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Friday, 14 October 2016

Vulva Is Back

Photo by: Fonna Seidu
[Image description: a crochet vulva with golden labia minora, black hairy labia majora a large circular wooden                             clitoris and dark orange canal is pictured on a black and white patterned background.]

Oh hello, how have you been? Blogging hasn't been happening for a while. Life took a spiral in the last year and the decline of mental health resulted in needing to take a serious break to just be. In my meandering process of trying to acknowledge, then care for my mental health I came to a place of accepting that my mental health isn't necessarily a liner trajectory, but rather an oscillating journey in; falling apart into a hot mess, having episodes, identifying my triggers and saying fuck no to em when I can, learning coping strategies, working through and with my traumas, and asking for help among other things. On my growing list of things that matter to my mental health, writing is right there kicking it with crochet. So here we are again returning to the culmination of those worlds. I hope you too are working on life wellness recipes as you can, your robust health needs always matter. Despite mental health oscillations, things have still been happening! So for the next little while I'll be sharing some of the happenings of the last year.

In September of 2015 fellow artist, best friend, travel buddy, and work wife Fonna Seidu and I teamed up to participate in the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) university. We submitted a collaborative art piece, that anyone could contribute to, to broaden the perspective of what a vulva is or isn't. Our thoughts in this installment were that collaboration has been a tool of thriving and communal-determination through the many historical and contemporary facets of violence that are realities to black brown and indigenous people. Collaboration affirms our struggles, sustains our existence, and recreates collective ways of being. In the context of this project collaboration broadens perspective; learning from multiple experiences, and expands beyond the idea that vulvas are only symbols of womanhood, and are only for sexual consumption and reproduction. We got over 100 notes and pieces of art work that reflected just that! I'll share a few in the weeks to come, so keep locked for that. Here is an interview of us about our art installment.

Vulva Is Exhibit at FAC 2015
Photo by: @justineabigail

[Image description: four large images of crochet vulvas are posted on a white wall. Along the wall are smaller art works in response to the question: what is/isn't a vulva to you?]

A number of the artists participating in FAC are engaged with acts of alternative archiving as a means of reclaiming histories and ensuring multi-vocality. As a relatively new organization, the Feminist Art Conference itself is also engaged in continual self-archiving.

What, for you, is the power of the archive for BIPOCS (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour)?

F: The key thing is that our art is created from an insider’s perspective and is intentionally created to revamp the common media narrative (stereotypes, half truths and occasional success stories) with our own perspectives.

T: Historically, “non-western” art has been collected and assimilated into categories of for-profit, scientific value, or aesthetic. The art of people who create on the margins is constituted as evidence of prehistoric people, as prized for strangeness or curiosity, as taxonomic typology, or as personal collection (Clifford, 1988). In that regard the messaging and essence of our art is continuously framed within the domain of capitalism and white supremacy, and represented through a bounded ‘primitive, less authentic art’ category. When using social media outlets, we are the curators of our own realities. In editing and posting our own pics or using hashtags (seemingly simple things), we are telling our own stories in the exact way we choose to represent them. It is intentional, it is powerful. We are telling a very specific story of our lived experiences instead of having other people create/curate stories about us.

How does our growing internet and DIY culture lend itself to the formation of alternative archives?

F: DIY is all I had. At home we had scraps of paper or fabric, glue, incomplete sets of crayons/markers/pencil crayons, to make art (a collage or a quilt, for example). My art, as it developed, has always been made with mismatched and borrowed tools. In the past, DIY/crafting books that I found in the library would only feature white folks but I knew that I needed BlPOC representation. Now that I have access to internet, I found folks that look like me who are actively creating tutorials and instructions on art-making!

T: For our piece, regarding collaboration, borrowing resources from people we know or the environment, and sharing our stories is collaboration. If collabo didn’t exist it would affect how we do or don’t make art. In that regard it’s DIT (do it together), because of the endless collaboration that is integral to the process of making art and growing in our artist practice.

Additionally, the difference between putting our stuff on social media ourselves and mainstream media putting our work up is that we are teaching others and receiving the credit. It is pretty gross that we live in a reality where simply getting credit for the work we have always done (and shifting away from the theft and appropriation that sustains museums for example) is considered “alternative”. Shame.

Though the intersection of craft and political activism has various historical precedents, the 21st century has witnessed an explosive union between the two.

