The secret Library of Babel

Contemporary artists are boldly aligning their practices within Femmage to make visible lost, stolen, and invisibilised histories of female labour.

by Rosalyn D`Mello Published on : Aug 24, 2020

As someone still not fluent in deciphering the codes of crochet pattern instructions, I decided to follow a YouTube link instead. I was riding the high from having made a set of six coasters, using different coloured yarns. I felt ready to attempt the classic ‘granny square’. To begin, one hooks six foundation chains, slip-stitching them to form a circle. The second round consists of a fixed set of double crochet, thus enlarging the circle. However, if you follow the instructions for the third round to the tee, you’ll find yourself with a square. For the novice, this graceful transition between geometric forms is awe-inducing. After my sixth round, when the form had begun to manifest more confidently, I felt like I had been let in on a womanly secret.

I shared the same picture with my partner’s aunt, Monika, who had loaned me her mother’s crochet needles and wool. “If you continue, I can wrap myself into it, if I understand ‘granny square’ well,” she replied. This off-hand observation felt profound, like a set of ellipsis embodying a range of inexhaustible interpretations. Most straightforwardly, I read it as an acknowledgement of how this particular crochet form allows the possibility of infinite repetition. Were I to continue, I could make a shroud, or something even larger that could materialise time and space. Monika’s message reminded me of the indefinite number of hexagonal galleries that comprise the universe in Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story, The Library of Babel.

“I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space, or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.

I thought of all the women in the world who, across centuries, had performed and continue to perform ‘Femmage’, an umbrella term devised by artists Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer to include activities historically assigned to women, such as sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, cooking... and invalidated by dominant art discourse. Had women, all along, been perpetuating their subjectivity through this coded form of authorial agency? Did their unique encounters with time, a multiple of eternity, impress upon their consciousness alternative forms of art making? For example, my partner’s grandmother, whose crochet needle I have been using, has been deceased for over a decade. Yet, her legacy lives on most prominently in all the crochet doilies, tablecloths, and socks made by her that she dispersed between her children and grandchildren. Or the Native American (Pomo) Annie Burke, who, before dying in 1962, broke convention in entrusting her daughter, Elsie Allen with a wish to keep the intricately hand-crafted baskets made by her, typically buried with the dead, safe in the world of the living, thus passing them down so that the knowledge about how to make these baskets, which she passed to her daughter, would remain in continuous circulation.

Femmage was clearly a mode by which women articulated their creativity and immortalised elements of their identity. Its exclusion from official art historical canons, its invalidation as ‘craft’, not art, its perpetuation and circulation in non-mainstream markets, in village fairs and housekeeping manuals endowed it with a special currency that kept it outside the purview of capitalism, so that modern and contemporary artists who chose to relate themselves to this lineage of anonymous making and handicraft are tasked with the duty of remembering and memorialising the legacies they are invoking. Femmage is the counter-narrative to patriarchal pedestalism. Where the latter sought historical validity within the public sphere, through monumentality, through grandiose statues commissioned and created by men, Femmage, instead, adopted the privacy of the domestic space, preserving its traditions through housewives who either passed on object intelligence matrilineally, or served as the intimate audience, receivers of feminine intelligence. Femmage was not pedestalised so much as perhaps passed on through the wedding trousseau.

Each 16 x 16-inch panel takes Kate Just 25 hours to knit | Kate Just| STIRworld
Kate Just uses Instagram to promote her ongoing #anonymouswasawoman project Image: Courtesy of Kate Just

Some of these ideas form the universe of Schapiro’s 1976 acrylic and collage on paper work, “Anonymous was a Woman,”, a masterpiece that revels in the imaginative and creative womanly realm of patterning evoked through repetition, re-invoking Virginia Woolf’s dictum in her 1928 classic, A Room of One’s Own, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Contemporary artist Kate Just conjures the spirit of the feminist labours of countless women through history whose contributions across disciplines were marginalised or erased, either consciously, by patriarchal discourses, or through systemic exclusion. Just began her ongoing project, Anonymous Was a Woman on June 10, 2019, her birthday, during a residency at Art Omi in Ghent, New York. It involves the repetitive production of 16 x 16-inch hand-knitted panels bearing the titular text. When displayed, they are assembled in a grid format, resembling a monument to past lives or lost artworks. Just’s website enumerates the statistics: each panel comprises over 17,000 stitches, amounting to 25 hours of labour. Since she began, her goal has been to produce two panels a week while admittedly “juggling” parenting, family life and a full-time job.

