Power to the crafts

What happens when craftivism meets spirituality?

Browsing and navigating my way through the colourful and diverse independent zines stalls showcased at the annual "Publish and Be Damned" event, I find myself drawn to a stall draped in handmade patchwork bunting. The stall is being manned by three women - one is wearing a huge knitted blue jumper with a grinning cat on it, one is in a studded denim jacket, and one is wearing a floral print hijab – and they are selling a small handcrafted zine called OOMK – One of My Kind. In tough economic circumstances, it’s inspirational enough that people are setting up very niche creative publications that they care about passionately, but these women are the only visibly ones from an ethnic minority in the hall - and happen to be muslim illustrators too.

Sofia Niazi, who is of Pakistani origin, tells me that she feels strongly about visual communication and that she founded the zine, alongside Rose Nordin and Sabba Khan, as she felt there was a noticeable gap in the market. “Articulating yourself visually is something that has been lacking in the muslim community,” she explains, “sometimes the arts isn’t encouraged, even though it influences us so much in the way we understand things and join the dots, and there aren't many muslims going to art schools. It’s frustrating when your voice isn’t heard, so we thought we’d do something about it, and create a friendly space where alternative talent can be appreciated and showcased.”

The zine has a folksy feel and is a highly eclectic visual feast, reflecting their mixed and interweaving heritage, with the aim to celebrate “the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women.” I’m struck by the fact that it is inclusive, with 25 women contributors – writers and artists – all from different backgrounds, dipping into both ethereal and political realms in the issues they tackle. The theme of this issue is fabric, and explores the appreciation and struggle women have with material. Instead of finding glamorous Hollywood actresses that you’ll find in glossy magazines, there is a striking illustrated tribute to Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen as she walked to school. Artist Ceri May writes about expression using wool and felt, there is a sketch of human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, and a cut out poster of harem pants with the caption: “Elastic revolution. Escape the fat race. One size fits all.”

Underpinning this publication is the ethos of “craftivism”. I had never heard of this before, but it is a concept coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer, and she explains that it is a term that defines the intersection of “craft” and “activism”. It’s a movement that defies second-wave feminists by reclaiming traditionally feminised and domestic activities – sewing and knitting - that have historically been marginalised and undervalued, which is turned on its head and used instead as a means to make a stand and raise awareness of a cause. The juxtaposition of the comfort of craft with a bold political image is powerful, and far more accessible, and arguably, more effective than any political pamphlet could be. The artist Hannah Habibi writes in her essay in the magazine how she uses “stictching as a weapon of resistance” against gender constraints.

Of course, this isn’t something new. You can always spot a highly creative handmade banner at a demonstration, which guarantees a smile. Barbara Kruger in the 70s and 80s crocheted, sewed, painted and most famously juxtaposed photograph montages with bold text to criticise sexism and challenge concepts of power. Yet sometimes, there is the perception that art is exclusive and ethnocentric. The perception that that there is a monopoly over creative expression, or the negative notion that channeling your voice through art is worthless, need to be broken. Which is why I find publications like OOMK and projects by young women like Sofia, Rose and Sabba particularly exciting, and hopefully small efforts like this will inspire and make art more accessible and open to new audiences.  

Rose Nordin sells copies of the inaugural issue of OOMK (Photo: Aisha Gani)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis