British Museum blog

Can craft be used to help change the world?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening on 6 October 2011, the Museum has asked contributors from the world of craft for their perspective on craft today. In this blog, Sarah Corbett from The Craftivist Collective discusses whether craft has the power to change the world.

Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

I’m guessing when someone says “craft” many of you picture old women knitting, tapestries of leaves and birds, maybe hipsters starting to crochet or at a push, Tracey Emin’s banners about her life. Mostly pretty images; Tracey might be controversial, but sadly it doesn’t leave you thinking that craft can change the world. We want to challenge that thinking!

Craft + activism = craftivism. Craftivism might be a new-ish word, but it’s not a new concept. There’s a long, fascinating and inspirational history of craft being used to expose injustices.

You heard about the terrible human rights violations in Chile right? Well did you hear that women in Chile, under the dictatorship of Pinochet, used handcrafted tapestries (called Arpilleras) to raise international awareness of the political situation? The Catholic church and NGOs smuggled these Arpilleras out of the country to raise international awareness of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. Not only that, the craft of these women also encouraged a powerful grassroots political movement by providing them with an opportunity to express and record their grief and emotional turmoil about the death or disappearance of their loved ones, something that the regime and the poverty they lived in didn’t allow.

In the UK, another group of craftspeople are challenging the norms and making people think about justice. The Craftivist Collective have volunteered to support the amazing Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that teaches needlework to prison inmates and sells their products. As an Officer at HMP Wandsworth said, “Fine Cell Work gives these men dignity in work and, through this, dignity in life. When a man gains self-respect he may start addressing his offending behaviour”. Not only is craft positively changing the lives of inmates who are often ignored or written off by society, but 53 of these craftspeople provoked thousands of visitors of the V&A British Quilts exhibition last year to think about the socio-political situation in the UK through the medium of quilting.

The Craftivist Collective are inspired by the work of people like those amazing Chilean women and the talented UK prisoners. We are a collective of hundreds of craftivists across the world who marry craft with activism to expose the scandal of global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft and public art. We do this as individuals and groups through provocative but non-threatening creative actions. Our aim is to provoke discussion and ideas about global injustices and plant seeds in people to encourage them to act to make the world a more just place. We also want to prove that activism doesn’t have to be violent, preachy, threatening, elitist or negative. Anyone can get crafty to expose injustices and even maybe have a chill out and a laugh in the process!

Like the Chilean women and prisoners we are not always noticeable. You might find us cross-stitching our Mini Protest Banners on buses and trains; we are happy to talk about what we are doing if you take interest. You might see us in a cafe drinking tea whilst hand-embroidering handkerchiefs for MPs, asking them not to blow their chance of using their power to make a positive change in the world. If you are really eagle-eyed you might see us sneakily gaffer-taping up a battered Barbie with a mini placard to provoke conversation about gender inequality.

So what can make craft so powerful? Using craft means we often engage people who have had little involvement or interest in politics and activism. Craftivism projects can be delivered by individuals or groups, of great or no skill in craft, anywhere in the world. People seem to want to read our messages because they are presented in an interesting, often beautiful way and we don’t tell people what to think.

OK, so we admit that, on its own, craft would struggle to save the world, but it can move us in the right direction. Handmade, personalized craft can and does often provoke conversation, personal reflection and empower people to take action. The incredible bravery and determination of the Chilean women who crafted Arpilleras is difficult to forget. The message of the quilt made by UK prisoners and the stories of the positive effect craft has on their lives challenged thousands of people who saw it at the V&A. The Craftivist Collective have been in The Observer, filmed by French TV, lead workshops at the Tate and Hayward Gallery, exhibited in Brighton and craftivists have even been seen stitching on stage with comedian Josie Long. Craftivism gets people talking and always encourages an active response. Hopefully, seeing a craftivist’s piece of public art will make you take a photo on your phone, share it on Facebook and talk to your mates about how this craft has reminded you that we all need to encourage each other to do our bit to change the world into the just place it can be.

What do you think? Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton. Book tickets now

Photographs by Robin Prime.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

10 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Craft made our world, didn’t it? If you mean can engaging in crafts have a positive effect on the world, the answer must be yes. Very difficult to engage in negative pursuits once you experience the buzz of creation.

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  2. Really interesting article about craft and whether it can be used to change the world

    Like

  3. I believe craft can influence people’s opinions which in turn could change the world. However with so many people struggling to make a living it can be hard to appreciate what craft has to offer.

    Lately I have been doubting my work because I haven’t sold anything for a while and it is hard to remain optimistic. But I love it when people ask me questions about my work and appreciate the work put in.

    Like

  4. [...] of Making” exhibition at the V and A has inspired the Craft debate at the British Council and a brilliant article by craftivist Sarah Corbett. There is shed loads of evidence to suggest that craft has the power to challenge social injustice [...]

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  5. lulastic says:

    Hey Sarah
    Great article, I love your examples and the Crativist’s world changing antics.
    I totally agree but reckon there is also another level to it- crafting changes people on the inside, making us more whole, and increasing our capacity to change the world in other ways too. Your post sparked my own post:

    http://lulastic.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/power-of-making-making-makes-you/

    Let me know what you reckon!

    Like

    • It’s great reading all of your thoughts. Thank you for commenting. I especially like Lulastic’s blog and comment about craft making us whole and therefore also willing to campaign in other ways as well as craftivism. Craftivism is definitely a stepping stone and confidence-builder for many of our members who are new to activism. With our current hankie project many craftivists we know are going to meet their MP for the first time because they have lovingly stitched them a handkerchief urging the MP to use their power and influence to make positive change. I maybe naive in thinking craftivism might have helped them on that journey but it’s an interesting thought and something I will discuss with them more and discuss the wholeness comment too.

      Like

  6. [...] much as we can. Our Founder Sarah Corbett recently used them as a case study for her British Museum blog post, they gave us a great talk last year surrounded by their amazing cushions and we helped make kits [...]

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  7. [...] 2011, the Museum has been asking contributors from the craft world including the Crafts Council and The Craftivist Collective to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today. In this special blog post, Turner [...]

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  8. DC Museum says:

    Thanks for sharing, I’m not sure if craft be used to help change the world but every little bit helps. It’s what we can do as people on this earth for each other to help not only us but our children.

    Like

  9. [...] Can craft be used to help change the world? (britishmuseum.org) [...]

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It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space. This is Room 61, the Michael Cohen Gallery of Egyptian life and death (the tomb-chapel of Nebamun). The British Museum acquired 11 wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun in the 1820s. Dating from about 1350 BC, they are some of the most famous works of art from ancient Egypt.
Following a 10-year period of conservation and research, the paintings were put on display together for the first time in 2009. They give the impression of the walls of colour that would have been experienced by the ancient visitors to the tomb-chapel.
Objects dating from the same time period and a 3D animation of the tomb-chapel help to set the tomb-chapel in context and show how the finished tomb would have looked. (There is no Room 60 in the British Museum.) To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 59. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 58. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 57. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script.
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