Hinda Mandell has never worked on an exhibition before. Yet, she is fulfilling a mission to frame craft in the context of democracy and bring it to a wider audience.
Mandell and Juilee Decker, both associate professors at Rochester Institute of Technology, are co-curators of a new exhibit “Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism,” which is on view Aug. 1 to Oct. 21 at the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County’s Anthony Mascioli Gallery downtown.
The collection showcases the power of craft as missives of hope, dissent, critique and dignity at a time when the nation is in what Mandell calls a political predicament.
“We’re really interested in the fiber arts as a mechanism for people expressing their experience in our democracy,” says Mandell, who works at RIT’s School of Communication.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mandell, who says she always admired the whimsy of yarn in public places but was never a creator, decided to make a political statement. She and a friend were motivated by the first female U.S. presidential candidate and did a small-scale yarn installation in the 19th Ward at the “Let’s Have Tea” sculpture of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They followed it with another one, marking when Anthony voted illegally.
Roughly two years ago, Mandell and Decker came together to produce an organized effort around craft and democracy. Decker, who teaches museum studies at RIT’s Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture and has curated several exhibitions, was interested in the theme.
“I felt like this would be a great opportunity to bring a subject to the forefront in Rochester that could be insightful, diverse, interesting, intellectual but also craft,” Decker says.
They put out an international call for submissions and received more than 100 entries. Thirty made the cut. The works use textiles such as yarn, silk, cotton, linen, wool and other materials that represent a coherent body of themes such as reform, indignation against gender and racial injustices, women’s rights and voting—all ultimately questioning the meaning of democracy.
“One of the key criteria was that the artwork or craftwork had to have been created since 2015 because we wanted it to be created within the political environment and it had to address themes relating to craft and democracy,” Mandell says. “What that meant was that a lot of the pieces that we selected have issues relating to race, to identity, to American history, to politics, to kind of like this struggle of life in a democratic country.”
Curated with purpose
Several pieces were a spinoff of the American flag and though artfully done, Mandell and Decker wanted to be careful about picking works that reflected different experiences and voices while using textile. Decker says the body of work had to stand on its own, especially since they planned to use a venue without a docent present and the only didactic is what artist has prepared for the piece and a couple of overview statements of the theme.
The final product is a diverse collection, from pieces knitted and crocheted by hand to quilts.
“This exhibit is extremely current,” Mandell says. “Even though the genesis is from the 2016 presidential election, every single one of these craft and art pieces that are featured in the exhibit relates directly to what is unfolding today in America. It’s about as contemporary and of the moment as it gets because these issues have only heightened since the 2016 election.
“Not surprisingly, some of the pieces offer commentary on President Trump, and that’s in our news and in our heads constantly.”
Still, the duo was certain that an exhibit alone wasn’t enough. They developed a catalog, replete with exhibit artwork and essays from experts offering commentary on craft and democracy. A grant from the Farash Foundation helped with the publication printed by RIT Press.
“We wanted there to be this sort of deposit in the historical record through the catalog,” Decker says.
But that’s not all. There is a lineup of 10 events, including a movie screening, a book discussion, a stitch fest and time with a master spinner, that run through the course of the exhibition. The exhibit’s reception will occur during the Fringe Festival on Sept. 16.
The library location was picked purposefully. Decker and Mandell wanted the exhibit to be freely accessible to Rochester and found a perfect partner in the library, which will also screen a movie among other events.
“It has been a great, great journey and it’s really has caused me to think in a different way how an exhibition can have these tentacles that kind of lead out into the community,” Decker says.
Though craftivism is sprinkled across history, the craft movement has seen a surge since Trump took office. While the Pussyhat Project did garner attention with the women’s march in January 2017, several others like the Tiny Pricks Project, a public art project by Diana Weymar that features contributors from around the world focused on creating a material record of Trump’s presidency, have surfaced. The Craftivist Collective, which started with U.K.’s Sarah Corbett and now has thousands of members, is yet another example of using needle and thread to influence change. In June, when popular knitting and crocheting website Ravely banned pro-Trump messaging on its site, people took notice.
As for Mandell and Decker’s exhibit, it already has sparked interest. Other cities in and outside the state would like to host the display.
“We didn’t envision this as a traveling show…but we’re definitely enthusiastic about that,” Decker says.
Though attendance could be one marker of success, Decker and Mandell view the ability to engage the community to think about democracy as an accomplishment.
“I’m just excited to bring it to the public,” Mandell says. “It’s fun and it’s powerful and it’s colorful. And what’s better than that? I definitely think it will get people talking.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon’s managing editor.