Native Funk and Flash (part one)

Photograph by Christina Linden

Photograph by Christina Linden

Photograph by Christina Linden

A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail a long-awaited copy of Native Funk & Flash (Scrimshaw Press, 1974), ordered over the Internet when my local used bookstore, though familiar with this vintage gem, was currently out of stock. An expressive visual record of the particular union of craft and counterculture that so flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 70s, its simple, direct cover features a close-up shot of the voluptuous ass cheek of author Alexandra Jacopetti, emblazoned with a large, three-headed phoenix charismatically embroidered on faded denim. (“This is my version of the phoenix, with three heads because there are so many ways of looking at things,“ she writes in the book.) Her handiwork is accentuated by the placement of her hand above a macramé belt, a section of her torso in black knit silhouette, and wisps of waist-length wavy hair that hang down as she leans forward against what appears to be a Berkeley “brown shingle” Craftsman home. An exuberant rainbow, echoing the red, orange, and yellow flames out of which the phoenix is apparently rising, further frames the scene. I was originally introduced to this special volume several years ago when my friend Liz Collins, artist, knitwear designer, and professor in the Rhode Island School of Design Textiles Department, showed me her treasured copy. And I was recently reminded of it by Elissa Auther, associate professor of contemporary art in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado, who I met at the panel discussion titled “The Aesthetics of Counterculture” which she organized for the 2009 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles.

After recently relocating my home and studio from New York to the Bay Area in order to join the faculty of California College of the Arts (formerly Arts & Crafts), I have been anxiously attempting to trace the history of the California Arts and Crafts movement and the legacy of early West Coast utopian communes in order to glean the ways in which the handmade seems perpetually to characterize this region (from Slow Food to home-brewed biodiesel, from old school Studio Craft to DIY Craftivism). There is a pronounced sense of civic participation here, in general as well as within artistic circles, as an abundant array of projects in the “social practice” arena would seem to demonstrate. And while New York has better fashion, the Bay Area has the history of Art to Wear, as well as that particular brand of craftastic drag, a trajectory one can easily trace back to the legendary San Francisco theatrical troupe the Cockettes, whose members Scrumbley Koldewyn, a musician and performer, and the notorious queen Pristine Condition are featured in Native Funk & Flash—the former in a performance suit made entirely of crocheted doilies, a look that pre-dates Nick Cave by several decades, and the latter in a hyperbolic pioneer dress complete with patchwork and calico ruffles that would be the envy of Paul McCarthy.

I’ve often wondered how something like folk music came to signify radicality in the 60s. It would be as if suddenly everyone saw making quilts as the coolest and most politically exciting thing to do. Considering that working within a historic craft tradition could be considered one of the most conservative kinds of making (think of the “authentic reproductions” of historic preservation, or Living History), how then can the traditional, the historic, the local, the indigenous, or the handmade, come to signify radical counterculture? In Native Funk & Flash, hand embroidery embellishes classic American work denim—symbol of blue-collar hard work and casual, youthful defiance—with fantasy landscapes, moons and stars, castles and mosques, penises and vaginas, psychedelic abstractions and smoking joints. Jacopetti writes, “Many of us have hungered for a cultural identity strong enough to produce our own versions of the native costumes of Afghanistan or Guatemala, for a community life rich enough for us to need our own totems comparable to African or Native American masks and ritual objects.” Later, she speaks of “the art of costuming” and the “fantastic ability to achieve an effect, rivaling the scary old shamans of past times for sheer outrageous impact.”

Although the logic of these words seems dated, if not totally flawed and naïve, they capture a cultural impulse, a “hunger” for taking the construction of identity into one’s own hands, using needle and thread, and for enacting that identity publicly, shamelessly. I’d like to discuss a flurry of recent projects that utilize traditional craft practices, especially textile techniques like quilting, knitting, dying, and weaving, that take Roszika Parker’s now classic text The Subversive Stitch a few steps forward toward the radical, the relational, and the queer. Part quilting bee, part drag-fashion performance, part nostalgic return to 60s counterculture, and part something else TBD, these generative projects present a more contemporary take on interactivity and social reciprocity and perhaps better reflect our own current times of war and economic recession. Since 1974, the Civil Rights movement, multiculturalism, postcolonial studies, identity politics, feminist and queer theory, and performance studies have better articulated, advanced and complicated our understanding of the performativity of identity. These artists are looking for new words to describe what would have been called a “happening” or a “social sculpture,” though their work wouldn’t be legible without those precedents.

[to be continued here]

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About Allison Smith

I was born in Manassas, Virginia near the site of some famous American Civil War battlefields in 1972. As a child I was often taken to visit Colonial Williamsburg and the Waterford Fair, where people would dress up in period costume and perform history through various activities of making. My mother was an early follower of Martha Stewart, and she taught me many forms of early American craft, or “women’s work.” When I was eighteen I moved to New York City to study art at Parsons School of Design, in a time when identity politics dominated contemporary conversations on art, particularly ideas around the performativity of identity. Out of these discussions I was compelled to conduct my own ethnography of the cultural phenomenon of Civil War reenactment, or Living History. I found that I was most drawn to the material culture, or “props” of this field and its almost obsessive attention to historical accuracy through painstakingly handcrafted detail. I wondered about the social function of these objects in relation to sculpture, and questioned the narratives performed at sites of reenactment through the lens of institutional critique. In my work I have arrived at a form of social practice that rethinks reenactment as a prompt for popular militancy, by asking people what they are fighting for and creating situations where they can take history “into their own hands.” My projects The Muster and Notion Nanny explored the question 'Traditional craft—manufactured nostalgia or grass-roots resistance?' in several ways, particularly the role of craft in the construction of national identity, queering craft, and crafting protest. I am currently living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I am on the sculpture and graduate program faculty at California College of the Arts (formerly Arts and Crafts). My ongoing storefront project SMITHS is inspired by historic general stores as intimate public spaces of exchange. From tinsmiths to tunesmiths, various kinds of makers are invited to the store each month to demonstrate their skills. These gatherings are paired with congenial and incongruous lectures and discussions that aim to expand our notions of crafting dialogue. Please visit aforementioned sites or my studio website for more information.

3 thoughts on “Native Funk and Flash (part one)

  1. Pingback: Allison Smith: A history lesson « UALR Furniture

  2. Pingback: Native Funk and Flash (part two)

  3. I found reference to this blog in Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner’s “West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977”, just out. Both fascinating to me, mainly to find the impact that Native Funk & Flash has had over time. Of course, a single response to a 2009 blog does not indicate much, and that by the author of the mentioned work, but it is surprising to me to find myself/work once again of interest to young people, people of the approximate age I was when I was doing it. In April this year I found myself in Seattle being filmed and speaking with 31-year-old Michael Cepress’ college class Counter-Couture, not in his Design Department, but in the History Department of University of Washington, Seattle.

    The buzz of interest seemed to have mostly to do with the values underlying the work and the “looks”, and this is the most interesting part to me. I think it’s pertinent that the naiveté and honest freshness of those makers and those times rings up something for us now as the result of world cultures having traveled a different path is hitting home so hard. Taking care of each other, the earth, the amazing face of peace and love reflected back from strangers, the creativity of play, and the joy of being simple and transparent and outrageous all at once! Why wouldn’t that spark something deep inside to leap up and dance?

    Thanks to all of you for a bit of new life to this old one!

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