From Body to Textile: melannie monoceros and Raisa Kabir in conversation

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Join two queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour) disabled artists/writers on their Zoom call between Manchester and Winnipeg. Raisa Kabir and melannie monoceros discuss the racialised, classed and gendered history of textiles, weaving, and ‘craft’. Topics include bodily connection, and the effects of colonialism and industrialisation on Indigenous methods and livelihoods. With a bonus appearance from Sydney the cat.

The following is a transcript of the above SoundCloud excerpt from a conversation between queer disabled writers/artists Raisa Kabir and melannie monoceros.

Raisa Kabir:

Yeah, this idea of textile cultural narrative. Maybe to do with art practice, or feminism, is so dominated by straight white women. And it being their realm, which I find really frustrating. Because it really isn’t. And so often, all that racialised textile labour is invisible. All the art that we see, the quilts, the fabrics, is so invisibilised.

melannie monoceros:

Yeah, I think about that too, because I live in the Prairies now. And so there’s like this, I don’t know what to call it. Like a ‘homey crafty white lady quilting bee’ aesthetic.

I’m kind of like ripping on, like, that that’s the textile history. And there’s a craft museum here that’s mostly dominated by cis white ceramicists and textile people. And stuff like that, that’s just not really investigative work. And there’s such a huge population of ‘urban’ Indigenous people here, as opposed to folks that are on the res (reservation), who obviously like… All the things, about diaspora and settler, and Indigenous craft knowledge.

But it’s so not… The parts of Indigenous craft knowledge that are uplifted are really specific. Like, it’s beading! Moccasins. Literally. And I’m like, what about these 10,000 other things that people make, what about all the things, right? But that’s the place I live in. And that’s as far as it can make room for, it feels like.

Raisa:

Is it like there are certain aesthetics that can be monetised? And that’s what craft knowledge gets reproduced?

melannie:

I think so.

Raisa:

And what’s the word when something becomes… reduced? When something is so broad and vast, and then it’s denigrated or literally reduced to two stereotypical things. And it’s really sad. And I guess, you know, Indigenous craft knowledge, how that’s valued in terms of the craft labour of other types of bodies and other types of knowledge. I’m very interested in that.

I’ll loop back but… I came to do a lecture, and the person working at the university let me in and she goes, ‘Oh I don’t know much about your work. Are you, you know, craft-based, right?’ And this was at a design school or something, and I was like, ‘Mmm? Yeah, I guess so? What do you mean by that?’ (laughs)…

We’re talking about a lot of mediums, ‘Well, you’re in craft?’ And I said I do performance. I do work with textiles. I don’t do design, if that’s what you’re asking. But I am an artist.

South Asian queer disabled femme in traditional red and white dress standing on some stones by the sea. Red threads are attached from her dress to one of the stones.

Still of Raisa Kabir from her performance ‘নীল. Nil. Nargis. Blue. Bring in the tide with your moon’ at Cove Park Scotland, 2019. Excerpt from durational performance here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7Um1wYlMU1

Raisa (continued):

But this idea of where craft is placed in the space, and maybe even related to my… You know, assuming that I am a South Asian. Crafted, textile-y, pretty things. How that warps… (laughs) Morphs people’s idea of what that knowledge is, and how we value it. Being something that’s not monetised, or something that isn’t designed. You know, so design is like a Western-based thought.

melannie:

Yeah!

Sydney:

Meow!

Raisa:

It includes progress and it includes, you know, something that is cutting edge and has knowledge and value, like design. But then craft is something that is stuck somewhere. And then when you attach that to Indigenous groups or diasporic groups…

melannie:

Yes!

Raisa:

And that never has the same value as a designed object, or… that craft is art. It is never accepted as art either. It’s very much related to types of groups attached to it.

melannie:

That kind-of just blew my mind, and makes so much sense. Cause I think about how design is portrayed. And it’s like, design is ‘forward-moving’, you know, it’s ‘inventive’. And it’s colonising! (laughs)

And craft… it’s ‘traditional’. It ‘doesn’t happen anymore’. Or the ideas of who gets attached to those… Even thinking about how Scandinavian countries are uplifted for doing things that Indigenous people on Turtle Island have been doing. Like climate things! And it’s like, this is design, and this is craft, you know? Who gets.. And I guess too… what is monetisable.

Green textile artwork hangs from a loom attached to a white-brick gallery wall. The weaving takes the shape of a black person's face.

‘Self Portrait 1’ in progress on loom. By melannie monoceros, photo credit Tangled Gallery still.

Raisa:

And there is so much colonisation that happened in the Scandinavian countries with the Sami. And the big trend in backstrap weaving and band weaving comes from Indigenous peoples in Scandinavia, right? And I don’t think the craft textiles that have come out of Sweden, and the styles that are coming out of that that are becoming popular, I don’t think people are referencing that back to Indigenous craft knowledge. Or just Indigenous knowledge.

Knowledge is valued when it’s written down, knowledge is valued when it’s archived properly in a museum. It has to be removed from Indigenous geography. And I guess a lot of the times when things are not archived in this Western colonised way, it’s like the body is the archive. And Indigenous knowledge is maybe of the body. And textiles are of the body, and that relationship of things. When they’re made with the hands, they are always of the body. And how that knowledge is transmitted from the body and into the textile.

melannie:

Mmhmm.

