Resistance is Textile: Inside the Boise State Exhibition 'Crafting Resistance'

"This is the moment to do this show."


Days after the Women's March on Idaho, crates and packing materials littered the floor of the Boise State University Visual Arts Center. Gallery Director Kirsten Furlong arranged lollipops embedded with human hair into holes in the the wall under the watchful eye of a wood-carved replica of a surveillance camera—two of the artworks in the current exhibition, Crafting Resistance.

"This is the moment to do this show," she said.

Furlong conceived of the exhibition, which opened Jan. 26, late in the 2016 election when issues like the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline, Black Lives Matter, privacy, climate change and now-President Donald Trump's treatment of women were fixed firmly in the public eye. She sent invitations to a handful of artists for works that addressed the election or other political issues, and received an overwhelming response of nearly 300 pieces by roughly 80 artists from "all over the place," both geographically and politically.

The exhibition was scaled down to works by 20 artists from across North America, and Furlong chose to focus on handmade and traditional artworks—reflecting an observation that signs and banners at protests are usually made by the people carrying them. They also carry with them a long history of use in critiques of globalism, capitalism and dominant culture.

"There is a relationship between protest and people making things," she said. "A lot of the most interesting work was coming out these areas, and crafts have a traditional relationship to labor."

It's a familiar sentiment for Sharif Bey, whose work, "Gold Bird," appears in the exhibition.

The piece is a necklace made from massive, jagged earthenware beads, the centerpiece of which is a ceramic bird skull. It's one of several similar works based on what Bey calls "black ice," a play on the colloquial term for wearing diamonds and platinum as a display of social status.

Its true origins, however, come from a calendar Bey stumbled upon, in which he found a picture of an African princess wearing huge chunks of amber around her neck.

"I started to think about her status, but I also saw her necklace as a burden to her," he said.

Making the beads for his own work by hand celebrates and critiques power, globalism and status-seeking culture. Bey said people often ask him if he makes each of the beads individually—which he does—brushing and scoring them to make every facet of his art unique.

Production of ceramics is globalized, with millions of bowls, plates and other objects made on assembly lines in manufacturing hubs like China. Soon, the entire process for mass-market ceramics may be automated, with human hands replaced by 3-D printers, but Bey said he isn't ready to give up on manual labor.

"What I'm resisting is that industrial process," he said. "We have 3-D printers for ceramics. That's progress in some regard, but has it aided us? What I'm resisting is drawing closure on these things and dismissing them."

Where Bey uses identity as a starting point for a critique of consumer culture and mechanization, New York-based artist and educator Timo Rissanen has literally woven it into his art. His piece on display at Crafting Resistance, "Water is Life," is a cross-stitched poem made with threads recovered from his grandmother's house in Finland.

"In all of my practice, whenever I can source a material that is either a waste material or old material, I will do that," he said.

Rissanen, who has worked in the fashion industry, said he has a deep understanding of the emotional attachments people have to clothing and accessories, as well as a passion for resource conservation. He began cross-stitching in the past year and has begun embedding text into his patterns, using a deceptively simple medium to convey deceptively simple messages.

"Water is Life" is a stark statement about the racial politics of water, alluding to the Standing Rock protests, which have been ongoing since April 2016 and centered on tribal groups concerned an oil pipeline in North Dakota has been approved without adequate input from sovereign tribes and would pose environmental risks where it crossed waterways.

The project was put on hold in late 2016 but was revived in January, when Trump formally asked builders to re-submit their plans for construction and expedited an environmental review of the project.

Rissanen also connected his work to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., where lead levels in the drinking water reached unsafe levels in 2014 after the city's source of drinking water was changed to the Flint River. The community, which is 40 percent poor and 57 percent black, has been told not to drink or bathe in the water until the municipal water pipes can be completely replaced.

Some observers of the Flint water crisis have charged state officials with "environmental racism," in which race and class have played a part in policies that resulted in the city's water becoming dangerous to the public.

"While it might not be intentional, there's this implicit bias against older cities—particularly older cities with poverty [and] majority-minority communities," U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told CNN in January.

Rissanen said he sees himself as a "tiny player in this long history of craftspeople who have taken on various issues."

His choice of medium is apt. Stitching and embroidery have a long history of involvement with protest and resistance. During the independence movement in India, Mahatma Gandhi encouraged people to boycott British textiles, making their own clothes from Indian cotton. In Great Britain and the United States, suffragettes put weaving and lacework to use in their fight for the vote.

Rissanen submitted "Water is Life" when the Army Corps of Engineers had put the Dakota Access pipeline on hold. At the time, he believed his piece would be a reminder of a bygone conflict. The prospect of continuing construction of the pipeline took him off guard.

"At the start of the exhibition, I thought it would be a historical piece," he said.

For Cannupa Hanska Luger, a Lakota artist whose work, "Old Dominion," captures the contradictions inherent in the American Dream and the treatment of Native Americans, the Dakota Access pipeline protests are a reminder that the plight of America's first peoples has been a constant struggle for recognition and survival—not something to be put in the history books.

"I think the media turns that place into a movement, and the movement was created by the use of hashtags and social media," Luger said. "It's the perfect surrogate for our experience: The people on the ground there... there was joy when the Army Corps took away the permit, but they didn't go away."

The Standing Rock protests, he said, are a flashpoint in a far larger struggle against human and environmental degradation.

"Old Dominion," a clay bison skull filled with red, white and blue yarn to simulate viscera, was damaged during transit and not put on display. Luger described it as a reference to "concepts of a poison that has affected the entire earth through colonization."

Its mixture of ancient technology (clay) and modern crafts (cheap, brightly colored yarn) is a critique of America's culture of division—division between states, peoples and resources—that contrasts with the unity found in nature. Luger said American virtues like individualism sell people false notions of their own independence and self-sufficiency.

"The American Dream is a false dream: We've never done anything by ourselves. That's part of the continuum," he said.

Like many exhibitions featuring work by a variety of artists, Crafting Resistance is in conversation with itself. A media event seen from afar by Rissanen looks different to Luger, who sees events at Standing Rock from a much closer vantage point. The exhibition is also a chance for viewers to have conversations of their own.

Such conversations would likely include the election of Trump, but Furlong said very few pieces she received for the exhibition deal with the president directly. Rather, Crafting Resistance comprises works that take aim at issues about which people are passionate, but aren't part of the spectacle surrounding the current administration. It reveals a depth of political and social awareness that includes women's issues, the plight of Native Americans, urban culture and access to water.

"People are excited about work that's saying things like this right now," Furlong said.