I have been following Just on Instagram since I first met her years ago. As she knits in public and private spaces, she incorporates into her work the presences of the people around her, and the socio-political conversations around the vicinity of its creation through her posts. The Melbourne-based artist performs her concern about how women may be represented in the art world yet erased from the art historical canon, while reflecting on the erasures in her own life, as a mother of two children, a full-time teacher, and a community care-giver. “I thought to knit this repetitively is a performance of generations of invisible labour that is full of love, devotion, care and intelligence, but rarely recognised,” she told me. Just uses her Instagram handle to meditate on systemic erasures and to share statistics about contemporary feminist issues. Just’s project is one that hopes to materialise, and thus quantify, tangibly, the sheer volume of centuries’ worth of women’s physical and emotional labour that has been institutionally invisibilised. The project could go on indefinitely, comprising, at the very least 104 panels, amounting to two million stitches.

Elif Erkan’s Work Loves Me is guised like an algorithm, subtly communicating the mathematics that lies at the heart of most Femmage | Elif Erkan| STIRworld
Elif Erkan’s Work Loves Me is guised like an algorithm, subtly communicating the mathematics that lies at the heart of most Femmage Image: Courtesy of Elif Erkan

In April-May 2018, a year before Just began her project, I was privileged to witness the artist, Elif Erkan undertake a similarly laborious challenge. At the Eau&Gaz residency in the Italian Alps, Erkan found herself drawn to felt as a material, and decided to play a recognisably adolescent game of formulating, through random sequencing, a numerical equivalence between two entities—work and she. WORK LOVES ME, she stitched with black felt on white felt. She arrived at 65 per cent. During the two-month spring period, during which she had been working at the residency, I had observed her struggle with the material, given her pollen and felt allergies. While stitching, she would listen to podcasts, or music, or reflect. It seemed like a deeply meditative activity. In retrospect, she says she evolved that work mostly for its ties to folklore and sentimentality. “It mirrored very well the sentiments of the numerology of the embroideries themselves,” she told me recently. She felt that the use of felt anchored the work in art history, thanks to Joseph Beuys’ previous use of it.

However, her present engagement with stitching comes from an increasingly radical subjectivity, she testified. “Now I am more drawn to it because of its political and feminist implications, and because I am tired of all these male artists doing embroidery, thinking they are mastering a female craft and being subversive by adding a gender conscious touch to it,” she wrote in an email from her new studio in Paris. “But nobody talks about the labour that goes into it, and the quality of this labour. Time, on the one hand, but also the qualities that make it such a female form of work: it’s quiet, clean, portable, and easily adaptable as adornment or items of daily use.” In the Middle East, she feels, even though the craft form was practised by women, it was ‘mastered’ by men. “So, women can do embroidery and stitching in the quiet of their own home, but the moment it turns into an income source it’s again a male-dominated profession, which then also explains the geometric abstractions through a different lens, away from Islamic traditions, which claim to be gender neutral”. Erkan’s work has grown in feminist intensity. She is increasingly invested in coded geometrical abstractions. “When you read them, it’s like an entire text unfolding,” she added.

