A remarkable quilt project at Wellington’s Play_Station, Sissymancy! references the AIDS Quilt project while laying new ground for current and future generations of queer artists, writes Mark Amery.
I remember being called a sissy at school. Not nice. The effeminate aligned with cowardliness. It was one step away from being called a fag. The cry of “what are ya” from Greg McGee’s play Foreskin’s Lament echoing from the rugby changing rooms of my imagination.
So, I thoroughly approve of this new term: sissymancy. It’s been declared with an exclamation mark by young Auckland artist, poet and appreciator of the occult Owen Connors. Sissymancy is derived from the ancient Greek word for divination, and also incorporates that pejorative ‘sissy’ commonly used as a sexual put down. Not in this exhibition. Connors has collaborated with a group of fellow artists – demonstrably queer but not specifically declared as either gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, intersex or other – to create this new order of divination, SISSYMANCY! an exhibition of three large quilts and a zine.
A new kind of sisterhood, SISSYMANCY! collectively encourages us – with joy – to affiliate, to take responsibility for ourselves while having tolerance for others. With all the hate and distress around sexuality and gender online (it’s troubling to have to even type the words ‘conversion therapy’), the generosity of this hand-embroidered project is timely. To make is to divine, and to be divine; to try to understand and hold understanding. And to be divine is also to be gorgeous. Which is exactly what these giant quilts are.
Hung airily in a Wellington artist-run space with a suitably high stud, room is given for the works to radiate and for you to breathe. The display is kinetic, recalling Len Lye’s reach to create temples towards the divine. Each quilt slowly rotates via a motor, like a revolving opening door, ensuring the viewer’s attention is captivated and spread evenly throughout the space. You have to get be active and participate. Nothing is static; all is fluid, morphing.
The quilts are hung by bright pink, purple and yellow fabric loops from pieces of driftwood. No industrial doweling. I’m taken back to the big animated, fractured and colourful embroidery of the late Wellington artist Gordon Crook, whose banners still hang like ensigns inside the Michael Fowler Centre in nearby Civic Square.
SISSYMANCY! draws energy from an organic postmodern collision of textile histories. These quilts on modest, monkish hessian sack backings are studded with multi-coloured target-like cartoon felt eyes. The quilts are like friendly seers, welcoming your animation – your reading – of the work. The cartoon-eyes also conjure the all-seeing eye of God, found across religions, looking out over humanity. Yet there’s a touch of Disney here too in the graphic of a talking sentient tree.
The quilts are the riotous result of an ‘exquisite corpse’ game Connors has played with his friends. ‘Exquisite corpse’ is a collaborative game invented by the surrealists (but now known to bored families the world over) where each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, but are only allowed to see the last lines of what the previous person created. Avoiding current digital convenience, with echoes of mail art (yes, an actual art movement, born from the Fluxus group in the 1950s), each of Connors’ friends contributed drawings sent via New Zealand Post.
Connors has translated their drawings into a rough homely-made collage of styles and materials, that includes everything from tivaevae to cubist patchwork, and also incorporates beading, padding and Steiner furry feltwork. As craftivist Connors revels in being a naive outsider magpie. As a whole the quilts are uneven but fertile, humid and humorous. Like a garden, there is fecundity: from flowers to figuratively referencing the creative fluid-bound acts of sex and breastfeeding, mixed with the marks of the household activity of the family home. Underwear displayed here is at once a symbol of queer eroticism and domestic mundanity.
SISSYMANCY! speaks of and to the sanctity of seeding and growth, and the necessity of collaboration to achieve it. Sewn into the quilts are several mantra: ‘the burden of bounty;’ ‘penetration sans gender’, and ‘allyship industrial complex’. I look up allyship. It is “the process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalised individuals and/or groups of people.”
The quilts are created from a process of inclusion, at once courageous, and generous. Connors talks of this project as “transforming the AIDS quilt into a library of queer aesthetics.” The AIDS Memorial Quilt Project is key background here. At over 49,000 panels the founding American quilt is billed as the largest folk art project in the world, and the NZ version has apparently been viewed by over 20% of the population.
Yet the AIDS quilt is about remembering the dead; the panels in the project are approximately the size of a human grave. SISSYMANCY! is about celebrating the living, carrying traditions forward with the verve of colour and line and the spunk of life.
The openness and open-endedness of Connors’ process is also refreshing in an art scene known for holding things tightly to its chest. SISSYMANCY! is an expressive, serious yet playful show that sees a new generation lift off lightly, in counterpoint to the heaviness of an AIDS memorial quilt laid out on the ground.
Hovering above the project for me as angel is the late textile artist Malcolm Harrison, who died in 2007. Harrison was never afraid of going big and bold, being outspoken or wickedly witty. He embraced everything that would have him labelled sissy at school and, at that time, in the art world. A brave maverick with thread, Harrison’s quilts featured in another show looking back to the spectre of AIDS, Simon Gennard’s Sleeping Arrangements at Dowse Art Museum in 2018. One of his quilts in that show was Harrison’s own contribution to the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt. Connors picks up the historical threads in a refreshing new way.
The other sissymancers involved in the project: Emmanuel Sarmiento, Laura Duffy, Georgette Brown, Sorawit Songsataya, Imogen Taylor, Robbie Handcock, Jame Stockman-Young, Tallen Mae, Tyson Campbell, Daniel John Corbett Sanders, Max Whitehurst and Samuel Te Kani.
SISSYMANCY! by Own Connors is on at Play_station, Wellington, until November 2.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.