«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
For the sake of clarity, a simple definition of fabric is as follows:
Fabric - material produced by weaving or knitting textile fibres; cloth.3 An informal and more inclusive definition of fabric suggests that it can be understood as ‘a thin, flexible sheet of material with sufficient strength and tear resistance (especially when wet) for clothing, interior fabrics, and other protective, useful, and decorative functions’.4 ‘Fabric art’ is understood as artworks which are related to fabric, including embroidery, weaving, knitting, needlework or cloth. Since the 1970s, the variety of fabric art has changed its forms and it has begun to be represented in large pieces, such as installation around the themes including emotions, sexuality and narratives.5 Fabric art, as a form of art rather than for purely domestic purposes, has become more Pearsall (ed), op cit, p 507.
Humphries, Mary. Fabric Reference. New Jersey: Upper Saddle River, 2004, p 6.
See Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: a Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, pp 202-213.
M. Turner, © 2008 comprehensive and multiple.
Before looking at the relationship between colonial heritage and fabric art in Taiwan, it is interesting to trace the origin of fabric art and how it has been developing and changing in human history. Lanto Synge argues that the earliest piece of needlework came about as a result of the human need for warm clothes, stating that ‘[t]he earliest needlework was of a plain, practical nature, done with strong fibrous materials such as hair, to join skins and furs for clothing, and embroidery was used to strengthen parts subject to greater wear’.6 Having fulfilled the basic need to produce warmth and protection for the skin, decorative arts in fabric gradually emerge and become a feature of people’s lives and religions. It is only within recent decades that fabric art has been given a place in ‘fine art’ rather than simply being defined as a ‘craft’.
The division between these two different functions of fabric lies in whether it is used in a political context (as ‘fine art’) or in a domestic context (as ‘craft’).
In various kinds of fabric art, I would particularly like to consider the change in attitudes towards embroidery as it has been widely used in contemporary Chinese fabric art, (as for example, the case of lotus shoes, which are a powerful signifier of women’s suppression in Han culture, a topic which will be addressed in more detail later in this chapter). Nearly every race and culture has its own kinds of traditional embroidery which is predominantly produced and maintained by the women. Thus, when investigating fabric art, we cannot ignore the issues of femininity and the debates around whether embroidery is Synge, Lanto. Art of Embroidery: History of Style and Technique. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2001, p 13.
M. Turner, © 2008 an art or a craft. Rozsika Parker proposes that embroidery has been viewed
as a sign of femininity by stating in The Subversive Stitch (1984) that:
[E]mbroidery was supposed to signify femininity – docility, obedience, love of home, and a life without work – it showed the embroiderer to be a deserving, worthy wife and mother. Thus the art [embroidery] played a crucial part in maintaining the class position of the household, displaying the value of a man’s wife and the condition of his economic circumstances.7 Despite the fact that China, Japan, India and several other cultures have strong traditions of fabric art, to demonstrate the relationship between femininity and fabric art, I have specifically chosen Britain as an example, where there has been a long history of embroidery since as early as the mediaeval period.8 Until the twentieth century in England, women’s fabric works provided beauty and comfort for the domestic environment, demonstrating their love and devotion towards their husbands and to ensure the identity of femininity. According to Parker, the range of twentieth-century embroidery is enormous and it is practiced professionally by artists, dressmakers, embroiderers, teachers, and by millions of women as a ‘leisure art’. 9 Parker further asserts that ‘the twentieth century […] accepted embroidery as evidence of the naturalness of femininity’.10 Another example Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1984, p 11.
The reason why I chose Britain as an example to address the concepts of femininity and embroidery is that Britain has the tradition of producing high quality embroidery for religious purposes and to serve the royal family and the upper classes. One piece of evidence to support my selection is that ‘one of England’s greatest cultural achievements and contributions to world art has been her production of superb ecclesiastical vestments, particularly between 1250 and 1350’. See Synge, op cit, p 40. Moreover, it is interesting to make some comparison of the development of fabric art between Taiwan and Britain where I am currently based for my PhD research.
See Parker, R., op cit, p 189.
M. Turner, © 2008 defining the connection between fabric art and women can be found in British educational policy. In Britain, after the Education Act of 1902, the curriculum for all girls in secondary school included needlework, while boys did woodwork.11 Furthermore, the class division characterised the attitudes of girls’ fabric works. For girls who were born into working-class families, needlework was connected to domestic work in preparation for their future as wives, mothers or domestic servants; for those of the middle class, needlework was increasingly taught as an art, following the principles established by the Glasgow School of Art. 12 Fabric handiworks played a significant role in women’s lives, and the skill would be taught not only by mothers but also in schools. Moreover, society in general placed great emphasis on embroidery as a social necessity and one of the signs of being a good woman was being good at embroidery, either as a daughter, a mother or a wife.
When the Women’s Movement started in the 1970s, the way in which women looked at embroidery changed. Parker explains this phenomenon by looking at the artist, Kate Walker, (who has employed embroidery in a fine art and feminist context in England since the early 1970s), and records Walker’s
statement about embroidery in which she asserted that:
I have never worried that embroidery’s association with femininity, sweetness, passivity and obedience may subvert my feminist intention.
Femininity and sweetness are part of women’s strength. Passivity and obedience, moreover, are the very opposites of the qualities necessary to Ibid., p 188.
In The Subversive Stitch, Parker addresses the fact that Ann Macbeth, who was in charge of classes for the Glasgow School of Art, developed a way of teaching fabric art and it still forms the basis of contemporary embroidery instruction in school education in Britain. Parker, R., op cit, pp 186-188.
