Turning the woolly marine creations around in her hands, Margaret Wertheim, one of the founders of the Crochet Coral Reef Project and co-director of the Institute for Figuring, spoke to a small, but diverse collection of people from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) community. Students, faculty members, Global Academic Fellows, administrative staff, and members of the Abu Dhabi community were in attendance for the workshop, each person closely listening—with a ball of yarn in one hand and a crochet hook in the other.
The Crochet Coral Reef Project was co-created in 2005 by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, inspired by their mutual concern for the devastating effects the rising of temperature and pollution have had on the coral reefs. Ms. Wertheim and her sister, Christine, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by the warming of the water. “[The project] has exceeded our expectations in any possible way,” said Ms. Wertheim, while starting to crochet a simple green coral reef structure. “When my sister and I started this project in 2005, we honestly thought that maybe 20 or 30 people would be interested in doing this project with us, and now there are well over 7000 people who have made models for the exhibitions themselves, and 3 million people have seen the exhibitions- we never imagined it would become a world-wide phenomenon.”
Ms. Wertheim showed the participants the different hyperbolic structures that could be made with a simple knowledge of crochet techniques, from a tight, dense hyperbolic pane made with red yarn, to a more elaborate kelp-like structure made from a special material called Jelly Yarn. The coral reef can be crocheted with any material, even with strips of disposed plastic bags, a bold statement in itself that protests against the immeasurable amount garbage present in the ocean today.
The most significant achievement of the Crochet Coral Reef Project is that in bringing the various levels of community together, the end result reflects the overarching culture of the region in which the project is executed. Together, participants create a rich composition of textures that represent the various customs, attitudes, and lifestyle of their community. Each city that has participated in creating a Satellite Reef has exhibited a different theme—and message—to its viewers. I suspect that the NYUAD Satellite Reef will be a veritable conglomeration of shapes, sizes, and colours, owing to the spectacular diversity of backgrounds present in the community body. “Abu Dhabi is a very unique place to be doing this project for various reasons,” said Ms. Wertheim, continuing on to expound on the logistical challenges the location has already presented – “This is the first time that we have done [the Reef project] in the Middle East, which is exciting in its own right, but [New York University Abu Dhabi] is very eager to involve people from all sectors of society as much as possible, which presents many logistical challenges because there is a [severe] separation of communities here…[one must] do outreach to individual communities…there is the student community, the Emirati community, the guest workers who work at NYU, the academic staff, and each of these populations have to be targeted in a different way.” Although NYUAD students fully embrace the cosmopolitan nature of the university, they have also experienced much difficulty in connecting with the different populations that exist within the university. Communal projects like the Crochet Coral Reef Project are important because they present great opportunities for collaboration across the community that might otherwise have difficulty establishing connections.
An important aspect of the project is its connection to feminism. Crochet as a handicraft has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, and remains to this day a female-dominated activity. It is not surprising, then, that the participants in the Crochet Coral Reef Project are almost all female. In fact, the project has met with disapproval from some women, who consider the project to be propagating the stereotype that women must take care of domestic responsibilities, and engage in feminine activity in their free time. The tradition of a mother teaching her daughter “hand work” has suffered over the past half-century, in part due to the idea that these skills are “old-fashioned,” or limiting. The word ‘feminist’ has developed negative connotations precisely because of those who call themselves active feminists and challenge the traditional separation of roles and hobbies to advocate sexual prejudices, mistaking cultural gender differences to indicate sexual discrimination; in this way of taking issue with everything, people have ceased to take their concerns seriously because the resolution of such matters does not advance the agenda for equality. It is altogether too easy to forget that feminism is the advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men- the abolition of a traditional handicraft will never achieve this feat, and will more compromise the rich history and significance of female history.
Lamenting that gender feminism has overwhelmed what was coined as equity feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism, Ms. Wentheim declared that crochet is a distinctly feminine activity that empowers women and men alike, a technical skill of artistry that must be mastered like any other skill or craft. The Crochet Coral Reef Project is a feminist project that unites women and men from all walks of life, allowing them to collaborate on making stunning models of marine structures through the beautiful feminine tradition of crochet. Personally, I felt joy in learning how to crochet again, because my mother had been increasingly reluctant to teach me the technique as I grew older.
