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Visual Arts

Insights: Sewing Discord

Approaching craft as both medium and concept


Published: 11 Jun 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

This interview explores the relevance and importance of craft as both medium and concept in contemporary art and design in Singapore, casting light on a field that has often been sidelined or underappreciated. We speak with Ginette Chittick and Hazel Lim on their research into craft and what they have observed in the ways artists and designers deploy craft mediums and techniques. The artists in the exhibition Sewing Discord also share insights into the ways they engage with craft methodologies in their practice.

Sewing Discord

Installation view of <i>Sewing Discord</i>.

What led the both of you to embark on your research on the “aesthetics of care”? Could you share more on this?

Ginette: Our training, academic backgrounds and artistic practices are in design and fine art. Our studio practices in the areas of weaving and origami have led us to question the place of our methodologies within the intersections of contemporary art, design and craft. As mothers of young children and as art practitioners, we are inspired by the work done by individuals and in particular, women whose heritage and cultures are embedded in the craft practices and methodologies that are part of daily life and craft such as weaving, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, latch hooking, cross-stitching, origami, lantern making and basket weaving.

We define these types of artistries as possessing the “aesthetics of care”. These artistries, often associated with home, domestic and women involve the intricate patterning or fashioning of materials to create objects and things you can use around and within the house. They are steeped with intentions of care and protection for the people who use them or adorn them in the house.

Hazel: I have always known Ginette as a colleague but one day I found her in her studio working on her yarn. We started talking about our interests in crafting and how it is important to carve time out for ourselves and make things with our hands. We teach in an art school and find that there is quite a fair bit of conceptualisation and rumination of ideas, but this is sometimes not done in tandem with the process of making.

An aspect of the “aesthetics of care” is connected to making, taking care of the material of choice and crafting it to a point that it is transformed by that care and dedication. The time the makers spends on this process is also a form of self-care. Lastly, this notion of care has a legacy. It is embedded in domestic work, whether it is housework or handicraft usually done by females, which is often invisible and unacknowledged. I think care is grossly undervalued and seen as unimportant. Through this research, we hope to bring into view artists’ works that reflect on this value system, the rich legacy of craft and the unseen labour behind it, and spark off conversations on the technologies of craft.

Craft occupies a contentious place in the fields of art and design. The exhibition "Sewing Discord" spotlights craft practices which are often unseen or marginalised. Are there any preconceptions of craft you are looking to challenge through your research?

Hazel: There is a place for various genres in art. However, there are some, like craft-based art, that tend to be accorded lesser value because they are viewed as hobbies or associated with the domestic and feminine. Craft is connected with the anthropological study of cultures. We should acknowledge the role it plays within native and indigenous ways of living and being. Unfortunately, when utilised in art practices, it often gets compared and seen through the lenses of other mediums such as painting or sculpture. I hope that as much as it may be related to other forms of art practices, it can also be valued and appreciated in its own right. For example, if we look at the intricacies of preparing a loom so a weaver can start planning a design on a piece of fabric, that technology and craftsmanship is complex and deeply historical. In Sewing Discord, we hope to shine a light on the craft methods that the artists have chosen to work with and reveal the skilful complexities of craft that defy its misunderstood status as decorative or kitsch.

Ginette: We are keen to make perceptible how craft continues to be a tool for discourse beyond their initial perception of being beautiful and decorative. Our research aims to identify a tribe of artists and designers utilising such craft techniques and materials as a way to acknowledge their inherent heritage, narratives and histories and to present them with contemporary outlooks and perspectives. It also endeavours to recognise the aesthetics of care that underlie the practices.

Installation view of the materials and tools Berny Tan works with.
Installation view of the materials and tools Ginette Chittick works with.

Installation views of the materials and tools Berny Tan (left) and Ginette Chittick (right) work with.

Are there any artists whose practices have been instrumental in shaping your body of research?

