Gallery: Rubicon ARI
Exhibition: Sophie Cox, Protest and Survive
The gallery-goer accustomed to skipping over exhibition labels and texts might just be compelled to stop and read by Protest and Survive, Sophie Cox’s ode to craftivism exhibited at Rubicon ARI. Thirteen textile works hang neatly and cleanly on the walls of the gallery space, but each one almost clamours to proclaim a different message. To my left, Songs of experience sings lyrics about loneliness, devotion and resilience, and Flag for dummies boldly criticises Australian nationalism. To my right, Car life quietly comments on homelessness,while Prayer a day brainstorms about anything and everything. The show is a smorgasbord, each piece requiring time and consideration to be read and understood before the next takes a sharp detour into another issue.
The piece that draws me the most is one of the largest and wordiest of the show, Prayer a day. A white rectangle of cotton is stitched with dozens of words occupying various semantic fields: from locations to emotions to rituals to kinship terms. It seems to act as a cultural equivalent of the wordlists that field linguists use to familiarise themselves with unknown languages. These lists contain quotidian vocabulary and ‘universal’ concepts, often grounded in our physical reality: the sun, bodies of water, flora and fauna, food, verbs of motion, body parts, bodily functions, weather terms. The words in Cox’s list include these domains and more, flagging the changing preoccupations and concerns of our everyday culture. Our notion of the 'everyday'—or at least the ‘everyday’ that the demographic of inner-city artistically engaged young people experiences—has shifted from the natural or physical vocabulary that dominates a wordlist for linguistic exploration to something more social, political and globalised.
As the state of the natural world becomes more precarious and therefore more relevant to all our futures, we are becoming more and more disconnected from it. Our daily activities no longer concern themselves so much with the changing of the seasons, the movements of animals, or the rising and setting of the sun. The agents of settler-colonialism never even began to engage with the ecosystems in which we live on any respectful level before becoming totally divorced from them. Is it possible, then, for activism to catch up to the vast cultural and economic machinery of Western environmental neglect? Cox evidently values nature, with words like ‘trees’, ‘sunshine’, ‘growth’, ‘bushlands’ and ‘rain’ included in the wordlist of her daily ‘prayers’. The piece’s web of various interacting concepts reminds me of the forces that restructure our relationships with the natural entities signified by these words. It highlights our increasing propensity to name, describe and engage with an infinite number of other issues and phenomena in the world.
An expansion of the vocabulary we use to deal with the social and the global is not a negative development in and of itself, but it represents and reinforces a tradeoff of values that we are compelled to make by processes of globalism and technologisation, whether we are willing or not. We have access to so much information, yet feel increasingly powerless and alone as the capitalist design of work, habitation and family forces us to deprioritise collectivism and connection. Craftivism as a genre inherently considers these interactions between the political and the everyday, but Cox’s work does so especially and intentionally, through material and text. Some works appear decorative at first glance: Car life depicts a cottage surrounded by a cutesy, colourful rose garden and the periwinkle text ‘I’m living in my car’. In Forgotten women, intricate blue herringbone stitches create a border around a square space sparsely embroidered with tiny, hard to read names of women artists. They are visually subtle and beautiful from afar, only revealing their messaging upon closer examination, at which point the text becomes legible. Others, like Enough already and No more crosses, are parsed easily enough as political statements, however they make niche references to people or events which must be recognised in order to be understood.
In contrast, Canberra for dummies and Flag for dummies are explicitly political, brashly declaring ‘FUCK OFF, WE’RE FOOLS,’ a play on the anti-immigrationist slogan, ‘Fuck off, we’re full.’ The letters are sewn onto the backdrops of kitschy tourist tea towels depicting the Australian flag and a montage of illustrated Canberran monuments respectively. Artistic predecessors to the For dummies pieces—a 2021 Paul Yore tapestry and an anonymous 2016 Banksy copycat depicting Pauline Hanson—take less homely approaches to the phrase, perhaps under-acknowledging the insidious omnipresence of xenophobia in Australian households. I find myself appreciating Cox’s material contextualisation a little more than the aforementioned works; it is a disservice to represent such messaging as simply belonging to the vocal Pauline Hansons of the world rather than being enmeshed in the milieu. I am left wondering: if craftivism might make an impact, then what sort is more effective? The textiles that would blend in innocuously with the sweetly decorated household items at Grandma’s place, the kind that shout in your face, ‘I’M UGLY AND IT MEANS SOMETHING,’ or pieces that straddle the line between the two?