The opening statement on the Crochet Coral Reef website is the perfect distillation of the project: “The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The people who attended the workshop held at NYUAD had varying levels of experience with crochet, but all were present because they had taken advantage of the communal space and time that the project created for the community. Bringing the Crochet Coral Reef Project to NYUAD is the beginning of a powerful series of conversations across the many layers of community extant in the university, one that will gain momentum as the project progresses.
For more information about the NYUAD Crochet Coral Reef project, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I recently had the chance of attending a workshop conducted by Zena el Khalil, a Lebanese artist. Some of you may know her from her performance as “The Pink Bride of Peace” in which she participates in the Beirut International Marathon, while wearing a bright pink wedding dress, as a way to raise awareness about pressing social issues. The performance originally started off on a personal level, but quickly turned into being about promoting peace and love in Zena’s beloved Beirut. As an aspiring artist – though I may be stretching it a little by calling myself an artist – who is interested in “activist art”, I was very eager to meet her.
When Zena started talking, during her workshop, I didn’t want her to stop. We started off the discussion by talking about other artists and work that inspired her, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed Peace’ for instance. Zena’s own artwork includes installations, paintings, performances, mixed media, and collage. She believes that her work is a creative offering, a way to raise awareness about the issues and challenges people face.
During the workshop, we spent a significant amount of time on a topic I personally find very intriguing: gender issues. Zena showed us an array of artwork and video that focused specifically on gender issues, including a short clip about the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women in gorilla masks who raise awareness of the fact that very few female artists get exhibited in museums. We discussed Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an installation of a banquet with a triangular shaped table, with place settings for thirty-nine important women from history. Zena hopes that one day women will be given full credit for their achievements; her own art is, in part, dedicated to that possibility.
And The Girls Watch On… (Fulla Mary) mixed media on wood 25×25 cm (2007)
After about an hour and a half of discussion, Zena had planned for us to get into small groups and start brainstorming ideas about what we would like to work on as young artist activists. Personally, I just wanted her to keep talking, and it seemed like almost all of the attendees agreed, so she did just that. A few of the students asked Zena for advice on how to get started and others told her about projects they have already done or intend to do. Some of the students wanted to implement projects in the public sphere in Abu Dhabi, something that Zena has a lot of experience with in Beirut. She was very insightful and encouraged us to respect the local laws when it comes to artwork in public spaces. The UAE’s art scene is rapidly growing, however, which may create new opportunities for emerging artists.
In addition to talking about art and activism, Zena also talked about the importance of working at one’s art. She told us that when she was in college, her professor asked her to draw something every day as part of the coursework. She said that, as hard as it was, she did manage to draw something every day, and thus learned to create even when she had little to no inspiration. Her story reminded me that we can’t always wait around for inspiration to show up; we need to pull up our socks and get our work done, create our own inspiration.
As I was leaving the workshop, I saw many students stay back, hoping for some one-on-one time with Zena. She inspired us all, by giving us hope that we can all make a difference in the world if we work hard and believe in ourselves. Her art helped us to see that we could all be “activists” in our own way, with our own creative energy.
BY SACHI LEITH
“Multidisciplinary” is, to me, one of the most enticing pieces of educational jargon there is. As someone who has been described as chronically indecisive, I have a hard time keeping my interests within isolated fields of study, and the word “multidisciplinary” is like a shining beacon of hope. Sure, I think, I can study science and literature and art and economics, and someday I’ll be able to mash them together into a tailor-made career that I will enjoy for the rest of my life! But when reality hits me, as it so often does, like a record-breaking skydiver at 833.9 mph, I’m sure that the Renaissance woman is irrelevant these days and that I’ll be living in a cardboard box for the rest of eternity. Who in the real world applies “multidisciplinary” to everyday life?
Angela Palmer, that’s who.
