FWF2020 Q&A: Enza Gandolfo

Enza is a panelist on the FWF2020 Craftivism session.
She is a writer and the author of two novels, Swimming (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Prize) and The Bridge (shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2019), as well as the co-author of several non-fiction books including: Inventory: On Op Shops and It Keeps Me Sane: Women Craft Wellbeing.

Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?

Not a moment but a period: early adolescence. I grew up in Footscray in the 1960s and 70s, in a strict Sicilian household with a domineering father. There were lots of things I wasn’t allowed to do including going out with my friends, definitely no boys, but even school camps were not allowed. They were happy for me to get an education as long as it led to an ‘appropriate job’ — secretary, bank teller, teacher. Feminism was the light at the end of what seemed like a very dark tunnel. Knowing that there were women speaking their minds, doing the work they wanted to do, and fighting for women’s rights gave me hope that one day I could have a life of my own, a life that I could have a say over. It shaped my idea of feminism as a movement of women working collectively — it made me want to acknowledge those that came before me and to continue to work for a more just world for those coming after me.

A second period was much later — for though I often felt like an outsider among other feminists — as working class, as a ‘wog’, as a fat girl — for many years I hung on to the idea of feminism being able to speak for all women. In the 1990s, I read the works of black and lesbian feminists — Barbara Smith, Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, Kimberley Crenshaw and others. They helped me to understand the complexities of identity, the problems with second wave feminism and the idea of universal womanhood. I saw then that feminism can only move ahead if it is truly inclusive — allowing space for diverse voices. This means not only fighting for more women in power but for those positions to go to more women of colour, working class women, and women from the LGBTQIA communities.

What do you mean when you talk about craftivism? What are the strengths of craft over other political/subversive art-making?

Craftivism for me is the use of craft by the maker to communicate ideas, to tell stories, to contribute to and connect with others and/or to challenge and create change in the world. It can be overtly political — like yarn bombing a tanker or painting a banner with a political slogan. It can be educational as well as political like the Crochet Coral Reef project by sisters, Margaret and Christine Wertheim that has become an international collaboration involving thousands of people. It can be smaller and more local, like making a quilt to document the history of a local area. But it can also be personal: making to build skills or for therapeutic reasons.

While craft techniques are used by professional artists — textile and fibre artists, sculptors, installation artists — the strength and power of craft is that it is accessible. I heard someone recently call knitting their superpower. I do think that craft making is a superpower. Once you have it in your repertoire, its uses are endless.

At the beginning of the first lockdown, I decided I was going to learn a new skill. I picked sashiko — a form of Japanese embroidery. I made one piece and then another and then began to experiment with my own style. I played and made random pieces and turned them into gifts for friends. Then I saw the call for pieces for the Make A Fuss exhibition at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre — responding to the question: ‘What do I no longer want to be silent about? This inspired me to think about myself and the things I have been silent about — I thought about my body and the way I have always tried to camouflage it (as if a black dress is really going to hide the fact that I am overweight). Deciding to make a piece celebrating my body was challenging, it was fun and it was therapeutic. It is a political piece but also a personal one.

You come from a family of makers and crafters — how has this informed not just your crafting but also your politics?

For my mother,  making was essential. In her home in a small village in Sicily she and her sisters sewed, embroidered and crochet to make an income especially after my grandfather died when my mother was 12. My grandmother used craft making as a way of dealing with her grief after the death of her oldest son, she devised complex and intricate patterns for large doilies which took her months to complete. In Australia my mother used craft to supplement the family income and as a refuge from the relentless demands of family and work. She taught me that craft — making by hand — could sustain and nourish you even in the most difficult times. She was a gifted maker. Friends and family recognised her skill and it gave her an identity beyond that of migrant woman, mother and wife. She gave voice to the stories of her life through the works that she made. As a young girl, desperate to have a life that was different to my mother’s I rejected craft making. I took up pen and paper instead. But I realised in my 30s the value of craft and the importance of valuing women’s work. I realised that the belittling of craft was another way that our patriarchal society devalues women. The act of reclaiming craft and of understanding its history and its place in the culture is a feminist act. Acknowledging women’s craft is a way of giving voice to women’s lives. Giving voice to stories that have been silenced is one of the key motivations for me in all my work — my writing, my craft and my politics.

