Written by Georgina Russell
‘I’m women. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman. That’s me.’ – Maya Angelou
Around the world on the 8th March we saw the celebration of International Women’s Day, marking the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the world. Female empowerment and representation are imperative in a society filled with gender bias and inequality, striving for inclusivity not only for women supporting women, but also girls supporting girls. It is a day for celebration not struggle, but it is important to reflect on the past, appreciating the women who came before us who were even more powerful than we can imagine fighting for equality in a man’s world.
I was lucky enough to partake in MCR Sew Social’s first online exhibition to celebrate International Women’s Day. MCR Sew Social is run by the amazing textile artists Louisa Hammond and Rowan Bridgewood and was established in 2018 as a ‘community for womxn artists and textile makers’ to meet (usually in coffee shops!) around Greater Manchester. It was so insightful to hear many of the artists themselves speak on Zoom about their work and what it meant to them.
One of these incredibly talented women was Steph Evans of ‘Evanssentcreations’ who runs Manchester based embroidery classes, creates kits and sells commissions. The featured artwork Steph created is named ‘The Embrace Project’ which celebrates 75+ women of all shapes and sizes, from all over the globe and all walks of life! She talked through her chosen artwork in the exhibition and more thoroughly in a conversation I had with her:
‘To embrace something is to welcome it with open arms, hold, hug, accept it completely… Each image is sketched into a pattern design, stitched into an embroidery, celebrated as prints and collated as a poster. I’m hoping that this project will help everyone to see that individualities are what makes every one of us beautiful, special and unique.’
Steph’s work particularly stood out to me due to its awareness of inclusivity, occasions such an International Women’s Day are about appreciating and representing women who possibly don’t have a voice themselves so by speaking out and up for them is incredibly important. The piece that spoke uniquely to me is named ‘LIBERTY’ which features an empowering disabled woman who modelled for Steph. In her own words:
‘I almost never see a person like myself in art or media. Disabled, non-binary, and fat don’t tick the typical ‘beautiful’ box… I found going through this process to be liberating and since my wheelchair is liberating as well I decided that liberty was the perfect name.’
Another Manchester based artist who attracted my attention was Sarah Leonard a previous Cotton On MCR Manc of the Month (also known as ‘Atypicalstitch’). Sarah creates empowering embroidery art around the uterus and vulva based upon societal pressures placed on women from the moment they are born. The artwork she exhibited online was titled ‘Judgement’ completed in January 2021 which features a uterus made of fabric, beading, paint, felt and rope! The combination of materials gives this work such a tactile nature drawing you in, wanting to learn and understand Sarah’s thought process. I contacted Sarah so she could describe in her own words:
‘Judgement is a uterus piece which highlights the societal pressures placed on those with a uterus. The design is ornate, to represent the esteem attached to fertility. The eyes represent the many societal judgements attached to the inability or choice to procreate.’
Leonard spoke about how she personally does not want children, therefore, society judges her based upon that choice. However, she also mentioned how many of the women (and men!) who buy from her want to celebrate and feel empowered so purchase her work when struggling with issues and chronic illnesses such as fertility and Endometriosis. The main part of this work that I love (if I had to pick one) is for sure the multitude of individual eyes staring at you as you examine the piece. Sarah revealed ‘I had original 17th Century lovers eye paintings printed onto fabric, which I appliquéd to create the inner uterus.’
It feels as though I myself am judging the piece and being watched as I do so but, in reality, it is the eyes of society and societal expectations that judge women and the choices they makes – whether they ‘fit in’ with what society wants them to pursue.
MCR Sew Social mentioned at the very start of their exhibition ‘We are showcasing a variety of textile mediums from hand embroidery, weaving, sculpture, cross stitch, collage and appliqué.’ and I wasn’t sure how varied the artwork featured would be, but wow was I impressed! The confidence in every single piece shown was awe-inspiring, each woman with different artistic approaches but a collective narrative – gender parity.
Finally, Michelle Ayavoro’s hand sewn portrait of Margaret Busby (Britain’s youngest and first black female book publisher) created in 2020, caught my eye due to its incredible originality. As something created over lockdown, Michelle went onto say how her textile art had been inspired by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that followed across the world. A real abstract and textural piece of embroidery, Michelle is combining her portrait with 5 other textile artists to create the world’s very first textile gallery of black icons – her fellow artists portraits include icons such as Maya Angelou and Beyonce. With beads, embroidery and appliqué, this textural portrait embodies the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and memorialises those lost, to have a gallery especially for this purpose will be something you won’t want to miss!
To be part of a collection of such inspiring women talking through their art so confidently was a privilege and, for me, somewhat educational. Being a young woman myself and facing the unfairness of the world first-hand, seeing these experienced, empowered and engaging female artists create their own narrative motivates me to not only be more confident in my art, but also in myself.
In summary, every day is international women’s day!
Our guest blogger is Georgina Russell, she says ‘I am a second year Fine Art student and am excited to have secured an art placement starting this August. I specialise in painting/illustration and love the little details highlighting the beauty in the world around us. Art for me is about escapism and appreciating all aspects of creativity and vibrancy within the art community. I can be found at @georginarose_designs on Instagram.