Bold, economical, and quick to produce, textiles are the perfect medium to express ideologies. This can be done explicitly through protest material and fashion; thematically by incorporating ideas into decorative imagery; or implicitly - as an artistic response. In the 21st century, “Craftivism” emerged as a way to bring social-political commentary into urban spaces via the medium of textiles.
by Jane Groufsky
The flat textile surface lends itself to a variety of printmaking techniques which can be used to project thoughts and ideas. An amateur screenprinter can quickly produce a batch of t-shirts printed with a simple protest slogan. In the 1980s textile designer Adrienne Foote mastered the technique to create illustrated textiles that were both eye-catching and socially responsive. A graduate of Elam art school, Foote began printing and selling a range of Nuclear-Free Pacific t-shirts at the Victoria Park Markets. At first glance, the bright print of palm trees and turtles resembles any other Pacific souvenir t-shirt – but Foote’s inclusion of a large naval frigate interrupts the paradisiacal mood. Her pointed critique could also appear playful: a printed skirt on a similar theme includes grotesque hybrid sea animals, a comment on the long-term ecological damage caused by the French nuclear tests.
Artists Dinah Priestley and Tony Burton harnessed a different textile technique to capture contemporary issues. The pair have collaborated on over 700 batik works since they began working together in the 1970s, with Priestley creating the illustration and Burton dyeing the cloth.
Batik is a method of wax-resist dyeing: wax is applied to the textile via a pen-like tool, and then the textile is dyed with the area under the wax remaining the original colour. Priestley and Burton used this technique to depict scenes from the 1981 Springbok Tour clashes, creating stark, high-contrast images that echoed the style of protest posters from this time. There is an element of the caricature in the expressions captured by Priestley in works like Two Bobbies (1981). Batik was familiar to New Zealanders as a dress fabric, but Priestley and Burton were unique in their choice of medium to depict people who "exemplify the New Zealand character” - documenting rather than critiquing the action.
Artistic response: Textiles as a vehicle to respond to social issues
Margery Blackman wove From Aramoana (1981-2) at a time when the seaside township of Aramoana was facing a proposal for conversion into a major aluminium smelter, which would have devastated the sensitive natural environment. Although not actively part of the Save Aramoana Campaign, Blackman’s work is a personal response to a part of Otago that she held in great affection. The word 'Aramoana' is doubly significant; it also refers to the zig zag tāniko pattern which represents the 'pathway of the sea'. Blackman uses a fractured Aramoana pattern to create rhythm and movement, pairing this with the colours of the natural landscape which was then under threat.
In contrast, the work of art collective the Pacific Sisters is unapologetically explicit in its agenda. By creating intricate wearable works, the Sisters call attention to the way in which the Pacific female body has been “... disempowered politically and culturally by the classic Victorian framework” of Western ideals.(1)
The artists in the collective, including Ani O'Neill, Niwhai Tupaea, Rosanna Raymond and Suzanne Tamaki, use 'fashion activism' to re-assert the place of Pacific women as strong leaders of society working under their own agency, and their work discusses issues such as gender, sexuality and the natural environment.
The space in which a work is displayed can be subverted to amplify the artist’s message, as is the case with A Cameo Appearance (2018) by artist Genevieve Packer. For the 125th anniversary of New Zealand women's suffrage, Wellington Museum commissioned an installation for the Wellington Harbour Board head office, a heritage-protected space in the museum building. Packer appliquéd 31 white leather silhouette portraits of significant New Zealand women such as Georgina Beyer and Katherine Mansfield on to a base of red awning cloth. “A Cameo Appearance” is a bright intervention into an overtly masculine space, furnished in wood and leather and hung with historic portraits of (white, male) board members. The work also evokes the craft of banner-making, as seen in her appliqué Public Service Association union banner made in 2013.
Craft in activism
Public demonstrations and protests have long used textiles as a vehicle for messaging, but in the early 21st century, a new term emerged for the use of crafts in activism: craftivism.
Craftivism is associated with third-wave feminism and the undervalued perception of textiles in craft circles. The most recognisable recent example was the phenomenon of knitted 'pussy hats' associated with the 2017 Women’s March (2) – a project conceived in America but with global participation. The Women’s Marches held in New Zealand were a natural opportunity for creativity in protest ephemera.
Demonstrations of this kind are no longer the transitory events they once were: with the pervasiveness of social media, there is increased awareness that photographs of an event can be spread worldwide in an instant, giving rise to 'iconic' imagery. This provides an added incentive to create a memorable visual impact.
For the Wellington Women’s Marches march, Jess Beauchamp made a set of flags sewn with the American constitutional mantra, “WE THE PEOPLE”. Made of fabric scraps, ribbons, and bamboo poles found in her home, the flags retain the spontaneous character typical of this kind of material – but they are also thoughtfully designed and crafted. The flags are now in the collection of Te Papa, along with a digital screenshot of a Snapchat image of the flags in action.
Textiles are an evocative resource to illustrate the moments, large and small, which have shaped our history. They record our spontaneous intentions, or provide an opportunity to reflect and critique. Through an examination of the textiles that have been made to effect change, we can understand what values their maker held and how they reflect a time, a space, or a community.
Header image: Footeprints Textile Design, t-shirt, protesting Nuclear activities in the Pacific, designed and printed by Adrienne Foote. Auckland, c.1987. All rights Resered. Auckland Museum,