Naomi Purvis discusses how arts and crafts can be an incredibly powerful tool of protest and activism in the right hands.
Today, activism and protests are something we find ourselves familiar with in response to controversies surrounding subjects such as politics, human rights and societal changes. Where many may resort to physical protesting or violent behaviour, others are using their talents for craft as a way of portraying their own voice.
Craftivism, as it’s referred to, combines the maker’s skill and opinions to create a much more peaceful approach to protest. On the outside, craft practices may be seen as a feminine hobby with little or no meaning to them. However, they are in fact the opposite. Makers create art works not only with great skill, but with accompanying passion and personal opinions which ultimately give the work a deeper meaning and story behind it.
In the past, activism may have been considered a rebellious response to controversy with violent actions. Posters and signage used for protesting purposes had a similar look to general advertising, using bold fonts to convey their messages in which that could be easily read. In contrast, craftivism artists create beautiful artworks to portray similar meanings but in a much more appealing and peaceful way.
Not only are craftivists making their mark on political and social affairs, they also have a strong presence on online marketplaces such as Etsy as well as a dedicated following on social media. This growing interest in the practice encourages discussion, whereas activism in the past was regarded as much more aggressive, which resulted in people shutting down at any mention of controversy. By encouraging conversation, craftivists are promoting discussion of controversial topics and allowing people to freely express their thoughts and opinions as well as showcase their skill. This step towards a more peaceful approach to protesting could be the positive change we need in today’s society.
Examples of practices that could be used as craftivism include embroidery, crochet, knitting, papercraft and painting. It is also an all-inclusive approach to protesting, with no discrimination towards any who may practice it. It provides a voice for people who may be more introverted but still have their own thoughts and opinions they want to share. It allows people from all walks of life to have the opportunity to participate in their own way and contribute to a much larger outcome.
Where many who participate in craftivism work alone, start-ups such as the Craftivist Collective give those interested a community in which they can share their work alongside other likeminded people. The Craftivist Collective, founded by award-winning campaigner Sarah Corbett, state that ‘craftivism aims to provoke a respectful conversation instead of aggression and division’. Their website describes the collective as ‘an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafted works to help themselves and encourage others be the positive change they wish to see in the world’ (craftivistcollective.com, 2018).
Although, using craft practices as an activism technique is not an entirely new concept. For example, suffragettes used banners when protesting during WW2. They used their needlework skills and craftmanship to create hand-made banners used in rallies and processions to showcase their response to the political, social and economic events during the war period. They used their femininity as an aid to help them fight for a right that was at the time only seen as a masculine action. Although many suffragettes used their voices, others would have found release by powering their thoughts and energy into creating these banners, resulting in powerful messages being crafted by needlework fuelled with opinions. In 1987 in San Francisco, American gay rights activist Cleve Jones created a memorial quilt for those who had died of AIDS and established the NAMES Project Foundation. The aim of the quilt was not only to show respect and commemorate those who had died of the disease, but to educate people of the devastating impact it can have. Today the quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic, with over 48,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels all sewn together by friends, lovers and family members of those affected. The quilt is an example of combining a memorial act with both education and craft in a way which draws attention to a social and societal epidemic. It enabled people of all walks of life affected by the same issue to come together and work on a project in which they could release their thoughts and emotions and create a work of art.
A more recent example of craftivism can be seen at any anti-Trump protest in the form of knitted bobble hats. Whereas many choose to respond to political events with aggression, those creating the bobble hats participate in a much subtler way, although in no means with any less drive. From the outside they would most likely go unnoticed at a protest, with attention instead being drawn to those protesting in less peaceful ways. Despite their quiet approach their message stays the same. These makers still have a voice they want to be heard but do so in a way which causes no direct backlash or upset. They’re simply using their thoughts and opinions to create art with great meaning.
So, what can we learn from this new age form of protesting? Should we all channel our inner thoughts and feelings and express ourselves through some form of art? In a world that’s full of such negativity, embracing craftivism as a positive response to controversy could be the way forward in encouraging people to discuss their opinions instead of resorting to violence.