She deploys her needle for feminist purpose

Janice Turner on the Royal Academy’s venomous censorship of a woman artist starts with the fact that Jess DeWahls sent her an embroidery of her mother’s hands six months ago.

A photo I’d posted on Twitter of my first care home visit in many months had moved her to sew. She didn’t want payment, just for me to have it. Now this touching work sits by my desk.

De Wahls is no cosy cross-stitcher: she deploys her needle for political, especially feminist purpose. She embroiders fallopian tubes giving the finger, had a show called Big Swinging Ovaries, ran a vagina sewing workshop at Tate Modern. She’s funny, outspoken, has bright red hair and lavish tattoos. As all artists should be, she’s freethinking and bold.

Well! The Royal Academy can’t be expected to put up with that sort of thing.

She also has a sideline in embroidered flower patches, dahlias and pansies you iron onto T-shirts or jeans. Liberty stocks them, and the Royal Academy shop had just reordered when this week its head of commercial emailed to say she’d received eight complaints that De Wahls was transphobic. She wrote back. Silence. The RA Instagram account, with 500,000 followers, then posted: “Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention.” They would no longer sell De Wahls’s flowers.

Imagine if eight feminists complained to the RA about an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing misogynist views. What do you suppose would happen? My educated guess is Absolutely Nothing. Misogynist views are entirely normal; “transphobic” views are a dire emergency.

[S]o a few years ago, when gender theory took off among Soho Theatre colleagues, “and they’d disinvite a friend from a party because she believed that only women have vaginas”, De Wahls was bemused. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’” They were. When she asked questions, they insisted trans women were biological women, just like her. This denial of science, of tangible reality, this insistence that 2+2=5, troubled her.

After immense thought, sleepless nights and with much trepidation, in 2019 she posted a 5,000-word blog. “I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex,” she wrote. “However, I cannot accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to which they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such.”

It doesn’t take much clairvoyance to guess what happened next.

She was driven from her Soho Theatre salon. A gay friend whose hair she’d cut for ten years tweeted: “Never trust a bitch who does vagina art.” A colleague trawled her Facebook page, ordering lifelong friends to disavow her. All her offers to meet and talk were blanked.

Meanwhile the Instagram “embroidery community” set about destroying her livelihood. Petitions were launched, an exhibition in Australia was cancelled and every collaboration with a charity or company sabotaged. When she donated a work for raffle to raise money for period products in India, a male embroiderer hoped he’d win so he could burn it. One prominent stitcher of cheery flowers and “be kind” homilies has ranted non-stop about the injustice of it being De Wahls’s work that the snobbish RA chose when it finally allowed embroidery into “its hallowed halls”. Rather than her own, maybe?

How bizarre that the art world, the crucible for shocking and subversive ideas, balks at the mere fact of biological sex. As I write, the RA’s tremulous head of commercial just told De Wahls “everyone is still thinking”.

Well think harder and better.

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