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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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