Angela Palmer embodies “multidisciplinary,” and she plays the part with style. A Scottish artist who began her career as a journalist, Palmer merges her MFA with, among other things, biology, archaeology, film, ecology, history, literature, music, physics, and anatomy. But it is her career in journalism, she says, that informs the way she approaches each project—the output is a journey more than a static work of art. “The end product is just part of it,” she says. “It’s really about the story.” It can be tedious to hear someone discuss the minutiae of their own work, but Palmer tells these stories with such selfless excitement that one can’t help but be intrigued by both work and artist. “Art is about asking; asking, questioning, challenging, breaking rules, but driven always by curiosity. Curiosity underpins everything I do. Was it a successful piece of art? I don’t know, but for me it satisfies a curiosity.”
One of her most recent works is a sculpture, on 111 sheets of glass, of a child mummy from the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Using CT scans of the mummy, she was able to recreate an image of the body, slice by slice, without disturbing his wrappings . From this, scientists were able to reproduce a cast of his skeleton, determine his age, and make discoveries about his teeth and bone structure. She’s performed the same process on herself, author Robert Harris, and the heads of horses, cows, and pigs.
Accompanying the sculpture is a short documentary film from her trip to the mummy’s hometown and tomb (just outside of Cairo), and art pieces constructed from linen wrappings and natural dyes.
Another project, entitled Ghost Forest, involved transporting ten enormous tree stumps from the Ghanaian rainforest to the middle of Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London. Palmer’s aim was to promote awareness of climate change and responsible forestry. The massive stumps stood looming around Nelson’s Column, which stands 50 metres, or 169 feet, tall, the height that many of these trees would have been. The trees were moved to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference; sat for two years in the front lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History; and have now found their final resting place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The entire project has been declared carbon neutral, its emissions offset by a company called ClimateCare working to introduce efficient stoves in Ghana, the trees’ birthplace.
“What staggers me,” she marvels, “is that we have these problems in the world and so few artists are responding.”
Even on video, the project was breathtaking—the tangled roots are reminiscent of nerve endings, their silent and majestic presence among both natural and man-made landscapes a reminder of our own insignificant mortality; I can only imagine its power in real life.
“I’m not an activist,” she’s quick to say, “but I’m surprised.” When asked where she draws the line between activist and artist, Palmer pauses. “I don’t see myself as an activist in that quite often with activists, they’re associated with one issue. And that’s a determining factor that underlines their activism. When I was in Copenhagen, I met a lot of activists, and they were very determinedly single-issue. Quite often they were just exhausted by their own activism, in trying to effect change. I’d never want the shackles of it, to be limited to a single issue. The environment does interest me, and I do think we have got a duty, as human beings, but I’m not a preacher, and I don’t exactly go about living in a very pure way. Purity just doesn’t exist in my case.”
And she’s so much more interesting for her impurities. They make her seem so … what’s the word?
[Images credit: angelapalmer.com]
Abu Dhabi doesn’t exactly brim with art galleries. You couldn’t spend a day ‘gallery hopping’ as you might in other cities, and many people are under the impression that art galleries in Abu Dhabi simply don’t exist. But like so many things in this city, if you seek, you shall find.
The Ghaf Art Gallery, tucked away on Khaleej Al Abari St, behind Khalidiya Park, was opened in 2006 and is aimed at nurturing local talent. The title ‘gallery’ as applied to the Ghaf might seem ambitious to people more accustomed to huge spaces housing lots of work. ‘Hanging space’ might be more appropriate, but the Ghaf nevertheless has an important role to play in the local arts scene.
When I stopped into Ghaf, the exhibit featured six or seven pieces of digitally produced images of a dystopian, post apocalyptic society with the Abu Dhabi skyline lingering in the background. Past exhibits at Ghaf have included work from Zayed University students and other local artists (click here for a review of this work). Exhibits change monthly, so no visit to the Ghaf will be the same as the next – fitting for a city constantly in flux.
Where: Behind Khalidiya Park on Khaleej Al Arabi St, just past the British Veterinarian. Cabs will take you to the Park, and you can walk down Khaleej St away from the Corniche.
Opening Hours: Saturday-Thursday, 9am-1pm and 5-8pm. Closed Fridays.