Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Into The Woods Alone- Guest post

Maggie Baxter, an Australian artist, curator and writer wrote this piece about an Australian artists’ recent exhibition in response to an earlier post on this journal – The Violence of a Needle: http://gopikanathstitchjournal.blogspot.in/2013/06/the-violence-of-needle.html?m=1


The family history of Greek/Czech Australian artist, Olga Cironis will resonate with many Indians whose families suffered the upheaval of dislocation during Partition.
Olgas’ grandmother worked on the side of the Greek Democratic Army during the Greek Civil War of 1946 – 49, sending food and ammunition to the sons, daughters, husbands and fathers fighting on the front. Pregnant, she was moved to a refugee camp in the then Yugoslavia[i], but later re-settled in Czecholslovakia [ii].  Her oldest child, Olga’s mother was lost to her for many years until the Red Cross reunited them.
In Czechoslovakia, Olga remembers that the Greeks were well educated by the government, but nevertheless kept apart from mainstream society. But 1968, when the Russians invaded and made Czech communism even more extreme, the Greeks were formally asked to become Czech citizens or told to go back to Greece.

Olga’s parents decided on an alternative –migrate to Australia, where settling in a low socio-economic area, they once again found themselves on the fringe, albeit not officially so as in Czechoslovakia. Ostensibly in Australia they had freedom to go wherever and be whatever they wanted, but in reality their lack of language skills placed Olga’s parents in low paid jobs far below the professional level they had previously enjoyed, and socially isolated.

They were without ‘Voice’ – just another small family in a sea of ethnically diverse migrants, who once accepted into Australia, battle out a life for themselves however they can.

This rather long introduction will help to explain Olga’s confronting photographic portrait tableaux of herself, dressed like her mother but with her lips sewn together[iii]. As Paola Anselmi said in the catalogue essay to the exhibition “Cironis’ stitched lips speak volumes about the inability to express yourself and your past when no-one else understands the conditions that shape you”.[iv]
 The emotive prospect of causing such agonising self-harm is deeply political within contemporary Australia where, in a race to the lowest depth of our national psyche, politicians of both major political parties vilify asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat. These hapless individuals have for the past decade been sent to detention centres on remote tropical islands with fewer facilities than our prisons. Some detainees have, in utter despair and frustration at years of not knowing their fate, sewn their lips together in protest.

In 2012, Cironis received a grant to return to the Czech Republic and Greece to retrace her family history and try to make sense of her fractured identity.

 She loves the traditional embroidery on old tablecloths and bed linen and during the trip she collected many pieces some of which were cut up and reassembled for the exhibition.  For Cironis embroidery is a manifestation of her ethnicity, it connects to her childhood where the women in her family were always making things. But by putting the needle through the fabric she acknowledges the violence and fierceness of women in war when they need to defend their children. Her own mother as a young teenager was forced to take on the role of ‘mother’ to younger children, while her mother (Olga’s grandmother) was removed to an unknown destination.
At first glance the oval samplers of stitched old blankets seem benign and innocuous. But nestled in amongst the embroidered lyrical drawings and universal symbols there is anger waiting to be noticed: a woman blindfolded; expletives aimed at the capitalist system.

 Olga Cironis is not a textile artist per se, but a sculptor and installation artist for whom cloth and stitch are central to her practice. Many of her installations are of objects bound in cloth– an old kitchen mixer, or a large tree branch. She says that stitching over an object is an act of gagging it. Sometimes she makes lost souls: despondent, featureless, animist figures with threads hanging down from their bodies like tears.
Yet in an optimistic reversal children hug and play with Cironis’ cloth animals, so much so that she was recently commissioned to make cast bronze replicas for a family courtyard in a new hospital in Western Australia. The stitch marks on the patches are essential tactile elements recalling once again the ferociously gentle act of sewing.

Maggie Baxter is an Australian artist, writer, curator, and public art coordinator, who has worked with textiles in India for over twenty years.

‘Into the Woods Alone’, and exhibition of works by Olga Cironis was held at the Turner Gallery, Perth, Western Australia from 2 – 31 August 2013.

[i] After civil war and upjeaval, Yugoslavia broke up into six separate republics in the arly 1990’s.

[ii] . In 1993, Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully into two separate states: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.

[iii] Don’t panic – it was drawn on by a professional make-up artist and not actually stitched.

[iv] . Anselmi, Paola. ‘Into the Woods Alone’. Turner Gallery 2 – 31 August 2013. Catalogue Essay.


