Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide

Folk Art by a Woman - Who Knew it Existed?!

(Slightly crappy) folk art by a woman – who knew it existed?!

This post isn’t my idea, but came about when I read a comment by the brilliant Bee Jones earlier today.

She wrote:

“I have just watched The Culture Show on catch-up. All about a Tate exhibition of Folk Art. The introduction explained that it was going to focus on the real lived democracy of art which has always existed outside the art establishment. Great, I thought, this will be celebrating the explosion of women’s creativity we see every day, all over social media etc etc…but NOPE. You’ve guessed it, the programme didn’t feature a single woman artist, or even mention that women have long been underappreciated for their talent, despite being EVERYWHERE making beautiful things. So this post is about celebrating the fantastic women who regularly astonish me with their creative skills. Please feel free to share this and add your own.”

I think this is a great idea.

I’ve just watched the programme she’s referring to – it’s up for another week, so feel free to check it out if you particularly wish to be patronized by a couple of blokes. They start out with some working definitions of folk art, before oh-so-hilariously ‘insulting’ each other by applying the term to their own work. From this, we moved on to the Tate’s Folk Exhibition, which is open through the summer. There’s a nice review of the exhibition here.

Our two presenters, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, stared at the first display, which was absolutely fascinating: a wall of objects once used as shop signs, and ranging from a beautiful, giant gilded key, to a teapot marked with fading lettering, to a pair of humble shoes. Apparently, all of this was very funny. “Anything that’s bigger or smaller than it should be is automatically funny,” commented Deller, begging a reference to Freud. After this, “we’re off to Blackpool, perhaps the spiritual home of British folk art today,” and I began to sense a pattern. The presenters explained they were looking for anything they liked the look of, “anything that makes us laugh,” basically. Here we got our first glimpse of women: as the voiceover wittered on about folk ritual, the camera lingered on a middle-aged woman wiggling her bum cheekily at us. Oh, these Northerners and their down-to-earth folk humour! Stopping by a stall selling fake tattoos, Deller tried his hand at the popular voice, explaining, “these tattoos, they’re basically like Warhols … I think, for me, that’s like what artists do, they take something from popular culture and do something with it”. It was about as convincing as David Cameron trying to tell us he, like, thinks that Inbetweeners show is more or less Shakespeare.

Everything to do with folk art, we were told, was ‘fun’. Oh, such fun. A T-shirt, wittily printed with a sexist joke about wives and terrorists, obviously merited being included in all of the hilarity. Seriously, if you watch this bit, it comes with a health warning, because I think I have strained my eyebrow muscles from listening to these two pontificate about unselfconscious art while looking at a T-shirt reading ‘I beat anorexia’ they’d claimed as a ‘public art work’. Nothing so folksy as sweat-shop-produced misogyny.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing – you get the gist. It was massively patronizing, with one eye on the audience snickering along with the Proper Artists. Towards the end, I held out hope we’d left the snickering behind as both men, looking at sculptured figureheads, so far forgot themselves as to sound genuinely impressed. But not for long: “it’s a classic figurehead, to have the top half person, bottom half boat … and maybe with one or two breasts exposed … preferably two! Hur hur”. One of Deller’s childhood highlights, we’re told, was a visit to the Cutty Sark, memorable for “a whole row of these topless women … I thought that was pretty cool!”

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the way this programme treated misogyny as ever so funny, that there wasn’t any discussion of women and folk art.

Back in the Tate exhibition, the presenters mentioned a woman’s name for the first time: Charlotte Alice Springall, who, with her husband-to-be Herbery Bellamy, pieced together a beautiful quilt in just one year (known, you’ll be shocked to discover, as ‘The Bellamy Quilt’). This was, apparently, very funny too: “they obviously didn’t work” sniggered the presenters, before moving swiftly on to discuss another group of people who made art (apparently), because they had nothing better to do: modern-day prisoners.

No, really. I’d say I found the juxtaposition telling of their impression of the restrictions of women’s lives, but I’m not sure they’d thought that deeply.

