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Steps Towards Decolonizing Craft

By Aram Han Sifuentes, who uses a needle and thread as her tools to examine immigration, citizenship, race and craft. She has exhibited, performed, and demonstrated her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Wing Luke Museum of Asian Pacific American Experience; Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum; Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; and the Chicago Cultural Center. (This article will appear in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the TSA members newsletter, coming soon to TSA members, join now to be sure to get link to the full newsletter.)

Craft artists have a long history of looking elsewhere for inspiration. This becomes problematic when considering the baggage of our colonial gaze. Oftentimes, the crafts of other people are primitivized, fetishized, appropriated, stolen, and stripped of their context. In our language, overtly and subtly, we assert our baggage (history, values, cultural hierarchies) onto other cultures. Recently, the deeply-rooted colonialist frameworks of craft have just begun to fracture. It is our job to break open the cracks and continue to question, reveal, and abandon the colonialist spine upon which the craft discourse is built. It must be ruptured.[1] A new decolonized perspective must be built.

Protest Banner Lending Library by Aram Han Sifuentes with collaborators: Verónica Casado Hernández, Ishita Dharap, and Tabitha Anne. Library’s temporary location Feb – May 18, 2017 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: eedahahm

This text is a beginning of an important and long conversation. It is entirely based on my personal observations navigating the fiber world as an artist of color, trying to put into words the negative gut reactions I’ve had over the years. It is important to acknowledge that witnessing and experiencing cultural colonialism is damaging and traumatic for people of color. The observations and reflections here are honest and vulnerable.

Symptoms of cultural colonization are not isolated from one another but rather bleed into and layer themselves in complex ways. In this way, they are oftentimes hard to identify and decode while at the same time being obvious to those who have been colonized. In this text, I’ve decided to abandon pointing the finger to start a conversation that allows us all to come together and work toward decolonizing craft.

Steps Towards Decolonizing Craft: The Initial Hard Stages

How do we rupture this colonialist perspective prevalent in our discourse?

Phase 1: Rupture

What is the rupture? It is the breakdown and rejection of strategies and symptoms of cultural colonization. I experience unsettling pushback every time I call someone out on a colonialist perspective with accusations that I’m too sensitive or eager to “pull out my pitchfork.” We cannot make allowances for discriminatory practices. We must confront ourselves and each other. Rupture happens when we are responsible for ourselves and each other.

Step 1: Let’s not contextualize others’ crafts and culture with our own history. Let’s stand against making the histories of others invisible. Let’s not assert our histories, values, and hierarchies onto others.

The distinction between craft and art is, in and of itself, a Western concept and a symptom of cultural colonization. We must reject the values and hierarchies asserted to differentiate craft and art.

The imposition of the colonizer’s culture is well told by the Gee’s Bend quilts, which were stripped of their history and context to be branded as abstract painting. They aren’t paintings. Gee’s Bend quilts have a complex history of their own that deserves to be honored.

This can also happen across art disciplines. When a painter takes on textile processes and presents them as paintings, they are stripping away the histories of our medium to assert their own values, rendering our histories invisible.

Step 2: Let’s avoid fetishizing traditional crafts and their practitioners. We must reject simplistic representations of people. We must first abandon our understanding of the words “traditional” and “contemporary.” Traditional is often understood as old and ancient and contemporary as new and modern. There are contemporary practitioners of traditional crafts—hence these two words are not binary; they coexist. Contemporary should not serve as a synonym for Western. These distinctions are made so that “contemporary artists” can appropriate from “traditional artisans” without citing them or their work.

We must reject modernist notions that the “primitive other” creates from an uncorrupted and natural human creativity. We must reject the fantasy that traditional crafts have been the same way for thousands of years. Crafts in all cultures, including our own, are taught from one person to the next and transform because of multiple factors. Not the least of which are changes in technology, materials, techniques, trends, style, aesthetics, market, etc. Traditional crafts are not encapsulated in time.

Step 3: We are not saviors. We are guests—often mere tourists. Let’s be appreciative of what people offer and remember where it comes from and that it isn’t ours.

What is the language of the benign colonizer? We cannot speak for a culture or community and think we understand an entire people when we are “in residence” for a week, a month, a year, and so on. We must never forget our own agency and privilege. We are guests and must comport ourselves this way. If we choose to create an exchange, it is our responsibility to make it equitable. These terms apply cross-culturally and also can apply to social practices when we enter communities within our own society that we are not a part of.

Step 4: Language has always been an instrumental tool in cultural colonialization. Let’s be precise in our language.

Let’s reject applying such words as discover, rescue, elevate, and contemporize to a practice and culture that are not our own.

Labor vs. Leisure Too many times do I hear a fiber artist talk about their work being about labor because their artwork took a really long time to make. This does not make one’s work about labor. Rather, I argue that oftentimes it is about leisure—that one has the choice to commit a large amount of time to making one’s art.

Other words and names to reevaluate alongside contemporary and traditional include: ritual vs. habitual, spiritual and meditative vs. zoning out, artisan vs. artist, labor vs. work, or even the “French” knot.

Phase 2: Equity and Agency

How do we create other narratives that are built on decolonized perspectives?

Step 1: At all stages of a project, ask the question: who has the power? Power is equated with but not limited to authority, social status, money, agency, and fame. And let’s equalize power to the best of our ability. We must break the cycle of exploitive practices.

Step 2: Workers should always be visible.

Let’s never make people and their work invisible. If people are hired or participate in a project, their names should all be acknowledged wherever the work is exhibited, reproduced, and discussed. This acknowledgement is not an artistic benevolence but a necessity if we’re genuinely committed to the politics of labor.

Step 3: Support examples of decolonized practices from people of color. Open spaces for inclusion in our fine art spaces, galleries, museums, and publications for artists whose work is often marginalized as “mere craft” or more generously referred to as “inspirational artisans.”

Let’s support the decolonized practices of artists, curators, and writers of color in our field. I’ve started a list on a Google Document and invite all to add names to this ongoing list.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hQeYACNmuBLMbCLs87YUQ2EW2l-6a5EmvUfNBrOVIuY/edit?usp=sharing

[1] Word and attitude inspired by http://contemptorary.org/ writers Gelare Khoshgozaran and Eunsong Kim