Nupur used many elements of Femmage to communicate the colonial history of tea | Yasmin Jahan Nupur| STIRworld
Yasmin Jahan Nupur conducted private tea ceremonies as part of her performance piece, ‘Let me get you a nice cup of tea’ at the Dhaka Art Summit 2020 Image: Courtesy of Yasmin Jahan Nupur

In her performance piece, Let me get you a nice cup of tea, in February 2020, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, based in a town close to Dhaka, Bangladesh, used various elements of Femmage to reveal the colonial histories of tea, its cultivation and consumption. Viewers had to sign up beforehand for a sitting with her during which she brewed you a cup of the tea you would have selected from a range on offer, all harvested by her. In the course of the tea-for-two party, she would let you in on some of the findings of her extensive research on the exploitative history of the everyday commodity. The Femmage was in the details; the wallpaper featuring a tea-stain-made pattern showcasing the botanical form of the plant; her elegant sari reminiscent of Dhaka muslin, the ornate crochet tablecloth, and, most significantly, the embroidered table mat that sat atop it—a world map with Britain’s territorial acquisitions in pink, “in contrast”, as Nupur pointed out, “to the neutrally coloured regions that appear ripe for colonisation.” This map of the Imperial Federation was published on July 24, 1886, as a large colour supplement for The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper printed in London. “A series of maritime trade routes connected the chief inset map showing the extent of the British territories,” she told me. Nupur made this elaborately embroidered piece with her assistant of 10 years, Nur Jahan.

The embroidered tablecloth was placed atop the crochet tablecloth in Yasmin Jahan Nupur’s “Let me get you a nice cup of tea” | STIRworld
Yasmin Jahan Nupur and her assistant, Nur Jahan, embroidered a world map from 1886 showing Britain’s colonialist enterprise Image: Courtesy of Yasmin Jahan Nupur

Her inclusive gesture of validating embroidery as an artistic medium within the space of an institution (the Dhaka Art Summit), thus valuing in a mainstream art world setup the enduring historical legacy of female labour is very much a part of an ongoing, collaborative tradition among female and queer artists. A more intricate example is the Crochet Coral Reef, which was my personal favourite at the last edition of the Venice Biennale. The work, credited as the brainchild of twin sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim, is in fact the consequence of the labour of almost 10,000 women, predominantly housewives, around the world, and highlights the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. Margaret, a scientist, and Christine, an artist, founded the Institute of Figuring in LA, an organisation devoted to the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of mathematics and science. Their mother, Barbara, a leading second-wave feminist, taught them to sew and weave their own clothes from the age of 10, when they were growing up in Brisbane.

Margaret and Christine Wertheim conduct extensive workshops with crochet experts, enlisting their talents in their ongoing project | STIRworld
An excerpt from the ongoing Crochet Coral Reef project from an exhibition in 2010 at The Science Gallery, Dublin Image: Courtesy of "Crocheted Coral" by Stitchlily is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Crochet Coral Reef was conceived in 2005 and enlists women to crochet forms of hyperbolic geometry—a branch of mathematics dedicated to the study of complicated and crenulated shapes of coral and underwater species. Margaret noted that women who had been crocheting and knitting ruffles for hundreds of years had inadvertently been crafting hyperbolic spaces. “They’d literally been doing mathematics with their hands,” she said in an article. At the Venice Biennale were two subsets of the project. In the Arsenale was the Bleached Reef and Toxic Reef, alongside a site-specific Mathematics Blackboard, Helen Bernasconi’s Hyperbolic Sea Snake and Eleanor Kent’s electroluminescent wire corals. In the Central Pavilion were vitrines with miniature works by Nadia Severns, Kathleen Greco, Sarah Simons, Anitra Menning, Sue Von Ohlsen, Rebecca Peapples, Vonda N. MyIntyre, Lucia daVilla Havilian, Anita Bruce, and Mieko Fukuhara.

Despite this refreshing abundance of artist-led initiatives that are committed to making visible female artistic lineages traditionally marginalised by art history, it feels, still, like we are only beginning to scratch the surface. Art history and contemporary theory, in particular has a lot of catching up to do. Why, for instance, is there more myth around Sol LeWitt’s instructive wall drawings than there is critical writing around the rich catalogue history of crochet patterns, or what it means for women to have followed a set of written instructions and ended up with a hyperbolic works of art capable of replicating infinity? Femmage is an intellectual, queer universe still rife with inexhaustible interpretations.

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