Loading icon

Fiber: How Artists are Reframing Feminism

Arts & Culture | October 12, 2015

A kaleidoscope of colored rope and weaving drips off the wall at Industry Lab in Inman Square. The art piece, resembling a wall blanket, sags and bunches in places, showing the heaviness of the material. An intentional mess of wool, acrylic, and cotton, the art begs you to get closer. Cerulean surrounds lime that knits into fuchsia with rings and bursts of black. The installment is jarring and loud. It arrests you with its exploding combinations of color, ushers you into a space that is filled with the voices of feminist fiber artists.

Industry Lab is a community space—a space where artists, engineers, and creatives gather. Since the beginning of September, the whitewashed gallery has been inhabited by new colors and textures. The show,entitled Feminist Fiber Art, displays piecescreated with yarn, synthetic fibers, and cloth that express feminist ideas. The art itself is tactile, oozing with color, and transforms upon closer inspection. At the gallery, the curators encourage you to touch the art. But even more than being something viewers are meant to physically interact with, this art is meant to push boundaries and start conversations.

The show talks about periods, about breasts, about incest, and about abuse. But italso talks about taking a confident stand as a woman faced with pressures and challenges. One stitched piece reads, “I guess I am not good enough for you. But I am good enough for me. Maybe in time you will change your mind. Until then my perfect boobs and I will be elsewhere.”

Assistant curator Suzanna Petot says that fiber art is a great way to start these conversations because it’s always been a feminist medium:“Women have been doing embroidery work for hundreds of years; it’s always been a domestic craft.”

Fiber art has been a part of the feminist movement since the 70’s. Feminists saw the medium as a way to show that women have always been making art, and wanted to designate a place for it in the world of fine art. “It was a call for action, to go back to the act, to go back to fiber, and to use it to empower women,” Petot explains.

Feminist Fiber Art is curated by Somerville-based visual artist Iris Nectar. The exhibit started in Somerville but is now housed in Cambridge and will continue to travel as Nectar discovers new artistic partnerships and spaces. She hopes it will be shown in Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Portland, Toronto, London, and Reykjavík.

Before curating the show, Nectar was aware of strong online communities that fostered creation of feminist art, but she wanted to bring the creations to a gallery setting where they could interact with the community in a physical space. In the process of designing her show, Nectar gathered artists from Etsy and Tumblr who shared both feminist points of view and preferred medium. Nectar is proud of the diversity her show represents. “Feminist Fiber Art pulls from this talented online network of artists and features diverse, strong, women artists from around the world,” she says.

Etsy and Tumblr have long been fertile grounds for feminist art to grow, but Nectar was dissatisfied with female representation in physical art spaces. Nectar notes that less than three percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of the Met are women. She saw an opportunity to push back against sexism in the art world and is passionately doing so with her exhibit.

One piece in the show, “Puts hairs on your chest,” by British artist Sally Hewett, is a 3D pair of breasts emerging from a traditional quilting hoop. It is constructed from nylon Jersey, foam padding, embroidery silk, and long black hairs that are not visible from across the room but adorn the nipples and upper chest area. Hewett’s work is interested in definitions of beautiful and ugly bodies. Her fiber art comments on how conventions affect women. By looking at how expectations of physical appearance demean women, she takes something considered unsightly and turns it into something people want to look at, into art.

Other fibers include the works of embroiderer Kjersti Faret, who uses traditional Norse mythology to tell a new story. Her piece “Thor and Gjalp” depicts a river of blood and tells the story of a giant’s daughter, Gjalp, who tries to drown Thor and Loki by letting her menstrual blood flood the river. Whereas in other settings one might be discouraged from talking about periods, at Feminist Fiber Art the conversation is coaxed out of you.

While Hewett and Ferret’s work are now on display in Cambridge, Nectar acknowledges that as the show travels, the art in the exhibit is likely to change. “This is a constantly evolving, collaborative project, and we want to listen to all suggestions to make Feminist Fiber Art as inclusive as possible,” she says.

The show is inclusive in that it builds a community space for discussion about the art, but it may not be entirely inclusive of different perspectives on feminism. Feminist Fiber Art depicts feminism as intense, as bold. The art is not shy—it will show you bodies and raw emotion and menstrual blood. Even if not all feminists identify with Feminist Fiber Art’s in-your-face aesthetic, Nectar says the show is meant to affirm women as a whole. “Feminist Fiber Art aims to empower all women by showcasing artwork that explicitly reminds women that their bodies are beautiful and they do not need to be held to a standard of perfection.” She says that if the show effectively communicates this message, then it will have been a success.