  1. Maggie, thank you for this fascinating piece. When I first saw the image of Olga with her lips sewn together I was horrified. I later realised that she hadn't actually sewn them together but it was made-up to look like that but even so the very thought that immigrants to Australia were moved to such despair to inflict this kind of violence upon themselves is very dusturbing. It represents a paradoxical view of what needle and thread, as embroidery, has done to enable women, across borders, to sublimate their emotional turmoil.

    Yesterday I was at a symposium at The Indira Gandhi Centre for National Arts and was fortunate to hear a soul stirring talk by Jasleen Dhamija on how rural artisans from Bihar to Kutch, Bengal, Central Asia and beyond have poured their hearts out into vibrant embroideries; living with dignity despite poverty and lack of freedom to speak in their worlds. You also make reference to this as part of Olga's history and I know, that a lot of times, when I am sewing I am aware of anger and resentment, frustration etc going through my mind but at the end of it all I want to pretty things up and in this I find greater parity with the decorative traditions of embroidery than the kind of political statement that Olga's installations and sculptures present. How would you rationalise this difference in contemporary art practices that employ the violence of the needle?

    1. Gosh the answers to those questions almost need another whole essay.

      First I think that in Western society, especially within arts training 'decorative' has been a perjorative word for a long time now. It is probably tied up with modernist thinking eschewing decoration, but I also think that with regard to skills such as embroidery the feminine element also comes into play and anything regarded as feminine is somehow not taken as seriously as more masculine pursuits such as welding steel or making wood furniture. Feminist art critics have commented on this at length but I suspect their commentaries are only read by women.

      Olga as a graduate of a major art college within Australia would be aware of this and while she may not have consciously decided to politicise stitch because of this she would have realised that to be taken 'seriously' as an artist there had to be a more intellectual edge to her work.

      With regard to the politics of her feeling of dislocation, it is difficult for me to comment other than to report, as I have not had the experience myself. Certainly in conversation with me she said that it was in Greece that she felt most spiritually connected even though she has lived only in Czech and Aus.

      With regard the asylum seekers sewing their lips - let me say they were not migrants in the sense of people applying to come to Australia through the normal channels of immigration. For the past decade a lot of refugees and asylum seekers leave countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and even Sri Lanka because they fear for their life for a whole range of reasons. The go to Indonesia and Malaysia and then pay people smugglers a heap of money to get them to Australia by boat. There are compelling reasons to try to stop this as the boats are unsafe, overcrowded and many people have lost their lives. However, there is definitely not any good reason to vilify them and lock them up for years waiting for their case to be heard, as successive governments have. It is those people that have sewn their lips together. I think in part Olga's photo would be her own personal protest at the treatment of these people, a fate made all the more poignant for her as it mirrors her family history.

  2. Wow Maggie, that was a really thought provoking response. Given that Indian Art today follows much of the philosophy that Western Art practices follow, I guess one would need to find a way to politicise the decorative to remove the pejorative connotations it carries in the Western world which we are no doubt influenced by.

    I am not a feminist, or do embroidery to make a feminist statement. I do it for the sheer pleasure of working with my hands. It is also a rather therapeutic process where I may well start with anger and resentment and other such emotions but the process of stitching helps order the mind and it's this which often makes me want to 'finish' the work in a way that allows for the shift in perceptions to also be presented.

    It would be a challenge indeed to even think in terms of politicising this, more so to present it in a way that creates a controversial space around it. Hmmm...

    1. Not a feminist? Heavens above Gopika you are a strong, independent woman who has taken control of her own life. What else do you think a feminist is? I have always thought that feminism was allowing both women and men the freedom to do and be whatever they wanted in life, without judgement from others. On a practical level it is about women getting equal pay, equal opportunities in all areas of their life, and the freedom to go wherever they like without fear of violence or intimidation. It is also about relieving men of their traditional roles when they don't want them. It is about having the areas traditionally considered 'feminine' recognised as having the same value as those traditionally masculine. A you know from reading The Subversive Stitch the value ascribed to embroidery shifted downwards when it also shifted from a professional, i.e.: male pursuit, to a domestic one. This definitely isn't about hating men or blaming them for anything. Stand up and be counted!

