum with “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019,” the Museum of Modern Art with “Taking a Thread for a Walk” (both shows are still ongoing); and the Met Breuer with “Phenomenal Nature,” a solo show (first ever in America) of Mrinalini Mukherjee. In the Whitney and Met Breuer exhibitions, the majority of artists selected to be shown were women, which seemed to be a conscious decision, since the same institutions are known to have poorly represented the works of women throughout history (the MoMA apparently continues to consciously do so). However, does showing women’s works, specifically in craft, guarantee that these artists will receive further recognition?

Ever since the feminist movement in the seventies, women have been fighting for a chance to have their labor recognized, labor which includes their practices of embroidery that were once––and still often are––seen and stereotyped as domestic and tamed. The devaluation of women’s labor, according to feminist researcher Silvia Federici, began in the Middle Ages, when women started to be defined as non-workers. During that time, “proletarian women in particular found it difficult to obtain any job other than those carrying the lowest status: as domestic servants (the occupation of a third of the female work-force), farm-hands, spinners, knitters, embroiderers, hawkers, wet nurses[1].” As women were banished from the social and commercial spheres, they became restricted to working within the walls of their homes. It was then that women’s work became a synonym for non-work: if they sewed, knitted, or embroidered, that was considered “domestic work” or “housekeeping,” whereas when a man did the same job it was “productive.” Sadly, this reality is still very true in our contemporary world, and it exists as a consequence of the same sexist intentionality from over five-hundred years ago. In the late fifteenth century, male craft workers came to the point of campaigning to exclude women from workshops; there is evidence that they “petitioned the authorities not to allow women to compete with them, banned them from their ranks, went on strike when the ban was not observed, and even refused to work with men that worked with women[2].” The difference is that today the devaluation of women’s work is so rooted that men do not even need to make the effort of complaining and going on strikes: institutions like museums and academia already do the job of excluding women for them.

 

Erik Bergrin's SHADOWWORK, installation view, Image from the artist's website.

When it comes to the art world, an article by Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns published in ArtNet in September 2019 points out that women artists represent only two percent of the entire market, which happens to be double what they were in the previous decade, but still less than the total sales of Pablo Picasso alone[3]. In another article published in the same month, Halperin and Burns state that only eleven percent of museum acquisitions in the past decade were of works by women[4]while, interestingly enough, women represent about 75% of the student body in art universities[5] (but at the same time are extremely underrepresented when it comes to academic jobs[6]). These numbers show that despite museums advertising shows that are inclusive of women and that “signal publicly that they are embracing alternative histories and working to expand the canon,” their actions show little to no progress[7]. In fact, the number of acquisitions of works by women artists was higher the decade before.

Which brings me to the craft-focused shows at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. The irony is that these museums are exhibiting craft objects to show their inherent value, which was historically unrecognized precisely because these crafts were being made by women and people of color; but who are the works they are showing by? At MoMA, out of fifty-two artists identified in the show (there are fifty-six total but four listed as  “unknown/various”), twenty-seven (almost fifty-two percent) are men, and out of these men, one-hundred percent are white. At the Whitney Museum, the situation is only slightly better: forty-two percent of the works are by men, and six out of twenty-two artists are men of color (they are probably patting themselves on the back for this achievement). Still, the fact that these craft shows, specifically involving textile and fiber work, are trendy actually allows men, who history proves are used to being appropriators of women (and other cultures, if we talk about white men), to see yet another chance to shine. That is, even though craft had been first banned from women, and later––when they created other means to craft as knitting and embroidery while man gained higher positions of power––given back to them as a marginalized signifier of femininity (inferior to “capital-A art”), still when a man chooses to do so he gets the spotlight.

When I visited the Met Breuer’s show of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculptural weavings, I was deeply impacted by the installations. Murkherjee was an Indian artist who worked her entire life in near isolation in India, never having a single show in America until four years after her death. She dedicated her practice to craft techniques, using natural rope (Shani) to create woven forms as monumental sculptures inspired by deities and divinities from Indian mythology, which she grew up observing in temples and shrines, and that is the feeling one has when encountering her work: one of awe, of a sublime, transcendent power.

A few weeks later, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I saw a post by a Native American weaver I admire, and the photo immediately caught my attention because I thought the work was by my now-favorite Mrinalini Mukherjee. When I looked at the caption, however, I discovered these works were by the artist Erik Bergrin, a white American man.

This kind of appropriation seems to me to be done in bad faith. It is difficult to interpret this occurrence as anything other than an exhaustion of his own privilege at the expense of what he considered “exotic.” It is, after all, a great example of what has been overlooked throughout history as something accidental, when it is actually the enrooted engine of the art world’s history of race and gender exclusion. It is like Rozsika Parker wrote in her book The Subversive Stitch: Tracey Emin’s bio had to include the sentence “Her dad quite likes sewing, because it reminds him of his mum” in order to give patriarchal legitimacy to something trivial and feminine such as stitchery.[8]

Crafts, especially fiber and textile works, have been the symbols of both the oppression and liberation of women throughout history. Women stitched when they were banished and oppressed, and then women stitched to resist oppression in times where they had nothing else to turn to, and later women stitched to tell the patriarchal world that their work was worthy of attention and importance, just like any other medium accepted and appraised in the art world. Yet even in the spheres of work that were traditionally forced onto them, they now have to face the “manbroiderers” and “boy crafters” who can and will take advantage of a culture and market that always choose to prioritize men in the name of profit.WM 

[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 92.

[2] Federici, 96.

[3] Charlotte Burns, and Julia Halperin, “Female Artists Represent Just 2 Percent of the Market. Here’s Why—and How That Can Change,” artnet news, September 19, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/female-artists-represent-just-2-percent-market-heres-can-change-1654954.

[4] Charlotte Burns, and Julia Halperin, “Museums Claim They’re Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That’s an Illusion,” artnet news, September 19, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/womens-place-in-the-art-world/womens-place-art-world-museums-1654714.

[5] Jillian Steinhauer, “Tallying Art World Inequality, One Gallery at a Time,” Hyperallergic, March 27, 2014, https://hyperallergic.com/117065/tallying-art-world-inequality-one-gallery-at-a-time/.

[6] According to the website Catalyst, a global nonprofit with the mission of helping organizations accelerate progress for women, women in the United States represent just over half (52.9%) the number of assistant professors and are near parity (46.4%) among associate professors, but they account for barely over a third (34.3%) of all full professors in 2018. The numbers are a lot worse if you are a woman of color: Asian women held 5.3% of tenure-track positions and 3.5% of tenured positions; black women held 3.8% of tenure-track positions and 2.3% of tenured positions; and Latinas held 3.1% of tenure-track positions and 2.6% of tenured positions. Not surprisingly, Catalyst also states that “the growth of people of color in part-time non-tenure track positions grew at a far greater rate (230%) than those in full-time tenure-track positions (30%) over a twenty-year period (1993–2013). “Women in Academia: Quick Take,” Catalyst, Accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-academia/.

[7] Burns, and Halperin, “Museums Claim They’re Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That’s an Illusion.”

[8] Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch (New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019), xvi.

  

Ana Maria Farina

As both an artist and an educator, Ana is interested in experimentation, experiences of release and constraint, expansion and collapse. Her work investigates themes of hysteria and repression of the feminine, as well as the body and identity through the lens of feminist theory and psychoanalysis. Lately, Ana has been exploring the materiality of fibers and textiles, creating sculptural paintings that visually speak what Elaine Showalter called a “feminine protolanguage.”

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