I’ve recently enrolled as a student of The School of Gentle Protest. The school, developed by Craftivist Collective’s Sarah Corbett and 1215 Today, is ‘a 6 week online curriculum to help individuals and groups around the world tackle prejudice, injustice, corruption and inequality wherever they see it – without resorting to aggression and hostility.’
I signed up to the course because I am curious to see where gentle protest and activism sit both within my personal values and practice as an artist. Barely two weeks in and I am in full on ‘ponder mode’ surprised by a thread that has already woven its way through my thinking.
The thread is perhaps more of a question; how do we make the ‘invisible’ visible in a way that provokes thought and has the power to challenge behaviour? Through the course so far I have learnt how Gandhi made injustice visible through acts of provocation and resistance and Tom van Deijnen makes mending visible to encourage more sustainable relationships between garments and their wearers. Whilst these examples are polar opposites in terms of scale, they are both revolutionary acts instigated with courage and conviction. They have made me think about what I can make visible both in my personal life and through my work as an artist and if the small everyday acts of an individual can activate change.
Over the last few months I have been reading a lot about vulnerability, I especially like the work of researcher Brene Brown (her TED talk is well worth a watch). Vulnerability has much to do with visibility; Brown describes it as
‘an invitation to be courageous; to show up and let ourselves be seen, even when there are no guarantees.’
It’s made me wonder if stepping into discomfort and embracing vulnerability has a place in gentle protest. I had a go at visible mending the other day, I repaired an underarm seam of a grey needle-cord smock that I really love. It has embroidered detail in purple which I decided to echo in my mending stitches. Later in the day I was telling my partner how much I enjoyed the process and how proud I was of my repair. He asked me (in a tongue in cheek way), if I was worried that people might think I was poor. I immediately felt vulnerable. I’m a freelance artist, single parent and what the government describes as a ‘JAM.’ Money is tight and I’m scraping by, despite working full time I am just about managing. I’m not poor, I can meet my families basic needs but cuts to arts funding have hit me hard like they have many other creatives and sometimes life is really tough.
When I took out my sewing kit and repaired my smock I thought I was taking a stand against fashion’s throwaway culture but has it in fact revealed more? Next time I wear it, will the mended patch provoke questions about sustainable fashion or lead to judgements about my income? Either way my tiny purple stitches have the power to make stuff visible. Whether they prompt a conversation about sustainable fashion or draw attention to the injustice of poverty in the UK, I have the courage to let them be seen.