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

6 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

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  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.

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  4. 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!

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    • 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.

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  5. 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.

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