Care and Resistance – Alternative Pathways in UK Craft
Dr Karen Patel, Birmingham City University
In May 2020, Crafts Council released their Market for Craft Report, the third in their historical, periodic analyses of the UK craft market. In the report it is claimed that despite the disruption and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some hope for makers in the craft sector, given that craft sales have “increased from £883m in 2006 to over £3bn in 2019” (Crafts Council, 2020a:2). Crafts Council often use economic figures to position craft as a significant contributor to the UK creative industries, which is in crisis because of the pandemic (Comunian and England, 2020). As craft has become more ‘mainstream’ Crafts Council concede that “We now need a different approach to economic development to rebuild the market for craft, growing our own resourcefulness and showcasing how craft can help to generate sustainable, domestic economies at the same time as reaching broader international markets.” (ibid). In this paper I considered, how are different approaches possible in a professional craft sector characterised by whiteness and elitism? (Patel, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare inequalities and injustice, and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we find ourselves at a conjuncture. This became evident in UK craft when Crafts Council received backlash from makers of colour when posting a black square on social media in support of Black Lives Matter (Patel, 2020). Crafts Council acknowledged they needed to do better, and a public forum they organised in June 2020 highlighted the scale of the problem of inequalities and racism in UK craft. The Market for Craft report highlighted that since 2006, the proportion of makers from Black and Minority backgrounds in the UK professional craft sector has remained static at around 4%. Despite the growing popularity in craft as celebrated in that report, opportunities to participate professionally and make a fruitful living in the sector are unequally distributed. To aid recovery post-pandemic, the idea of the ‘craft market’ needs a rethink.
In the paper I discussed alternative pathways in UK craft through a case study of Shelanu, a craft social enterprise established by Craftspace in Birmingham. Shelanu is a collective for women living in Birmingham who are migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The collective helps women to “develop confidence, craft skills and well-being through social enterprise”. As part of my AHRC funded Creative Economy Innovation Fellowship project Craft Expertise, I observed a series of Shelanu’s craft sessions with groups of women in Birmingham who were relatively recent migrants and from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, and I carried out interviews with some of the participants. The sessions were part of the Women’s Maker Movement project run by Craftspace, which worked with over 90 women facing social and economic challenges across Birmingham. In my research I found that the participants’ perception of craft was quite different from the common characterisation of craft enterprise as part of the ‘creative industries’, instead they saw craft as more of an essential skill, rather than a way to make money, however the Women’s Maker Movement course did include a session on starting a craft business. Though the advice about sole trading and limited companies was useful for the participants, many of the women were more interested in working together in the community and potentially starting a social enterprise, resisting individualised notions of entrepreneurship.
The research and methodology are framed by intersectionality as a critical social theory (Collins, 2019). Approaching this research through an intersectional lens recognises the overlapping systems of oppression that uphold unequal power structures. The interviews reveal the dynamics of race, class and gender which shape how participants engage with the sessions and with each other. Drawing on the work of Patricia Hill Collins, I conceptualise the research with Shelanu as a potential ‘resistant knowledge project’ which challenges traditional hierarchies in contemporary craft. According to Collins, resistant knowledge projects “grapple with the existential question of how individuals and groups who are subordinated within varying systems of power might survive and resist their oppression” (2019:88). As women who have recently migrated to the UK, the participants in Shelanu’s project have experienced a variety of challenges living in a country where its government have fostered a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants (Jones et al, 2017). The Women’s Maker Movement craft sessions created a caring and supportive space within the community. The skills, confidence and knowledge the women gained through the free sessions enable them to operate within the craft ecology. Participants either gift or sell jewellery to family, friends and neighbours, participating in a small-scale economy based on friendship and care.
The work Craftspace does is instructive for how we can imagine alternative pathways in the creative economy. The organisation challenges and pushes boundaries of what craft is considered to be, within the contemporary creative industries discourse. With every project it does, such as the Women’s Maker Movement, Craftspace and its social enterprise Shelanu continually reach out to communities which are underrepresented in contemporary craft, working collaboratively and with a social conscience to open up alternative pathways into the sector. It is an organisation with social justice at its core, which is why it has been so successful in promoting equality and diversity. This is something that many other craft organisations are struggling to catch up with in the light of the Black Lives Matter resurgence during 2020, which brought about increased scrutiny of the craft sector’s approach to addressing its lack of diversity.
Craftspace and Shelanu are an important example of how one of the most homogenous sectors in the creative industries could be more inclusive and caring, if more organisations embedded social justice into everything they did.
Collins, P.H. (2019) Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Duke University Press.
Comunian, R. & England, L. (2020) Creative and cultural work without filters: Covid-19 and exposed precarity in the creative economy, Cultural Trends, 29(2), 112-128.
Jones, H., Saltus, R., Dhaliwal, S., Forkert, K., Davies, W., Gunaratnam, Y. & Jackson, E. (2017). Go home?: The politics of immigration controversies. Manchester University Press.
Patel, K. (2020) Race and Craft in the Covid Spotlight. Soundings: a Journal of Politics and Culture. 75, Summer 2020, 24-27.