Hazel: Artists like Lenore Tawney and Anni Albers, and the women weavers from the Bauhaus Weaving and Textile workshop, whose formal weaving techniques coalesce with their artistic expressions inspire me. I am also intrigued by two typewriter artists, Dom Sylvester Houedard and Karel Adamus, who create visual poems by manipulating the typewriter keyboard. Their works utilised the machine’s rigid mechanism to create images that have a different feel from one frame of the sequence to the next, belying the fact that they are made on a machine as inflexible as a typewriter. Origami also possesses similar traits. Modular origami units are as rigid and structured as the typewriter. I find versatility and freedom in the way these units allow one to build, expand and undulate forms in multiple ways. I am also inspired by my mother and aunts who craft and make things for the house and family—from lanterns formed out of origami cranes to stitching fabric yoyos onto a table mat.

Ginette: Sheila Hicks, who studied under Josef Albers and was guided by Anni Albers, was the purveyor of the language of Fibre Art as we know it. Together with Anni Albers, Hicks presented a different point of view of textiles. She uprooted it from the domestic space into the hallowed white walls of the gallery space, art without functionality, displacing it as a step in the design process. As an artist who traverses the worlds of art and design, Mimi Jung’s fluency in design visual language is well translated into her woven fibre art that speaks to me.

What are your thoughts on our relationship with craft and its heritage or traditions in Singapore?

Hazel: In Singapore and the region, craft processes are often labour intensive and rendered invisible. Craft also inhabits a space associated with kitsch objects or touristic souvenirs often created by highly skilled artisans who remain anonymous and unacknowledged. As things can be produced at breakneck speeds these days, our consumerist desires make us seek instant gratification. This attraction and propensity to speed is why we are not paying sufficient attention to how things are made and hand-crafted.

Ginette: The relationship between craft and tradition in Singapore today has been sidelined. My analogy for this is like trying to grasp at your reflection in a body of water. It dissipates as soon as you reach out to touch it.

How do you think this relationship has evolved in recent years? What more do you think could be done for this field?

Hazel: Lately, there have been more people picking up craft-related skills. This increased interest could partly be due to the pandemic and prolonged periods of staying at home. With safe distancing measures that restrict physical contact, working with craft could be a response to engaging with the sense of touch.

I hope that craft can be a field of study in visual arts education where technologies are properly taught and processes experimented with to create works that can be seen in the same light as a painting, drawing or sculpture.

Ginette: Craft is now being viewed differently more so than ever. People are tired of digital interfacing, and we long to reconnect with the tactile. I feel we could avail local craft techniques and outcomes through contemporary fashion, art and design presentations and products.

Reflections from the artists

The artists whose works are showcased in Sewing Discord reflect on how they employ craft techniques or mediums in their practice and how their engagement with craft has evolved over time.

I began exploring hand embroidery more seriously because of a fibre arts class I took in my final year of my undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York. My instructor, Amy Wilson, taught us a variety of techniques including crochet, knitting, weaving, needle felting and even how to make yarn out of raw wool. Towards the end of that school year in 2014, I created my first fully-embroidered artwork, entitled Meditations on Loss. It is a series of three diagrams, embroidered using a mix of hand-painted yarn—which I had made in Amy’s class—and pearl cotton thread, then subsequently framed in embroidery hoops thirty centimetres in diameter. I decided to use embroidery because I felt that it softened the coldness of the visual language of diagrams, something that I was exploring at the time as a means of representing my emotional states.

Since then, I would revisit the medium of embroidery every couple of years. However, I realised that my fascination with the medium had very little to do with the kind of images I could create in thread. I made a conscious decision to cut that element out of my practice, focusing more on the process of stitching as this repetitive and obsessive act of mark-making. I also paid more attention to what I call the “formal qualities” of embroidery and its most basic materials, such as creating works meant to be viewed from both the front and the back, or using the weave of unbleached calico fabric as a grid to construct systems of writing or abstract patterns. I further began to deepen my conceptual exploration of the embroidery of text, in particular using techniques that would play with the space between legibility and illegibility, for example, by unpicking text I had stitched and showcasing only their traces

I began tapestry weaving six years ago and delved deeper into fibre art when I started making yarn. I find it meaningful to engage with fibre as a material as it isn’t an industrially-produced material in Singapore. There are two kapok trees at LASALLE’s Winstedt campus and another one that faces my studio window as I work. The winds will carry the cotton that encases the seeds in kapok pods. You can pick this cotton from the ground when the trees are in bloom. Kapok cotton was traditionally used in Asia to stuff pillows, bantal busoks or chou chous (childhood pillows that sooth children from their separation anxieties). It was a fibre commonly found in households. It is really important to localise and geographically place the material I work with, and especially so for the research Hazel and I are working on.

