​maggie dunlap is turning women’s craft into political fine art

We catch up with the artist to talk about reclaiming the tools of female oppression.

by Tish Weinstock
08 July 2015, 3:25pm

Ever since she laid eyes on Marliyn Manson's video for Heart Shaped Glasses (she was 12), Maggie Dunlap knew the kind of artist she wanted to be. Fast-forward to today and Maggie's work is a heady mix of cutesy kitsch meets dark gothic underworld, blending the pink and giggly tropes of girlhood with the things we normally consider to be taboo. Tapping into the gendered history of the decorative arts, Maggie seeks to emancipate the art of embroidery from the realm of the domestic, reclaiming it as a means of female empowerment. Take for instance her needlepoint series on to which she intricately stitched gimp masks, gags and other BDSM ephemera. Or in Jungrfrukällan, an intimate installation of a teenage girl's bedroom: a vision of innocence that is suddenly undercut by the work's titular reference to a 13th century poem about the rape and murder of a young girl. Fast becoming one to watch, we caught up with Maggie as she works towards her first solo show in Miami this autumn. 

What is it you're trying to do with your work?
I'm primarily talking to other women and girls.It's at best a conversation that I encourage my fellow ladies to expand upon, add to, and re-imagine.I hope my work validates the experiences of other women, and makes them feel less alone. If I can make one girl feel a little less alienated then I'd be happy.

A lot of your work centres around the theme of girlhood, where did this interest come from?
Feminist theory, and attempting to dissect my own experiences within the confines of girlhood is a central theme in my work, because it ismorethan an academic theory - it is something that literally affects my every day life. I (unfortunately) don't have the luxury to make work about these issues in the abstract, as they are very real problems that have shaped my life.

There are a lot of references to getting your period, which is still seen as very taboo - the kind of thing Instagram would probably delete your account for - how important is it that tampons and blood-stains become an everyday part of our visual horizon?
I think it is important to normalise the imagery associated with menstruation for young girls coming to terms with their bodies. I am hesitant to use the words "accept" or "love", because it is fine to hate the parts of your body that have restricted you to confines of oppression. To my mind, periods, bloodstains, and tampons are visual representations of the transitional time in a girl's life when she realizes her body is not her own.

What's the story behind Jungfrukällan?
Jungfrukällan is the Swedish title of Ingmar Bergman's film The Virgin Spring. The story originates from a 13th century poem about the rape and murder of a young girl, and subsequent revenge by her family. This piece was inspired by that story, and I wanted to make an environment crafted entirely by hand that the viewer could enter and interact with in the same way one would a blanket fort.

You work with a lot of embroidery, what is it about the medium that interests you?
Embroidery, needlepoint and other domestic artforms have always been crafts coded as distinctly feminine. Throughout history, they have been hobbies that women were "allowed" to take up in preparation for domestic life. Relegated to women's work, they are deemed unworthy of the title of high art because of their gender association. Even today, we view embroidery and fabric work as something less than art. We scoff at fan girls who make stitched lyrics of their favourite songs, and we tell them to "sell it on Etsy" (as one of my most recent trolls did to me). I believe this comes from a place of deeply internalised misogyny. We hate giving women any power, so at every turn we denote their work as lesser; in this case, less than art = craft. I aim to align myself with the history of so called "women's work", but shift it's meaning to something that should be viewed as a vehicle for women's agency and self-determination.

Do you think your work empowers women, if so how?
I hope my work empowers women. I am speaking to other women, but not for them—this is very important to me. I think seeing something that disturbs you can be empowering in a way, and even seeing something you disagree with can be empowering because it can help start a conversation.

With the rise of all girl collectives and more artists trying to reclaim feminism, do you think that feminism has become a trend - something people talk about or make art about just because it's the cool thing to do?
Critiquing and correcting issues in any movement is necessary, but talking about the recent rise of feminism amongst young women as a "trend" is extremely dismissive. The term trend is one associated with the superficial and fleeting likes of young people, especially girls. Dismissing young people who are invested in feminism by calling it a "cool trend" is just another way of trivialising them, their ideals, and their experiences. Becoming educated on any topic, especially feminism, is a lifelong process of learning and unlearning. We expect every young girl who has just discovered feminism to be an expert, and if she isn't, then we dismiss her as being a "bad feminist" or say that she's just following a trend.

For years the colour pink and other tropes of girlishness have signified female objectification/infantilisation, but now it seems to have been reclaimed as a means of female empowerment. How do you feel about this?
Reclaiming the tools of women's oppression is integral to my work. I'm a huge proponent of using the tools that you have been given. Use what has been used against you. I try to take these things and turn them on their heads to explode their meanings.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on my first solo show at & Gallery, opening in Miami in October.


Maggie Dunlap