Politically Incorrect Petit Point

Today I bought a pair of beautifully stitched, matted and framed petit points, identical to the pattern above. I bought them because every time I passed them on the wall of the thrift store, I cringed. I bought them to get them out of circulation, not because I have a secret collection of cringe-worthy needlepoint stashed away in the vault.

What do such images mean in today's world? Just yesterday, Canada's Miss Universe contestant was raked over the coals for wearing a dress reminiscent of a totem pole. The Truth and Reconciliation report was recently tabled, prompting hopeful talk for the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between First Nations and non-indigenous Canadians. In conjunction, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has unveiled a powerful installation by artist Carey Newman. (And, thank you Jean-Pierre for suggesting this, Kent Monkman certainly says it all better than I ever could.)

The above petit points are stereotypes at best, reprehensibly racist at worst. How can one make sense of them? After all, they exemplify one of the things I am always going on about, the skillful labour of the human hand. What baffles me is how someone could work so long and carefully with such imagery. The patterns date from the 1980's, not that long ago, and certainly a time when they would have been considered kitsch, if not recognised as politically suspect.

It is possible, I suppose, but highly unlikely, that they were stitched by a First Nations person. Petit point is a technique of white Europeans, a showpiece to beautify the home and a sign of refined cultural sensibilities. Maybe the lady who stitched it had a fondness for indigenous people and sought to honour them with her time and stitching talents, but I find that hard to swallow. Even if her intentions were well-meaning, how could she reconcile the cartoonish imagery with the real people she knew? Most likely she just didn't think it through. It's not like embroidery was considered a moral or intellectual undertaking at that time.

I also have a pair of petit point images of a little Dutch girl and boy, and a matched set of 18th C. French aristocrats, all gleaned from thrift stores. It's a trope of popular needlework patterns, the male and female figures, probably going back to Adam and Eve. They are easy to make fun of, and lend themselves readily to subversive intervention. But the Dutch and French figures aren't as weighed down with such political baggage.

What the heck am I going to do with my new acquisitions? My urge is to deconstruct them somehow, to respond to and transform their meaning. But, as a white person, do I have the right to say anything at all? Maybe they require a ritual burning, or would that be censorship, an unwillingness to acknowledge the ugliness that lurks beneath the surface of even the most innocuous seeming objects? Right now, I'm struggling with their very existence. Does that seem all too academic and PC to you?

It's hardly a subject for the holiday season, I suppose. Or maybe it's an apt one for a time when we're all talking about peace, goodwill to all, and new beginnings.


  1. Anonymous4:46 PM

    A-h-h-h... You've wandered into very tricky theoretical territory. The designer of that needlepoint probably can't see anything wrong with the portraits of two First Nations women in profile. They seem harmless. Most stereotypes do at first glance. But who gets to dig deeper and deconstruct? Anybody? Only a member of the maligned group who are tired of others speaking for them? Maybe you should send a message to Kent Monkman and ask him to speak to Miss Chief Eagle Testicle about this. Best of luck. Jean-Pierre ps. Apart form the cultural appropriation argument, that Miss Universe costume was just plain ugly. They should appropriate some other Canadian culture next time, like a costume based on Alex Colville. Maybe a large pair of binoculars strapped to the boobies.

  2. Thanks for those links Heather. I didn't know about the witness blanket. Reading about it was very moving.
    In regard to the stitched pieces you have removed from circulation, I am sure you will find a way to put them into your work somehow. Put them in a bottom drawer for now. xo

  3. in this journey of reconciliation with the first peoples all around the world, listening to their stories and deep connections with the land is the way forward
    here's a link to Karla Dickens powerful work for the Native Institute exhibition here in Sydney back in 2013
    and my review at the time

  4. i, a white-bread woman, was once in a workshop with other papermakers. a woman of african-american heritage asked me about my sheep flock. i told her i raised colored sheep, and i was instantly, deeply embarrassed. it had never occurred to me that calling the black, brown and gray sheep colored (this came from all my sheep books, for crying out loud) was a racist issue. i tried to explain what that meant and her expression made me stop. i think awareness, kindness and fairness is the first step. i had to change the language which i used to describe my sheep. it was a small thing. your pieces will tell you what small thing you might do.

  5. I'm with Judy on this; tuck them away to give yourself time to consider the best solution.
    Otherwise; I might be tempted to pick all the stitches out, and see if a 'ghost image' emerges from the needle holes? Unpicking. X

  6. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the subject Heather. These images are purely colonial imagination, true, but the time that the artist put into their creation suggests there was at least some internal dialogue that was loving, compassionate, and respectful. They aren't exactly appropriation, but truly euro-colonial, meaning even though the artist was working with images that are supposedly observing someone else, they reveal so much more about the observer themselves. i think they belong in a crazy patch quilt about the colonial imagination. i think they are fantastic additions to the museum of kitsch, yet they do have the political weight that can drive home ideas of reconciliation, past present and relationship, given the right artist push. i think you are the lady for the job! keep doing the good work. XO C

  7. I agree with Crystal, Heather, context is so important and placing these works in context makes a very powerful statement. The art/craft work produced during these times is a very powerful statement about prejudice, misunderstanding, and misappropriation and is unfortunately, an important part of our history. Seeing them in this context is a humbling experience as we can own our portions of what we now realize are insults to a number of proud races.


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