What is it, for you, that renders craft mediums — knitting, quilting, crocheting, etc.  — so conducive to radical political intent?

F: My interest in knitting came from a childhood babysitter. Living in the hood, my babysitter would often take care of us and one day she was showing us a baby hat that she crocheted with a pen lid! The resourcefulness of that astounded me. She didn't feel shame about the using pen lid, she was proud. It is radical in and of itself - not using products from the store - that stuck with me.

T: I crochet a scarf for me and my friend because we had no money to buy a scarf, or I share the skill + material resources with a friend so they can make whatever they need. I am finding alternative ways to sustain myself and community that doesn’t rely on capital consumption. So the ways that people choose to use craft mediums is intentional - eg. Educational, healing, meditative, looking fly, survival or whatever. For me crochet is geographically contextual - linked to the history of the land and people. 

I’ve beeeeeen teaching crochet, and still when I walk into a class or workshop I’m never instantly recognized as the person with the knowledge. Especially in white middle-income spaces where I have taught, people are always surprised when I introduce myself as the teacher. In this North- American context, the deeply racialized, age-based understanding of weaving and textiles plays outs. Who is understood to be an artist, and who is not. Being a crochet teacher on this land challenges lots of stereotypes of who crochets and who doesn’t , who is understood to have knowledge and who doesn’t, who can hold power in a space and who can’t.

I crochet vulvas. It challenges a highly cissexist/sexist reality that both vulvas and textiles are docile, not threatening, homebound things that ‘only belong to women’ and maintain other people's comfort. In my practice I have noticed that representing the complex relationships to and realities of vulvas makes people uncomfortable.  Using an art and representing a type of genitalia that has been socialized as ‘only belonging  to women’ that is based on a narrative that extends beyond the binary of femininity and womanhood is a paradox that sometimes confuses and makes people uncomfortable.

When I’m back home crochet is about bonding and grounding myself. I hang with my aunts and older women crocheting doilies for the house. In these craft jams I get to hear stories, past and present - I reconnect and I belong. This is particularly important to me being a diaspora baby born of immigrant parents. Politically, because of histories of colonization and economic imperialism I am physically removed from my lineage and ancestral land. These are my people and this is our land, we are doing radical arts together because we are challenging basic white supremacist ideology that we are the ‘other’ and do not belong.

Speaking further on intent, have you found any difference in how people react or connect to your work?

T: At first I only made brown coloured vulvas, primarily because of a lack of BIPOC representation. More recently I started making an array of colours, because non-poc’s couldn’t relate to the lived racial experiences I was talking about. I felt uncomfortable with the idea that the stories of brown vulvas were being white washed to express meanings that reflect the lives of non-poc’s. On the other hand, having an array of differently coloured vulvas has taken on a new meaning - it created a space where people could create and re-imagine stories about bodies. Like, what does a purple sparkly mohair vulva mean?

Responses vary, I’ve seen how white female sex educators have purchased my art to further their own careers and I never get a shout out. It feels like another way white people profit off Black genius, stealing our brilliance and switching up the meaning for their own gain. In these situations I am always left wondering if purchasing our art is in solidarity with artists of colour.

I have been thinking about how point of view affects the ways that people relate to the crochet vulvas. As someone who lives with and identifies as having a vulva, when making them I have chosen to physically position myself on my back, open my legs and use a mirror to see my vulva. But in reality, when in this position without a mirror I can't actually see the entirely of my vulva. All I see is my clitoris, part of my labia minora and the top of my labia majora. In using a mirror I have shifted from reflecting my own personal gaze of my body and instead have served to reflect the gaze of someone looking at my vulva. Similar to a pornographic gaze, I have drawn my audience into a point of view that situates them as onlookers of the vulva. I believe this point of view can easily draw parallels between the fantasy or reality of a sexual position as a voyeurs of the vulva.

F: My photography on Flickr is discovered most often because of the LGBT hashtag on my shots. Recently, a lot of my work has been invited into collections that cis-presenting gay men curate such as “Black Male Strippers - In Action” or “Guys Having Fun”. The pictures that get more responses are of men in the ballroom scene - pictures of women receive little attention and are rarely invited to Flickr collections. Of course I like the exposure for my art, but feeding into the current desirability stereotypes (such as masculine and feminine or tops and bottoms) feels kinda shitty to me.

Works Cited:
Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art.Harvard University Press.