    2. Hmmm.... now that is something to think about because I have always considered feminism as some sort of movement that is collective and not so much what we do as individuals. But you are right Maggie, these movements have translated into each of us individuals becoming empowered to take control of our own lives. But I am not sure that the tag sticks. The strong, independent bit is fine, but being a feminist would involve acting out of this defined ideal which I have to confess I have not. Its been a series of mistakes in life that have led to understanding what I want and if that is being feminist then I guess I must be one! But on another note, I have to confess that thinking about what you said, in the context of 'The Subversive Stitch', I do use stitch to sublimate my emotions and just recently I noted that I was unwilling to get into a confrontation with one of my domestic staff and I just sat glumly sewing and it reminded me of the countless examples that Rozsika Parker has cited in her seminal book, of power being thus used in a subversive way, albeit the context was different and it was not male versus female, but it was a means to assert my power in a subversive way, nonetheless. In Australia you may have equality in all spheres but I am not so sure that we have quite achieved that here. On the surface it may look like, and we have come a long, long way but I do not really see equality or wonder if it is something that can really be achieved in totality anytime soon. There are spaces where its still very much a male dominated society. I will however now consider being a feminist Maggie and see if that makes a difference to the way one approaches these spaces.:)

  3. I have observed and sought out contemporary embroidery since I became a practitioner in 1978. Probably because I grew up with two grandmothers who stitched in their "down time" (one quilted, tatted, crocheted, embroidered and the other mended) the choice of needle and thread as my "medium" seemed natural and the labor intensive aspect was a given. In my own work I am more in line with Gopika - the process of stitching is therapeutic - not so much that I am quelling emotions - but it is a meditative exercise. I am giving substance to a fragile piece of muslin, making design and color choices with slow deliberation and somehow I trust that the image and its meaning will resolve itself at this snail's pace. I can slow down the world with my needle and thread. The use of embroidery as an expression of feminism or political themes always intrigues me. Embroidery moves me more as a viewer than a painting or sculpture because of the knowledge I have of the technique and the ability to draw on my own needle and thread experiences as I contemplate the expressions of others.

    For me, such recent exhibits as "Pricked: Extreme Embroidery" show how far embroidery has evolved from my early days of stitching balloons on my jeans pockets! We stitchers have come a long way - there are exhibits that do not tout just how "extreme" it is to have an object d'art made out of DMC floss. Rather, the work is out there for contemplation in its totality rather than the throwback to techniques of samplers and pillowcases.

    I have never doubted the validity of this medium.

    1. Elaine, my picking up needle and thread and even my passion for textiles remains an enigma coz I cannot trace it to anything in my conscious past. But I started working with embroidery quite recently (1993) with a very defined agenda and that was to bring recognition and dignity to hand-crafting. I met Ananda Coomaraswamy through his books in the SOAS library in London and was seduced by the ideas he presented about crafting in ancient India.

      When I returned to India to work as a textile designer, each year and each experience of working here shattered all those romantic notions and more. But one thing became very strong and that was that the only thing that I could do was to become the artist-craftsman, embody the ideals that made the kind of textiles that were currency for exchange in maritime south-east Asia in such a way that the Europeans who wanted to trade in spices had to gain monopoly in Indian textiles. To my way of thinking its this ruthless trade which eventually
      took the art out of the craft because designs were imposed and this took the soul out of the craft. So many people who still work within the ambit of crafts say - they do it out of necessity and not choice. Even today they don't really participate in the creative aspect and work more as labour. It's this which kills the passion and while the idea of infusing a self indulgent expression into the work I do with needle and thread is actually contrarian to the ideals Coomraswamy spoke of, it seems the only way forward by trying to bring these ideas into the 'art' space/gallery - to bring back a sense of dignity to the work that goes into making hand-crafted textiles. But even so, I want to retain some sense of skill, pattern, and all that textiles we use in our everyday lives, embody and making political statements just doesn't fit into that. But I still wonder about it.....

  4. The image of a stitched mouth is both horrifying and strangely fascinating. I remember as an adolescent being drawn to a fellow classmate as I was mesmerized by scars on her face, the line from the wound along with clear marks from the stitches. Nowdays most wounds are able to be sealed with no marks at all, often stitched from the inside and we don’t necessarily wear our histories on our bodies. The article brought to mind the violence in an act of stitching that I had not considered before. On a slightly different track, I have a friend who fearing she was spending too much of her spare time on the internet, started to learn early American needlework. She has been making beautiful samplers and told us of the incredible taxonomy of stitches they required knowledge of and skill and patience to learn, it cased me to look up my book of early American crafts,samplers and family genealogies stitched in time, and imagine families gathered around the hearth, rather than in their individual rooms, some reading, some stitching. Although her new preoccupation does not require any more physical activity, still mostly sitting quietly, she is of a generation like me, that feels a sense of guilt in spending too much time on the computer, though our contemporary work and social lives (in terms of an absence of paper) with many of us “transnationals” with friends in other parts of the world that necessitates it. She however viewed her new “old” activity as more worthy and not a waste of time than her time on the internet. I wonder if this will be the case with a younger generation brought up on the computer?