This was the point where I really got annoyed – because quilting is a hugely important form of folk art, which has historically been practised by women, and which has a very rich social as well as artistic history. Quilts often don’t survive, because textiles eventually wear out or rot, but the V&A tells me this quilt of the story of Tristram and Iseult was made c. 1360-1400. That’s a full century earlier than the most famous written English version of the story, in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

In the past, women needed to make quilts – not because they ‘didn’t work,’ but because it was a practical way to recycle fabric and a necessary means of keeping warm. But they also turned quilting into an art form, as the York museum of quilting will show you. It’s only fairly recently that quilts have been treated seriously as art works. In the last century, for example, Lucy M. Boston (who also wrote beautiful children’s books)  declined to have her quilts exhibited at Kettle’s Yard Folk Museum in Cambridge, because she felt they were things to be used, not art to be exhibited.

In fact, barely five minutes had gone by, after Bee posted her response to this show, before women were swapping images of work they’d made. I’ve got permission to share this beautiful quilt, made by the author Cassandra Parkin.



And here’s the one she’s working on now:

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

I love Bee’s idea, and if you would like to add images or comments about women’s art – whether you’ve made it, your friend made it, or you just happen to love it, I’d enjoy that. And please consider sharing Bee’s post with people you know: we could discover some brand new women folk artists!

There is now a hashtag, Artbywomen, where you can share images, links or anything else you like about women’s art, especially women’s folk art. Enjoy!


14 thoughts on “Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide

  1. I saw an exhibition of quilts in Budapest once; they were self-consciously art quilts, not really things to be used, but the techniques & motifs followed traditional quilting technology closely. They were absolutely breathtaking; if I manage to dig out some photos, I’ll tweet them.

    Also, there are so many other forms of so called decorative or practical arts practiced by women over the millenia. Almost any embellishment on an everyday object, from embroidery to lace to pottery glazes, hairstyles, horse tack decorations, carpet making – the list is endless – was done by women within their own sphere of tools, possessions and personal items. Until men started expropriating the techniques and monetizing the output, women were (still are in many traditional societies) almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of the artistic or aesthetic expressions of their culture.

    Almost no form of cultural and historical femicide is more galling, except perhaps the complete invisibilising of women’s storytelling, music making and dance. But especially storytelling, because the expropriation of the power to create myth is a key component in the creation of patriarchy through depriving women of a shared identity based in a shared past and a shared mythic imaginary. And of course, as in the case of the beautiful quilt you linked to, textiles and ceramics were often the vehicles for this hidden and ignored storytelling, too.

    • Oh, I would love to see those photos if you do dig them up!

      I’ve just nodded along to every line of your comment. Especially about storytelling. That’s often related to quilting – women sit and tell stories while they quilt. I suspect the communal aspect is one reason women’s work is denigrated – it’s threatening to the patriarchy, so it has to be dismissed and mocked, and it doesn’t fit with the ‘lone male genuis’ idea that is so popular.

    • Oh, wow … this is making me wish I could get to Mexico. Thanks for sharing, Cath! And for the pinterest site.

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  3. My Grandmother was a great knitter. She created the most beautiful shawls and blankets, as delicate as spider’s webs. She wouldn’t have seen them as art either, but they were. Maybe that’s the problem women’s folk art has – it’s too practical, too everyday to be seen by the art establishment as actual real art. The art establishment (men) are busy ‘doing’ art, while women are just busy trying to make their lives and homes more comfortable and colourful.

    • Your Grandmother’s work sounds beautiful.

      I think that is exactly the problem – women’s work has to be practical. But then, there is still that persistant myth that men are the practical ones and women are ‘just decorative’. So we’re getting it from all sides, really.

  4. There’s a striking dissonance between women being told that we can’t do science because of our useless lady brains, but not to worry because women are nurturing and creative and emotional … and then on the other hand we can’t do art either because suddenly our creativity and emotions don’t count, especially if we are not reflecting the very important man’s world view back to them.

    We basically have neither brains nor souls as far as they are concerned. Of course our art and culture is disregarded.

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