Cox’s work doesn’t seem preoccupied with answering these questions, but simply with making the work that visually fits the issue at hand most appropriately. Her use of language, too, is adaptive and dynamic, with the closely stitched song lyrics of Songs of experience being one of the most personal pieces in the space, despite being entirely drawn from others’ work. In Hot on top, the disjointed lowercase fragments of a sentence are written in the generic second person: ‘it doesn’t matter what’s underneath/ as long as you look hot/ on top.’ Each chunk of text is embroidered separately on one of three small ivory panels hanging vertically in a line, decorated with lace, pearls, and fur. Other pieces present single complete utterances: Enough already pleads, ‘Is it not enough yet?’ while Adani sarcastically states, ‘Adani has been a shining light.’ Appliqué block letters are sewn onto some works, while others are adorned with cursive text bordering on illegible, and others yet with geometrically embroidered print letters. All but one piece, Community Garden, contain text. Fittingly, this one also stands apart thematically, with a sweet depiction of planting allotments, a basketball court and a creek. The garden is a symbol of what is good and what could be, rather than what angers or upsets or galvanises us now. If craftivism as a genre often relies on text as a tool for concretising and broadcasting the concerns of marginalised people, the wordless Community Garden seems to stand in for an imagined post-justice future, where repressed voices need not be compensated for.
As a collection of works, Protest and survive is a case study in performativity: not so much in the Butlerian sense that has now become the word’s primary association, but as a demonstration of the way in which language constructs reality more broadly. Cox quotes others, reproduces song lyrics, builds sentences, modifies catchphrase, gathers names and compiles wordlists. She sews together declarative statements, rhetorical questions, entreaties and imperatives. Her experiences as an individual are interspersed with commentary about the public world. It is more honest to the messiness, flux, and idiosyncrasy that characterise our natural linguistic responses to social stimuli than socially engaged art with a more uniform approach to style, language or tone might be, and it is this honesty that characterises the show.
The language of activism remains relevant in a social economy based on efficiency. Obliqueness is an enemy to being heard and we require more than just visual symbolism to process the mess of information we absorb daily. Maybe Cox's work is an antidote to an information overload that can be debilitating to both personal health and collective action. With her sprawling treatment of numerous issues using a medium that is both time and labour intensive, she asserts that she cares deeply and broadly; she is full of care and encourages others to care. Art is presented as a method for processing the bombardment of injustices we witness. But I also can’t help but think that her fabric pieces—especially with the choice to include ready-made textiles appliqued with ironic statements—are in themselves reflections of the oversaturation of political messaging and activism in our daily lives. Should we fear a consequent desensitisation to all that is wrong in the world? When even your tea towel is a political statement, what is the value of a political statement?
The selection, arrangement, and presentation of text in craftivist art can be taken for granted, especially in a practice as consistently verbal as that of Cox's. But both in activism and in Cox’s art, just as in everyday social interactions, language is constantly—and often subconsciously—shaped by changing priorities, environments and identities, and the desire to index one’s relationship to these factors. In her artist’s statement, Cox states that the ‘works themselves are not the action, the changing of the world’. They were intended as an awareness-raising exercise, or a call to action. I believe they are still constitutive in a sense. They are experiences turned into physical objects, saving memories in the form of stitches which catalogue a social world through the very words we use to create it.
Uswa Qureshi is a writer and artist based in Naarm/Melbourne. They are interested in identity, language and community, and have previously written for MASS MeMO. They are currently completing their Honours in Linguistics at The University of Melbourne.
This text was commissioned through the Emerging Writers’ Program. An annual collaborative project, from KINGS and un Projects, that supports critical arts writing, fiction, poetry, experimental, cross-genre and digital text forms. The Emerging Writers’ Program provides professional publishing opportunities and fosters dialogue between artists and arts writers. Each emerging writer in the program receives critical feedback and editorial assistance from KINGS and un Projects personnel.
Supported by Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and City of Yarra.