In May and June 2020, the American Craft Council hosted a series of three virtual discussions, American Craft Forum: Craft Thinking. With support from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the series examined “the ways craft is standing up and standing out during the global pandemic as makers dig deep into their creative conscientiousness to heal, mend, and build a more resilient and equitable craft ecology.”
Over the next month, we will publish the archived forum videos along with reflections from Folklife interns on key themes and how the Center fits into the future of building resilient craft communities. This series will be one of many highlighting the work we do with makers all over the world.
Halfway through June, I attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. I was excited to go because I wanted to actively participate and contribute to this movement, especially as a mobile person of color who has been personally affected by the many systems of oppression rooted in America. My friends and I got together and prepared ourselves by making sure we had plenty masks, water, and fully charged cell phones—in case things took a turn for the worse.
Before leaving for the protest, my friends and I made posters. On my sign, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr., “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” This dual pandemic of COVID-19 and racism has caused many individuals and institutions to undergo major introspection. I chose this quote because now is the time to speak up and demand a more just, equitable, and sustainable society. It is also important to recognize that everyone must do their part and speak truth to power in whichever medium suits their best interests at heart. Whether this is done through protesting, donating, or maybe even quilting, everyone must step up and speak out for systemic change to occur. The movement starts with us, the American public, who are immediately affected by overlooked issues within America.
In watching “Re-Centering Craft in our Social Lives,” the second session in the American Craft Forum: Craft Thinking series, I reflected on my participation in the BLM protest. Like protesters, makers also discuss and narrate how to re-envision an anti-racist society. Observing and participating in this movement reignited my interest in craft as I experienced and learned about countless ways makers and their communities have addressed and actively responded to crises like the pandemic and economic recession. Their efforts lessen the effects the dual pandemic on minorities living in America. The products created by makers—posters, masks, quilts, and many others—speak to their ingenuity, craftsmanship, and awareness of the challenges faced by minority groups in America.
As an African American woman, I have faced adversity and oppression firsthand. I also understand the ways in which craft serves as both a personal outlet for healing and as a public engagement tool to illustrate the effects of police brutality on the lived black experience. Folklore curator Diana Baird N’Diaye touched on this in the session: “In craft thinking, what we talk about is transforming spaces to look at new kinds of things. The idea here is how can we use what we do to contribute to new realities.”
Craft persons and makers address the shifting currents of social dialogue during a time of crisis and why they hold themselves responsible and accountable to fight against current systems of oppression to ensure the health and well-being of their community.
A tool for connection
During the session, maker and scholar Darrah Bowden discussed her research on kite-making and annual kite festivals. She described these festivals as a joyful experience that almost anyone can access because “there are virtually no economic barriers to making and using [kites], and their potential as a form of expression and connections feels limitless.”
However, she recognizes that not everyone has equal opportunity to participate and acknowledges her privilege “to use public space as a white body.” Historically, people of color have been denied access to many places and/or segregated in many institutions in the past. Bowden relays how, through craft, we as a community, can stay connected, even while physically distanced.
Protecting our physical health and emotional well-being
Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network, addressed how the global health crisis has heightened the effects of the disparities already felt by African American communities. She emphasized the importance of continuing the network’s craft but in the form of mask-making rather than quilting in order to support both the health and economy of the African American community. She was especially motivated because her network lost several members to COVID-19.
N’Diaye led the discussion toward one of self-care and emotional wellness. She discussed her Mending Blind project, which is a sewn structure based on a hunting blind, a camouflaged tent that conceals a hunter from their prey. She metaphorically compares the hunting blind to the “blind” (systems of oppression) that traps many African American communities in the past and today. Some “blinds” that have afflicted African Americans are slavery, mass incarceration, inaccessible health care, and police brutality.
The project represents her concerns for the African American community and the need to mend and create a “protected space for meditation, private contemplation, or intimate conversation and sewing.” This sanctuary provides the African American community with a space to explore methods of self-care through crafting and other means. Self-care is an important factor within the BLM movement because advocating these issues take an emotional and physical toll.
Curating inclusive spaces
As an artist and curator of public engagement at Craft Contemporary, Andrés Payon Estrada grapples with “how to design, or redesign curation to build a more equitable and inclusive society.” Estrada aims to create spaces for people of color and reflects on the complex narratives and challenges faced by individuals of Latinx heritage who display their work in museum spaces.
His most recent exhibition provides an inclusive space for craftspeople to challenge the white dominant, Eurocentric art historical canon typically perpetuated within the art institutions. Estrada recognizes the need to create more spaces for people of color in museum institutions and the obstacles toward doing so. He advocates for these spaces to represent the complex realities and narratives and to question who is telling them. Historically, minorities were frequently left out of broader craft communities, organizations, and museum spaces. When included, minorities were viewed through the lens of the white gaze.
In her closing remarks, Sarah K. Khan, board trustee of the American Craft Council, stated, “I think about needles, the threads, and the prickling, the breaking of ground to grow, the shaping and the molding of clay to create and direct, and to look into the future and shape a different kind of reality than the one that many of us are facing today.”
Makers like Bowden, N’Diaye, and Estrada advocate to make the craft community more equitable, accessible, and inclusive for all. By researching and producing craft with these ideals at the forefront of their practice, these makers actively engage their local communities and public spheres by using craft as an agent to enact positive change. These makers understand the importance of their responsibility and moral obligations to address current social issues as they build their visions for the future. As these makers and others propose possible solutions and next steps, they are building a more resilient craft community that will grow with and adapt to current and future challenges.
After protesting and researching craft(ivism), I have reevaluated the ways I can actively protest. To be immediately present at a protest is not the only way to participate at the forefront of this movement. Crafting and collaborating with friends generates tangible platforms (i.e. social media, visual art products, written materials) that establish open, supportive, and wider conversations which can then lead to creative solutions to these injustices.
Mya Lewis is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where she studied art history and anthropology. She has been researching African American crafts to provide a platform for minority and disadvantaged makers who have been frequently excluded from the art historical narrative and art market communities.