M. Turner, © 2008
make a sustained effort in needlework. What’s required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition;
patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability.13 Kate Walker is a feminist, who determined not to reject femininity, but to remove the negative connotations of it. Lin Ping keeps a similar perspective when looking at fabric art and with this positive view towards fabric creation, the show was mounted to praise the ‘strength’ of femininity. Before moving on to further argument, I shall explore the term ‘femininity’ and how it has been addressed by feminists and how it is related to embroidery.
The term, femininity, is defined as ‘a set of rules governing female behaviour and appearance, the ultimate aim of which is to make women conform to a male ideal of sexual attractiveness’.14 This definition is constructed based on one of Simone de Beauvoir’s well-known aphorisms: one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. Therefore, females (biologically defined) are not necessarily connected to femininity and the ideas of women (socially constructed). Marxist feminists also contribute their views toward femininity and regard its ideas as the product of women’s oppression from the family and from patriarchal ideology. Parker argues how ‘family’ inferiorises women defining them as in the working class. She asserts that ‘[t]he family was identified as the place where the “inferiorised psychology” of women was reproduced and the social and economic exploitation of women as wives and
M. Turner, © 2008 mothers legitimised’.15 As a result, women’s embroidery has been viewed merely as a sign of femininity and as a means to contribute to domestic services for their husbands and children.
Furthermore, embroidery used to be produced by disadvantaged women in British history from the end of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Embroidery not only signifies femininity but also refers to women’s work, as craft, as opposed to fine art, (read: men’s work). Fabric work was even hierarchically categorised as craft, which was less valuable than painting and sculpture – again, in other words, men’s art. Apart from Walker’s positive statement confirming the strength and value of embroidery in the 1970s, Parker also describes how embroidery was given new meanings
and different perspectives by hippies in the 1960s, stating that:
For the hippy era, embroidery symbolised love, peace, colour, personal life and rejection of materialism. […] For men who embroidered, and wore embroidery, it signified the taking-up of femininity and enjoying it. […] For men, long hair and embroidered clothing constituted a rebellious gesture against a hierarchical, puritanical, masculine establishment.16 During the hippy period, embroidery was categorised as a sign of individuality and freedom, which changed the traditional interpretation of needlework.
Embroidery was not only recognised as an expression of femininity but was given political meaning to declare one’s will to resist institutional ideologies.
The landmark feminist art project that carried so-called crafts into the heart of Parker, R., op cit, p 3.
Ibid., p 204.
M. Turner, © 2008 the fine art world was The Dinner Party, which was first exhibited at the San Francisco Art Museum in 1979. It was conceived by Judy Chicago and was performed by more than four hundred women and men. On an equilateral triangular table, there were arranged thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating a particular goddess or woman in Western history. Each setting included a goblet, cutlery and a china plate, which represented a symbol-laden portrait of a mythical, legendary or historical woman. The plates were placed on embroidery that celebrated traditional women’s crafts.
Chicago, describing the fabric work in The Dinner Party, notes that:
We examined the history of needlework – as it is reflected in textiles and costumes, sculptures, myths and legends and archaeological evidence – from the point of view of what these revealed about women, the quality of their lives and their relationship to needlework.17 Since the celebration of embroidery in The Dinner Party, and the division between ‘home and work’ or ‘craft and art’ have become more challenging, there have been more various kinds of contemporary fabric art being created.
The revolution to re-value needlework has been happening in the West since the 1970s, but it was not until the late 1990s that Taiwanese women artists caught up with this trend.
Apart from the fact that the aboriginal Taiwanese are skilful in fabric works which forms an important function of decoration in their lives, the Han is also a group which has viewed fabric art an essential part of their culture. Since the Han immigrated to the island in the 17th century, Taiwan’s fabric work has been
Chicago, Judy. Embroidering our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework. New York:
Anchor Press Doubleday, 1980, p 24.
M. Turner, © 2008 viewed as an important kind of feminine and domestic women’s handiwork.
According to Chang Mei-Yun, who is the director of the International Embroidery Research and Development Centre in Tainan,18 her research has shown that embroidery was already well-developed in Taiwan by 1622, but its subsequent colonial history has brought the island many new embroidery styles. In his well-known General History of Taiwan (1920), Lien Heng
Women in Taiwan don’t weave much, but are fond of embroidery. The quality of their embroidery is very fine and delicate, almost surpassing that of Hunan and Jiangsu [provinces]. Ladies of note have a high regard for the quality of Taiwanese women’s work. […] Women in Tainan are especially good at embroidering flowers and plants.19 Inevitably, Taiwan has been greatly influenced by its previous links with China.
The Chinese Confucian ethics have placed great emphasis on needlework skills, as the followers of Confucius believe that ‘[t]he ideal woman was known not for her beauty or appearance but for her “womanly work” (nügong), which could mean mending a sock, sewing a garment, spinning thread, weaving
handiwork) is seen as more important than their appearance and their skills of This centre was established as an educational institute within the Tainan University of Technology in 2002 and has collections of 1,593 kinds of embroidery stitches. The centre aims to teach and maintain traditional embroidery stitches and also to identify embroidery skills from the aboriginal Taiwanese. The other educational institute for studying and researching fabric art in Taiwan is the Graduate Institute of Applied Arts – Fibre Programme, based in the National Tainan University of the Arts, established in 1996. Their students and staff members have regularly exhibited their fabric works in Taiwan since the mid 1990s. Chang’s argument concerning Taiwan’s embroidery history in the 17th century can be found in Cheng, Zoe. ‘A Stitch in Time’ in Taiwan Review, Vol 157, No 3, March 2007, pp 48-53.