Even at the best of times, I have felt uneasy around delicately stitched textiles—ever since first year high school when I failed a ‘fancy work' sampler and broke the accomplished tradition of needlework handed down from my maternal Nanna. This ambivalence towards needlecraft was recently tested when Sera Waters' embroideries were exhibited at Downtown—a contemporary art space usually inhabited by emerging artists of the installation and video kind—following a residency at Hampton Court Palace's Royal School of Needlework. What type of work might one expect from such an experience, painstakingly wrought beneath the weight of blood-drenched English history and now blood-sucking English tourism? Thankfully, there were no deer, swans or princelings' coronets and aspects of the work recalled my own painful attempts at stitchery.
Modest and genteel they may seem, but Waters' diminutive sewing notions are anything but polite or picturesque. In fact, these embroidered interventions are seriously subversive, utilising strategies such as hand ‘written' text, informal basted lines and sections left unfilled. Almost suggesting ineptitude, the artist deliberately flaunts the conventions governing this most feminine of pastimes with a series of black and white embroideries, some sketchily sewn. Collectively, these are entitled A crooked lineage and displayed in flowchart form, drawing upon symbols of terrorism and hardcore greed, with squares and rectangles framing ‘semtex', an aeroplane and ‘ATM's are not my friends'.
Other images include a hammer (‘weapon for door destruction') and fingerprints (‘11.57 pm'), suggesting evidentiary fragments. While these visual and written clues conjure up some kind of forensic investigation, the ‘MO' (as they say on The Bill ) is far from obvious and most of the artist's other ‘evidence' remains decidedly unscientific. Bearing the title ‘sneaky squirrel intruder', for example, a small animal undercuts the gravity of this would-be crime scene and raises some questions. How seriously do we take this scattered data? What kind of crime could this possibly describe?
Waters' random images and text are matched, in a structural sense, by the installation components casually strewn across the gallery walls. Far from the decorum of doyley making, these needleworked notions assume a peripatetic insouciance that approximates the casual grammar of conversation. It is this loose talk rather than the precision of forensic investigation that draws us closer.
With insufficient evidence for a major crime, one deduces that this is a trail of misdemeanours or petty (petit) crimes perpetrated by ‘crooks', a lesser, but not necessarily lower, breed of villain than career criminals. In this twilight world of venality that shysters, con men and rip off artists inhabit, we may even catch sight of ourselves reflected in the murky moral mirror of tax evasion, souveniring and opportunism. After all, many skeletons in family closets are clothed with the justification of ‘taking advantage of a situation' or being ‘resourceful', if not entirely ‘stitching someone up'.
So much for ‘crooks', what about nannies? Another look at the flowchart suggests a family tree but this is also skewed because its genealogical ‘blood' lines confuse parental and sibling connections. Is this a reference to Hampton Court's royal lineage of inbreeding? Apparently not, for Waters' concern is less to do with dysfunctional parenting and English nannies than Anglo-Australian grandmothers, commonly known as ‘nannas'. Traditionally, it has been nannies and grannies and not contemporary artists dominating the domain of fancy work. Stereotypically situated beyond reproach after ‘a certain age', our female elders are divested of power by a society that sentences them to a lavender-scented dotage of needles and thimbles. Despite their sainted status, not all nannies are squeaky clean and Waters explains that in her family at least, some nannies have had as much experience of petit crime—as victims and/or perpetrators—as petit point. Like most of their generation many elderly women have known hardship and the necessity of ‘getting by in the way they know how'1. This aspect of family history, however, is not memorialised in nannas' handiworks, no matter how devastating or exciting such events may have been. With family ‘honour' claiming priority, they have ‘shied away from life's small felonies', preferring to stitch ‘nature's niceties' of flowers and birds into the material evidence of their lives.
In Crooks & Nannies Waters offers new art and craft audiences a ‘collection of embroidered memories of the misdemeanours we spend time forgetting'. Politically and socially, this work situates ‘nannies' more realistically within the orbit of petit crime, as transgressors and/or victims, thus expanding their circumscribed territory of dainty embroidery. In drawing attention to craft made by our female elders and, more particularly, to what has been left out of their stitched stories, the artist challenges, at least notionally, assumptions about the decorative function of embroidery as a so-called ‘minor art'.
1 Waters, S., ‘Crooks & nannies', Crooks & nannies , Downtown Artspace, Adelaide, November 8-25 2006, n.p. Exhibition catalogue.