Raisa:

Yeah, but how that might not be collected or referenced or credited as valuable Indigenous knowledge. Because it’s not archived or written down in the same way. Like, you won’t find draft notations of amazing incredible textile woven patterns, right? (laughs)

You know, there’s a very like, I don’t know… very structured sort of hard-to-decipher way of drawing textiles, right? That’s such an industrial… It’s just a different way of looking at textiles. But it’s a way of reading textiles that originated in the West.

I don’t know if you do much draft textiles. But I feel, from having been taught textiles in the UK and Europe using draft notation, and then going to places like Mexico or Bangladesh or India where that doesn’t exist… is really freeing, I think.

What do you think?

melannie:

I feel like I’m still in my toddlerhood of drafting and understanding drafting. It feels like a mathematical language that I’m still learning. But that it gives a really different energy to how I think about the different kind of textiles, particularly with weaving. So, I was quilting, and then I did some tapestry weaving, and then did some more quilting, and then started harness weaving.

With most quilting, it needs something for me. Like if I’m making an image or a structure or whatever, then there’s measurement and things like that part of it. And then there’s a different attachment to the product at the end. I feel like it should fit a particular thing, or feel a particular way because there’s a recipe to it.

Whereas stuff that I’ve made that is just like my tapestries, or quilts that I’m just making them as I go along, I feel a different attachment to how it presents itself at the end. Or how I feel about it when it’s finished. Yeah, I don’t really have a landing place on that but it’s definitely a thing that I feel through differently.

A Black non-binary person with tattooed arm and nose ring works on a colourful tapestry on a loom.

melannie monoceros working. Photo credit melannie monoceros.

Raisa:

But do you know what I mean? Like that’s the way I guess I would like more of us to work towards, in terms of thinking about our relationships between our practices and making textiles. When you speak to most people and when you run workshops and things, people don’t really understand how to relate to materials or how to work with tapestry. They’re like, ‘Oh, it has to be some complicated thing’.

I think that is part of… I don’t know if it’s a colonial barrier or it’s purposely been put in place to remove us from the centre of production. Remove us from sites of craft in our home, so we’ve got no immediate intimacy with the making of textiles. So it’s now become fetishised almost, as this craft thing that white rich women do. (laughing) You know?

melannie:

And clothes making! I’m gonna put a little pin over here about garment making, and white women recolonising that.

Raisa:

Yeah, exactly! The way that craft and needlework and embroidery was attached to idle Victorian upper-class ladies: ‘I’ve got nothing else to do, I’m just going to sew.’ You know, you put that on the flip side of quilt-making in plantation America and the labour that went into sewing those quilts and that invisibilised labour.

That relationship where craft is something that rich white women do when they have a lot of time. And it kind-of divorces it from the artisans and the amazing craft knowledges… and amazing rugs and tapestries, you know, in South Asia and Africa and in Indigenous communities in Mexico or whatever. It creates this divide between the potentiality of craft being the domain of… I really think of textiles being the domain of women of colour. Right? They make the most incredible textiles around the world. (laughs)

Women and men, and just queer people of colour, whatever. Non-Western cultures and their textiles, and the way weaving and embroidery… You look at these techniques that have been erased and are becoming extinct because of industrialisation of making.

Oh, I totally forgot my thread, where it began. But it was like… when you’re running workshops and yeah, people are finding it hard to relate to making. So I think the way we get taught textile design, and the way that textiles have been introduced to you, introduces this idea of the frame loom, the harness loom. And it’s like Western technology. Technology that purposefully was created to isolate the craft cottage weaver.

melannie:

Yes!

South Asian queer disabled femme sits on a pebbled beach with water behind her. In the foreground of the image a red and white piece of textile is strewn on the pebbles.

Still of Raisa Kabir from her performance ‘নীল. Nil. Nargis. Blue. Bring in the tide with your moon’ at Cove Park Scotland, 2019. Excerpt from durational performance here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7Um1wYlMU1

Raisa:

Right? It was created to speed up production… then, with the power loom and everything. All of these looms were created as Western technology. Oh my god, I’ve been researching so many types of pre-harness looms! Where people were using their feet, and people were building all these structures. One has like, got a harness with your foot! You’ll see that harness looms did get created globally independently, but you will find them where… weaving is really central. Like South American or Central American culture. Where people had the backstrap loom and could do amazing, incredible pieces because everything is done with the fingers. You don’t need harnesses, you don’t need drafts.

Everything is done by memory or through the body. And craft being something that extends out of the body. The textiles, the machinery… you become the loom. And you’ll find that backstrap loom weaving is still centered in matriarchal societies. But where you find remnants of Spanish colonisation, is when they brought the Western floor loom. And I know floor looms and harness looms have been developed in different parts of the world, but in this particular place, they were not there. And then they were brought by the Spanish to, you know, speed up the weaving. And that’s when it becomes gendered, and that’s when only men even still today use those looms. You can see that in Mexico. And then there’s that gendered divide and colonial divide of the division of labour, and what the production of that labour becomes.

What is monetised. It’s a barrier. It’s about removing certain types of technology and removing certain types of knowledge. And I guess it’s… what do they call it? Epistemic violence. Right?

melannie:

Wow. I’m really thinking about…Reflecting on the piece about how the mechanics of it changed the gendering of who it lived with and things like that. Wow.

Sydney:

Meow!

melannie:

Hi, Sydney!

(laughter)


Raisa Kabir and melannie monoceros bios (audio):

Raisa Kabir and melannie monoceros bios (text).


Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.