Womxn’s work: Ruth Aiko Asawa

The debate on the crossover between art and crafts is an age-old one. Views of the distinction differ from thinking about the artist intention vs materials and techniques used in creation to skill and intended use of the object.

To me, this debate is interesting to the extent that it informs how society places value on objects. As well as the extent to which the distinction is gendered and used to disparage womxn’s work in an attempt to cheat them out of their share of value & contribution……. further pointing towards the reductionist gaze applied towards womxn’s art. 

The National Gallery in Cape Town exhibited a group show; ‘women’s work; crafting stories and subverting narratives’. 

The “exhibition showcases the innovation demonstrated by a diverse group of contemporary South African artists and artisans, who utilize and transform techniques such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery, quilting and beadwork to create works that blur the boundaries between art and craft.” 

An artist who succeeded in breaking free of societal constraints and blurring the lines between what is and isn't art is Ruth Asawa. Ruth Aiko Asawa was an American sculptor fondly remembered for her incredibly intricate crocheted wire sculptors.

Despite her mastery and skill, her work was publicly dismissed as ‘domestic craft and not art’ with her role as a ‘mother of six’ often used to further discredit her. In 1956, ArtNews published this about her work:

“These are ‘domestic’ sculptures in a feminine, handiwork mode

Asawa’s response: 

The distinction between domestic and non-domestic art would have made no sense to me. “Art is doing,” she wrote. “Art deals directly with life.”

Asawa’s sculptures show off her deep understanding and appreciation of nature, geometry and abstraction. This is her talking about her interest in wire as a material: 

I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.

She was not very interested in ideas that were already solved. She was interested in ideas that did not have a shape yet. Abstracting from materials and making objects do what they have not done yet.

Although Asawa is known for her wire sculptors, she was a prolific creator; casting as well as being an art teacher and activist. David Zwirner describes her as ‘an influential sculptor, devoted activist and tireless advocate for arts education.’

I’m interested in how different art works can be in conversation with each other despite differences in time and geography. For me Asawa’s extensive body of work is in direct conversation with the work I saw at the National Gallery in Cape Town. Both technically strong, imaginative and pushing the boundaries of what society expects to be ‘womxn’s work’. These works all exploring personal narratives and issues of identity in a world that continues to put constraints on womxn and freedom over their creations, their bodies and selves. 

We should not forget the contribution of strong artists like Asawa who continue to push ideas and pave a way for the rest of us. Their stories should not be erased from history but rather be celebrated and used to propel us forward. 







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