  5. Kathryn, I have been thinking about what you wrote. There is so much that you have brought out about stitching in our contemporary world and the generational issues regarding the computer and working with the hand. I am the same generation as you, albeit in a different part of the world. I did not grow up around computers. In fact when I was growing up computers were the size of a room, but for some reason my father believed that computers were going to be a significant part of our future and insisted that all of us learn to type. And this was way back in the 1970's. I was a reluctant student in this regard and each day as I work on my computer now, I recollect his foresight and marvel at the advantage it gave me.
    Today I can type really fast with 10 fingers [an average of about 60 words per minute if not more] and what kind of a writer would I have been if I could only manage with two fingers, as a lot of people I know do? I have no guilt about using the computer and internet technologies. I find that these actually free me up from a lot of unnecessary physical activity by allowing me to do so much sitting in my home. The flip side of this is that it provides scope for more mental stimulation than physical exercise with it and that creates a kind of mental overload. For me the act of stitching allows a lot of ideas to come up, poems are created, articles written [in my head and sometimes I make notes], I remember a lot of things that need to be done and quickly pick up my phone and sms or email and such like and then get back to sewing. I sometimes watch TV or listen to music as I sew, but more and more I find that I like to sit in silence and do it. I am still trying to find that ideal balance because to be honest when I sew I really do not feel like I am working at all and work and if there is anything that I feel guilty about it is this! Thanks for sharing these ideas.

    1. Gosh, so much going on in thee responses, I hardly know where to begin. I seem to be the only one who doesn't stitch! but there does always seem to be this dichotomy for stitchers between the meditative aspect and working through pain and anger. I have read books on Amish quilters where the women said much the same thing, and that all the joy, frustration and anger of their lives was tied up in the act of making the quilt, as though the meditation of stitching was the only quiet place they could find for themselves.

      In India, despite all of the overabundance of decoration, it is even harder for someone stitching to be considered an artist and that has much to do with class and the village/urban divide as well. Other than Gopika, who anyway trained as a textile artist, and a few artists like Mithu Sen, I don't see much stitching being done by the middle classes and art intelligentsia - the women in the villages are not getting much acknowledgement for their work, although designers giving them the work might be.

    2. So true Maggie, artisans working with embroidery are not getting their due while the designers using their work are beginning to. There was a time, when I first started work as a designer where I was immensely frustrated at the lack of understanding that went into designing and consequent lack of recognition for our work and currency for this. It is therefore heartening to see that 20 years on, designers are not only getting their due but being able to bring attention to the work of artisans. But you are right, it's time the focus shifted from credit going to the designer, to the artisans being recognised for their patience, skill and generosity in doing this work for pittance so that the rest of us can enjoy the beauty their hand-work creates. The fact that we in India have a living tradition of hand-work while the rest of the world has lost most of this tradition gives designers in this country an opportunity to do something. It's amazing to see how much is being done and frustrating to see what a bottomless pit it is. My experiences as a textile designer led me to take up the cause by becoming an artist-craftsman. There are a few others who stitch but very few. I would love to see many more join the band as it were....

  6. Well my dear Gopika, since you have not downloaded my latest book, I thought I would "show you nicely"!!!!

    I read this one, but I thought it was very intellectual and very different from what I know of. So I preferred to hold my tongue. But, talking about feminism and their right to be themselves, I would say, that for me, feminism now means "empowerment" from within. The older I grow, I realise, that it is not about the body we are in, it is more about what we feel within. I feel equal, to men and women and if I find they don't feel the same about me, then I simple let them pass by me, as if I exist only. It is about being empowered from within, I know, because, I am now as comfortable with a man, as I am with a woman and neither my body or my mind needs validation from either.
    I am not sure, I have said anything substantial, or to the point, or to the matter on discussion here, but I am happy for whatever I said :))

  7. Dear Julia, I am sorry that you were miffed about my not downloading your latest book but for starters I did not know about this being published, so congratulations and I hope it is doing well. As far as downloading and reading is concerned, at this point I have books piled two feet high, in a double row, on my bedside and I have promised myself to finish them before I get any new books to read. So please do bear with me on this one. Getting back to the topic under discussion, I do agree with you Julia, that it really is all about being empowered from within. When this knowing is there, then nothing else really matters. Being comfortable with who you are is the greatest blessing anyone can have.... lucky you. :)