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

What is the role and value of crafts today?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening in two months, the British Museum has asked contributors from the craft world to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today.

First up is Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. There will also be a rescheduled live Twitter Q&A at 13.00 BST on Thursday 18 August 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

£1 billion a year. That’s the simple answer, the total annual turnover of contemporary craftspeople in this country. Now that’s a big number, but of course craft is a lot more valuable than that.

Understanding how something is made, why it’s made that way, is more vital to modern life than ever. Craft is a language of material, provenance and making. It is learning the value of things. Sure, handmade, well-made things aren’t cheap but their value isn’t solely monetary. It’s political and social – to know how and where something came into being makes us more invested in it, so much so we become more responsible consumers. The handmade has unique aesthetic pleasures in itself but has also become intertwined with a whole bundle of different values, be they anti-consumerist, ‘localist’, green, or even just plain-old fashionable.

As soon as we widen our gaze beyond the shop or the gallery, we see craft appearing in the most unanticipated places. Take for example the recent trachea transplant, a world first. It was made possible not only by the dexterity of the hands of a surgeon but also the glass artist Matt Durran who made the mould on which to grow the transplant scaffold. Last year, an orthopaedic surgeon from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital placed his junior as a carpenter’s apprentice recognising the similarities in their practices: the tooling, teamworking and problem-solving. These skills are cross-disciplinary, neither art nor science, but always hard-won and always valuable.

So perhaps part of craft’s value is locked up in its confusion, the discussions to be had at its fuzzy edges. A surgeon may have similar needle-and-thread skills at their fingertips to a hobbyist and yet their contexts couldn’t be more different. We can all agree that a potter sat at a wheel has craft skills but what about a hairdresser, or a lab technician? In fact, is it possible to have a craftsperson who doesn’t use their hands at all to make things? Is burgeoning digital technology, like 3d printing, just another tool in the toolbox or is it a game-changer?

What a country makes is part of its fabric, its identity. Such importance has recently been recognised politically by the government’s launch of ‘Made by Britain’ a celebration of domestic manufacturing and ingenuity. And a quick flick back to George Osborne’s last budget and we can read about his ‘Britain held aloft by the march of the makers’. Even though the vast majority of our economy is not built on making things, still the cultural drive to make has intense political currency, it tugs at our heartstrings. What’s important here is nurturing and educating those who think with their hands, ensuring young people can discover their own talents and retain skills for a new generation.

As the skills and material knowledge central to craft continue to have great value it is the role itself that changes. Technologies advance at break-neck speeds and the public’s desire for authenticity grows making the role of the crafts crucial for modern life. Whether traditional or innovative, art or science, on show in a gallery window or hidden away in unexpected places, making has the power to deeply satisfy. And all it needs from us is a little patience and appreciation.

Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. Crafts is an editorially independent bi-monthly magazine published by the Crafts Council, the national development agency for contemporary craft in the UK.

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

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

Special teddy appeal – Grayson Perry exhibition

Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry has spent the past two years behind the scenes at the British Museum putting together The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This major exhibition, opening in October, is an installation of his new works alongside objects made by unknown men and women throughout history from the British Museum’s collection. Watch Grayson’s video introduction here:

Now finalising the objects, Grayson is looking for three brave ‘stunt doubles’ of Alan Measles, his childhood teddy bear (and god of his imaginary world) to be part of the exhibition. The chosen bears will sit for just over one month each in the teddy shrine on the back of his specially commissioned motorbike on display in the Museum’s Great Court. Can you help? Here, Grayson explains all:

If your teddy has what it takes to be a stunt double, enter the competition here

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

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

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