Forgiveness and redemption comes up in your fiction writing — how have you experienced forgiveness or redemption through craft?

As an adult, I often sewed with my mother. I’d arrive at my parents’ house with fabric and pattern and she would help with the measurements, and with the cutting and sewing. We’d start well, laughing and working together. She would make some of my favourite food and we would have a big lunch in-between. But by the time the dress was ready for its first fitting, she would be pressing all my buttons (no pun intended) and I would be pressing all hers. Frustrated, I would quickly pack up and go home either leaving the dress behind for her to finish it or taking it with me to finish at home. It was a complicated dance that we repeated many times over the years. But no matter how annoyed we became with each other, how well the dress did or didn’t turn out, we would be drawn to do it all again in a few months time. 

Though we loved each other, shared a sense of humour and a love of making, we were very different women with different values. I had not turned out the way she had hoped. She would continue to do and say things that I disagreed with.  In the last year of her life, while she was having chemo, I reduced my work hours so I could spend some time with her most days. I started to crochet a blanket and I’d bring it with me and we’d sit in her lounge room or in her hospital room and both of us would crochet. This time spent talking and making together was redemptive. Just before she died she asked me to help her finish a crocheted hat she’d been making, ‘I need to finish it,’ she said, ‘Because no one else will.’  She was right, I wouldn’t have finished it, it wasn’t my kind of hat, but, like her, I expect I will keep making until the very end.  

In a very different vein: In early 2020 when the fires were raging across the country, there was little we could do other than donate money. But this did not feel like enough. The making of pouches for the wildlife was taken up by crafters across the world. Thousands and thousands of craft makers took out their sewing machines and their fabric stashes, downloaded patterns and sewed. For me making the pouches felt like a practical, useful thing I could do for those on the front line caring for the animals, and for the animals themselves. The fires are a result of climate change, something we are all responsible for. Making the pouches was a slow process during which I thought about the wildlife, the fires and climate change and what action I might take in the future. To be part of a community of makers working and thinking has been redemptive — a small acknowledgement of our need to act and to do better.  

Why I love craft making…

I don’t have to be an artist to craft.
The end product does not have to be perfect.
It’s joyful and fun and sometimes funny.
When I make with others, our hands are busy but we can listen to each other and laugh together.
Anyone can learn to make, participate and pass skills on to others.
It calls for connection — making together is part of craft making, as is making for others.
It’s slow, takes time, it’s quiet and allows time for thinking and contemplating.
It gives me a sense of accomplishment.
It is therapeutic. Nourishing.
I can use recycled materials.
I can make something frivolous, beautiful or functional. Or I can make something political and poignant.
Craft is not threatening.
Craft is a language and I can use it to tell stories.
It has a long and rich history. And this history is dominated by women.

Book recommendations
Threads of Life, Clare Hunter, Hachette
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, Penguin
The Gentle Arts: 200 Years of Australian Women’s Domestic & Decorative Arts Jennifer Isaacs, Lansdowne Publishing

Online recommendations
Making & Shaping an article by Enza Gandolfo about her journey through her mother’s illness and how she managed it.
The article The power of ‘women’s work’: craftivism by Sigourney Jacks sheds light on the struggles & history of crafts from 1751 to now.
Conflict Textilesis home to a large collection of international textiles, exhibitions and associated events, all of which focus on elements of conflict and human rights abuses.
Cut Cloth Exhibition, The Portico Library an exhibition, publication and series of workshops that examine the shifting role of textiles within contemporary feminist art practices.
Innovative textile art is ‘smashing’ its way into our art galleries, an article by Chloe Wolifson showcases Indigenous art across Australia.

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