Interview by: Katie Walsh
This is the second in a series of En Pointe interviews PLP has conducted in partnership with The Strange Foundation’s Election Infusions initiative, which is infusing home-stretch funds and momentum into critical election-focused work. Have you made a plan to vote? Find out how here.
From the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Dread Scott’s A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, fiber arts, textiles, and crafts have been an integral vehicle for social activism in the US. Since the 2016 election, “craftivism” projects like knitted pink pussy hats, embroidered “dissent” collars, the border wall Welcome Blanket Project, and guerrilla yarn bombing have risen in response to political legislation and inequalities.
Motivated by the 2020 election and the Black Lives Matter movement, interdisciplinary artist Chi Nguyen joined forces with artists Jen Hewett, Erin M. Riley, and Betty Farrell to create the Textile Artists Fundraiser (TAF) to aid the Movement Voter Project (MVP), supporting grassroots organizations in the big five battleground states. The TAF gathered 100+ artists from around the country to auction their work under the #Textiles4MVP hashtag on Instagram, the results of which raised over $50,000 for the MVP’s efforts. All of those funds went to local groups like Black Voters Matter, Mijente, and Mothering Justice to mobilize for the November election and build long-term infrastructure in their communities.
We caught up with Nguyen to discuss her inspiration for the project, the impact artists can have when they mobilize, and the rich historical interplay between textile arts and social justice movements.
Katie Walsh: How did the Textile Artists Fundraiser project come about? Who or what was the inspiration?
Chi Nguyen: Back in July I got an email from Katrina Anderson and Sujatha Jesudason with the subject line “Organizing for November and the long-haul—join us!” At our first meeting, I met 18 other badass women, including Betty Farrell. We were inspired by MVP’s mission and ready to do what it took to win back the White House and flip the Senate.
With this one goal, we broke off into smaller collectives based on our interests and spheres of influence. For me, it was textiles. After finishing the 5.4 Million and Counting quilt for abortion access back in 2016, I knew how much power textile artists could have in social movements. I was ready to tap into this power again for the 2020 election, so I reached out to Jen Hewett and Erin M. Riley to organize textile artists around MVP.
After many phone calls, spreadsheets, Google docs, and participation guidelines, #Textiles4MVP was created. All that being said, the project is part of a larger women-led effort. What started as a group pulled together by Katrina and Sujatha grew into 22 core organizers around the country, 100+ artists, 757 unique contributions, and $176,183.07 total raised in support of 42 grassroots organizations in battleground states. This is the power of relational organizing at work.
KW: How did you and your collaborators manage to organize over 100 artists within a month to participate in the fundraiser?
CN: Jen, Erin, Betty, and I met with the staff at MVP in late August to align our goals for the auctions. We needed to act fast so the money raised could go to local groups before the November election. Within a week, we sent out invites to hundreds of textile artists in our network to join the first Zoom call, where we discussed MVP’s strategy in battleground states, how we could collectively organize and fundraise, and our plans to sustain the group even after the election.
We wanted to make sure that any textile artists, regardless of where they are in their career, could easily join the effort. After the first call, we sent out a recording of the Zoom meeting for those who could not attend, a social media toolkit to promote #Textiles4MVP and the artwork being auctioned, and a guide on how to host an Instagram auction.
Within the first week, artists started promoting their auctions on Instagram under the #Textiles4MVP hashtag, and it grew from there. Many new artists reached out to us daily to get involved. All thanks to Lisa Solomon and Sarah K. Benning, we were able to host multiple group auctions to accommodate all of the interest.
Jen Hewett, Individual silhouette commissions. Courtesy of Jen Hewett.
KW: Why is it important for artists to get involved in the election process?
CN: This is not the first time in U.S. history where Black people are unjustly killed by the police, immigrants are mass incarcerated and separated from their loved ones, abortion access is under threat, and climate change is ignored. So, while it’s important for artists to get involved in the election process, we should not wait every four years to use our art as activism.
There are many issues that artists need to get involved in right now to get us to a more equitable society. If you care about education, use your art to advocate for school integration. If you care about affordable housing, use your art to advocate for tenant rights. If you care about electoral politics, use your art to restore voting rights and fight voter suppression. And when you put in this commitment, listen to the people who are most impacted by these issues and take their lead. Political art should not exist in a vacuum.
