Feminist Fiber Art comes to Boston with ‘Feminist Halloween Art = Crafts Fair’

Upon entering a deserted warehouse for the traveling Feminist Fiber Art’s latest exhibit, one would have thought that the showcase could have been a carbon copy of any Red Hook art show. However, unlike the shows held in Brooklyn, which feature standard art bros, this show’s crowd was comprised of femme-presenting people. Feminist Fiber Art’s Halloween arts and crafts fair, held on Oct. 14 in Allston, featured the traveling art exhibit and a do-it-yourself market for a variety of arts and crafts including prints, stickers, patches, knitwear, coloring book pages and jewelry.

At the female-focused event, femmes were able to extend energy beyond handling the gender dynamics of art-viewing to actually assessing the art at hand. This shift in dynamic allowed femme viewers to focus more on the art, but also gave more leeway to a harsher criticism of the work and the fair itself from attendees.

At the Over It Studio’s booth, artist Juliae Miliani showcased her work, which began in the form of graphic designs with political messages. Her first project was a silk-screened shirt with ‘don’t touch me’ scrawled across the front, which she noted she would wear to fraternity parties while a student in college. Miliani’s work strives to combine a highly stylized aesthetic with a political goal to create an easily replicable fashion of protest. Her shirts remind viewers that women need to tell people around them that their bodies are not free to be randomly groped in passing.

Milani’s work points to how crafts have a connection to the fine art world; when the work itself creates a social discourse by being worn, as an everyday commodity instead of on a gallery wall, it transcends the stereotypes associated with crafts. By creating a public demonstration, the craft becomes a blend of performance and conceptual art, and these everyday art objects blur the lines between what in one’s life is art and what is necessary for survival. The current model for what is considered art cannot be transferred over like a silk screen; the crafts have to make their own movement and transform the spaces that the art world deems legitimate.

The question of why fine art and crafts have been distinct from one another carries with it other questions, including what can be considered art, how art is portrayed in the media and who is or is not purchasing art. Unfortunately, crafts such as embroidery, tapestry and to some extent, fashion and prints have not reached the platform of fine art. Art forms gendered as female are often prescribed a lesser value, both in the art historical canon and in the art market. Embroidery, knitting, tapestry and even prints are seen as easier to make mainly because throughout history, women have been relegated to these mediums.

Artists such as Eva Hesse in the 1970s sought to deconstruct these notions by creating abstracted works using textiles. However, Hesse’s efforts were never allowed to enter the mainstream. Embroidery or knitting is probably not going to come to mind alongside painting or sculpture, even for people without an art history background. In response to this, Feminist Fiber Art seeks to critique why individuals do not value crafts the same way as fine art, and the organization points to the Western, affluent and patriarchal art history that largely dictates what is and is not considered art.

The fair last week was titled “Feminist Halloween Art = Crafts Fair” intentionally to address this.

“By that we mean that art and crafts should be respected equally,” the Facebook description of the event read. “Everything handmade is a work of art! It’s a major tenant of the exhibit.”

Despite the great intentions of the show, this distinction was not addressed, with artists just sitting behind tables and selling patches, embroidery hoops, candles, crystals and, in some cases, prints. The prices of the goods were respective to how fine art is usually viewed. The prints were the priciest, whereas the more craft-like things rang in for less. While many of the things were cute and seemed to represent the third wave of feminism — such as embroideries and stickers with the word ‘slutty’ written on them — the gallery was a cis-gendered space. Some of the newer takes on feminist art were still enjoyable, however. The denim patches with vulvas were particularly reminiscent of feminist artists Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an iconic feminist installation piece at the Brooklyn Museum.

While there were many critiques in the pieces of the negative effects of a patriarchal society, many of the works in the fair critiqued the art world as Chicago did. Maybe the intention was that the existence and legitimacy of the fair itself was enough to challenge the distinction between art and crafts; however, the work alone, even in a group show setting, could not have conveyed this message on its own.