Given my background, design interests naturally figure in my work. My first object-based explorations were assemblages comprising craft, wood and acrylic in single harmonious pieces that pay tribute to the design principles that the Bauhaus, Art and Craft and De Stijl movements have contributed to.

Work is often regarded as something that one is remunerated for. Women are still devoting hours a day to unpaid work, arriving home from their day jobs or “first shifts” to “second shifts” at home. In my works for the exhibition, I continued with my yarn-spinning process and ventured into another domestic craft technique, latch hooking. The process for Echoes and This Must Be the Place began during the Circuit Breaker where we were working from home. The demarcation between the “first shift” and “second shift” became more blurred, amplifying the theme of unpaid labour. The artworks explore the idea of the Shoji screen (traditional Japanese room divider) which is used to divide a living space into private (unseen) and common (seen) areas. The screen becomes an abstraction of the unseen physical and emotional labour of women and a continuation of my interests in exploring the notion of labour.

I was trained as a painter in art school. I tend to see the works that I make, even if they are not paintings, to be related to painting or seen through the lens of painting. Painting is a medium that requires physical space and immense mental space. As I have committed to different responsibilities in my life, I realised painting is not a feasible medium to engage with as it takes me away from other things. Painting a very jealous lover so I have to find other ways to engage with my art practice that do not compromise important commitments like teaching and family, while at the same time still expressing my point of view as an artist. I wish painting could be more portable, that it could be folded and unfolded when I need to work on it. This folding and unfolding analogy translates into the adventure I have been having with papercraft work since the early 2000s. In my postgraduate research, I adopted the idea of folding and unfolding language and had text encapsulated into origami books. These books are my way of taking apart the semiotics of colours based on the colour charts painters use. The repetitiveness of papercraft design allows me to work on each unit independently and without constraints to space or time. I will bring them with me and work on them whenever I have time to spare. Once amassed, I will then assemble them to compose the final artworks.

I am currently intrigued with craft processes, techniques and drawings associated with crafting. The instructional diagrams in craft books are more than just information or sets of instructions. Although they may not necessarily qualify as art images, they are fascinating, and I would like to do more with them in my next stage of inquiry.

Artist Betty Susiarjo used to run a craft collective called Popin in Singapore. In 2013 they had an open call for cross stitch pieces which would eventually be exhibited at The Arts House. I decided to submit a piece. Instead of making a work that is more “traditionally” cross stitch, I wanted to do something that was in line with my practice and interest in abstraction. Although it was different from the usual medium of painting that I work with, there are many characteristics of cross stitch that were interesting to work with and which I wanted to explore further. I have since worked with this medium alongside my other bodies of works. My engagement with cross stitch probably has not changed much formally. In my work I do not explore different textures or stitching methods and I keep to a very minimal usage of basic “cross” stitches. I am more interested in exploring the images that I can make using the medium, rather than the pushing the possibilities of the medium itself. Nevertheless, as I continued to work with this medium, the ways that I employ its various characteristics in my work has evolved with each piece I make. 

I have grown up around textiles and reflected on the significance of textiles throughout my life. My maternal grandmother used to make dresses for my cousin and I when we were growing up, while my paternal grandmother lavishes me with intricate saris to this day. What started as mending and sewing in a more domestic sense for me slowly evolved into embroidery. The medium of embroidery began to occupy a pivotal role in my practice. This can be seen in my work Roots to Existence, where I created a large-scale piece embroidered by hand. The way I use embroidery and textiles in my work has evolved from a focus on details and being skill-oriented to something more symbolic, abstract and process-based, with a continued focus on materiality and uncovering the significance of materials.

Listen to the artists of Sewing Discord in conversation with programmer Lu Xiaohui

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