Haley Craw: Art has always been a huge part of my life, I remember when I was really young, my friend’s older sister was an incredible artist. She was one of the first inspirations I had that really made me think “I want to be like her!” From that day on visual art really was the medium I knew how to express myself best in.
F: What does feminism mean to you personally?
HC: Feminism to me, means fighting against and deconstructing all forms of oppression that are based on gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and race. I believe intersectional feminism is an important term to use as it states that yes, even in our society that has grown in so many ways, sexist discrimination is still a huge issue, and there are many oppressive and intersecting systems at work. It also works as a great term to start conversation, as well as meet like-minded people.
F: How do you use art as a platform to explore issues of female agency?
HC: I use my art as a platform to express the intricacies of oppressive systems visually by using objects that portray a certain archetype, then deconstructing that idea. I use traditionally female objects that are considered weak or passive, such as dresses and embroidery, then either through direct manipulation of the object or the installation I add an element that visualizes these objects in a newly dimensional and powerful way. I believe that in this process of claiming the strength in femininity, as well as creating a multifaceted intimate look at female identity, female agency is raised.
Art has the quality to visually experience both the intellectual and the emotional. Writing also has this special quality, and writing is very much the initial step in my art making process. I usually start with a stream of consciousness to start visualizing things, and as of most recently, some of that writing makes it in the final piece! My work has definite confessional aspects, and in many ways could be understood as a self-portrait. It’s in that process of understanding myself, expressing myself and making myself vulnerable that I find my own agency.
F: Why do you think it’s important to call attention to the sexual oppression of women through art?
HC: I think it’s important to call attention to the sexual oppression of women in all ways we can, but art specifically has a long history of creation for the male gaze. Women have been used as pretty objects in art historically and today, as if they’re no different than a fruit bowl, and I believe it’s important to create work that counters this. I reference art historical symbolism, especially those from Christian Religious art to critique the systems that are still very much a part of present day. I believe sexual oppression begins with these ideologies that value female purity and virginity above any other characteristic and demonize female sexuality, so through using symbolism that has always represented these ideas in art, I aim to try and critique both the ideology and masculine traditions in art. I try to use visuals that are soft and caressing at first, they invite the viewer in with a pretty dress and petite objects, but on closer inspection also pack a punch!
Although art is a bit of a subtle way to attack these issues, it can be the subtle things that become oppressive, just as subtle actions can make for a positive change! It’s a cultural shift in consciousness that needs to take place, and all works of art and writing are important in adding to this culture. Culture doesn’t define who we are, we define our culture.
F: Is it possible to destroy the virgin/whore dichotomy? How can women go about doing this in their everyday lives?
HC: I believe it’s possible, so long as we challenge and deconstruct the ideologies that so potently reinforce it. A lot of my work examines ideas of purity, the futile attempts to be clean to a standard that is unattainable, such as the idyllic virgin mother that of course, no woman could ever be like. Women are born guilty in many ways, their flesh is too tempting, menstruation is dirty and impure, female desire is sin.
It truly starts young, it’s so important to teach young women that their sexuality does not define their value as a human being. We also need to teach men this, every day usage of terms like “whore” and “slut” to define a women as lesser for having sex needs to be seriously confronted. The other side, the valuing of women for virginity through things such as purity balls and even daily discussion about valuing a woman more for being “classy” and “not like other girls” is very harmful in reinforcing the virgin/whore dichotomy. Every day change definitely starts in the language we use.
F: In what ways does reminding women of their sexual autonomy work to chip away at the patriarchy?
HC: Sexual autonomy helps to chip away at patriarchal systems that tell women their bodies are not their own. That they belong to their husband, their boyfriend/partner, or God. It’s so important to remind women that taking control of their own sexuality is empowering, to not allow any other voice tell them what they should be, what they are, what they need to do. Your body is your own, you define it, you control it, you own it. I truly believe there can be no equality without the empowerment of sexuality and reproductive rights.
F: What message would you want to send to young women about ownership of their bodies?
HC: I would love to be able to send young women the message that they should never feel guilty for being sexual beings, and that nobody has the right to tell them what they can and cannot do in regards to their own bodies. That realization is so important, as young girls are conditioned so young to be sweet and compliant, they’re born guilty feeling desire. Desire is not a bad thing, girls need to be reassured to unapologetically strive for what make them feel happiest, safest and most empowered, and that starts with taking ownership of your own body!
Haley Craw is a multidisciplinary artist from Calgary, Canada. Her work takes the form of embroidery, found object installation and poetry. She will be in the exhibition and a panelist at the upcoming Feminist Art Conference in Toronto. Find her work at haleycraw.com .