KW: What is your personal or artistic motivation for integrating advocacy into your art practice?
CN: This is a difficult question for me. I make art from personal experiences and, because of my identity, the personal can become political. I use my work to talk about immigration, queer identity, abortion access, and loss—and a lot of that comes from a level of pain and injustice. So when I sit in front of my loom, all of that is reflected back at me.
Ten years ago, I would jump into a project ready to share my trauma, to make a point. Since then, I have learned to set boundaries with how much I want to put myself out there and how much I want to keep private. Marginalized communities should not have to showcase our trauma to have our humanity respected.
Now I divide my work into buckets: Is this something I want to make for myself only as a way to process? Is this something that I can share publicly to draw attention to an issue? Is this something I can galvanize people around to take action?
To quote Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
KW: Can you speak to the role textile arts plays in social justice and activism and how this project fits into that context?
CN: There is a long history of textile arts being part of the social justice movements. I think of Chawne Kimber’s quilts like “The One for Eric G, 2015” and “still not, 2019.” The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the Social Justice Sewing Academy Quilts of Remembrance, the Protest Banner Lending Library, and Dread Scott’s “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” are all part of this long tradition.
The Textile Artists Fundraiser for the MVP fits into this context because our goal was political: We were raising money for grassroots organizations to mobilize for the November election and build long-term infrastructure in their communities. Jen, Erin, Betty, and I made it very clear to every artist who wanted to join the efforts that we were not fundraising for a candidate or a party. We firmly believe in self-determination and trust that local groups know how best to mobilize and invest in their communities.
The fundraiser differs from the above examples in that not every artwork in the auctions is inherently political as a standalone object. But when you scroll through the #Textiles4MVP hashtag on Instagram, there are visual cues like multiple VOTE pieces and postcards, an Abortion sweatshirt, and FUCK TRUMP bags to give viewers a snapshot of the range of issues that textile artists care about and are important in this election.
Alicia Scardetta, Fundraiser Mini Tapestry II. Courtesy of Alicia Scardetta.
KW: What impact has this project had thus far?
CN: When I first talked to Jen, Erin, and Betty about this project, I thought we could raise around $2,000 to $5,000 for MVP, but Jen knew we could raise much more than that. I was in awe when we raised our first $10,000 and proud of how textile artists were coming together to push forward this one collective action. When we reached over $50,000 at the end of the project, we all were ecstatic that 100 percent of the money raised would go to community groups that are doing the hard work on the ground right now and long after the polls close.
We heard from many participating artists that #Textiles4MVP gave them a way to channel their election anxiety and use the momentum to shape the 2020 election. For artists who have never sold their work before, this project gave them a platform, network, and confidence to keep producing and selling art. Additionally, we have created an artist collective that is ready to take political actions and use craft for change.
KW: Are there any plans to continue this textile movement after the election, or in other social justice movements? Do you have any advice on how to keep the conversation going?
CN: During our first meeting, I mentioned that there is a lot of work that we need to do to address structural racism within the textile community. So the conversation will continue. We will have more actions for people to take after November 3rd.
KW: How can people get involved/participate in this initiative? Are there any events coming up you’d like to share?
CN: Even though the Textile Artists Fundraiser has ended, we encourage artists to continue to support MVP or donate directly to the many local grassroots groups led by Black, Indigenous, Muslim, and LGBTQ+ people. The work does not end when November 3 is over.
Here are a few initiatives and events that people can participate in:
- Volunteer with Election Protection
- Volunteer with the Working Families Party
- Donate to bail funds and support your local mutual aid groups
- Join the Movement for Voter Project’s November 4 Call: What Happens Next
Featured image: Chi Nguyen in her studio. Courtesy of Chi Nguyen.
Katie Walsh is a Pittsburgh architect and modern crafter who is fascinated by the moments and spatial interactions of the in-between and strives for her work to be contextual and honest. She received her Bachelor of Architecture at Syracuse University and has worked at award-winning architecture firms, including Michael Graves, GBBN, BCJ, and currently Perkins Eastman.