Deconstructing the domestic

Kitsch and crafts in hand, Allyson Mitchell re-evaluates girlhood

Crafter, filmmaker, artist and activist Allyson Mitchell was chosen by students to exhibit two eye-popping installations in The Union Gallery.
Crafter, filmmaker, artist and activist Allyson Mitchell was chosen by students to exhibit two eye-popping installations in The Union Gallery.

The world of maximalist artist Allyson Mitchell, with its re-appropriated kitsch and gutsy politics, has taken over the Union Gallery.

From the filmmaking, crafting and performing mind that conceived of the Lady Sasquatches sculptures in all their giant, furry and sassy majesty comes two invigorating installations, Brain Child and Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut, that cozy up to feminist politics in fun and serious ways.

Contrasted against the bare whiteness of Union’s main space, Brain Child is an invasion of erratically and vibrantly coloured Holly Hobby-esque ceramic figures. Arranged by size in a stylized, slightly spiraled procession—vaguely recalling a uterus—the figures lead up to an immense suspended, pink wool crotched, afghan rug brain.

Instantly, the little girl figurines are both familiar and foreign. Popular in the 1970s, the ceramic collectibles present a hyper-docile version of femininity with their over-sized child-like facial features, large bonnets and long dresses. Working with these found items, Mitchell has gone to town, glazing and repainting many of the figurines. Her use of funky colours, patterns and symbols—the double women’s symbol representing lesbianism, for example—interrupts the dolls’ hegemonic roots.

Mitchell’s arrangement of this army of little girls also subverts the docility and submission suggested by the figurines lowered heads and old fashioned garb.

“The idea is that these girls are collectively creating a society of genius women whose brains are so big that they have to wear these incredibly large bonnets to protect their minds,” she said.

The effect of this arrangement is that the gigantic brain acts as a sort of centre piece, a pedestal for the figurines to worship. Their bent heads conversely signal awe. Suddenly, Mitchell has recast and remolded something old and oppressive into something fresh and empowering, renegotiating popular and negative ideals about the feminine. “They’re like these heteronormative images of women and girlhood,” she said.

“They’re bloody little pioneer girls or those Utah polygamists in their long, long dresses.”

This sort of duality of girl culture as a source of repression and expression, as exemplified by these recast Holly Hobby-inspired dolls, is of interest to Mitchell who has a PhD in Women’s Studies from York University and teaches cultural studies there.

“There is ‘commercial’ girl culture and ‘real’ girl culture but you can’t make a distinction between the two because they’re what we have access to and what we get to play with,” Mitchell said.

“Every girl can tell a story of having a Barbie and cutting her hair off.”

In this vein of re-interpreting women’s lives and cultures and the physical objects wrapped up in this, The Union’s Project Room hosts Mitchell’s Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut, a cozy, Afghan rug- and kitsch carpet-covered space. Contemporary carpets rife with kittens, rainbows and little girls overlap with Afghan rugs.

The installation features masses of pillows, a low ceiling and an over-saturation of wool. The exhibit riffs off the idea of the menstrual hut as an oppressive place of female banishment. Instead, Mitchell presents a female-friendly fort injected with political protest.

She said the idea of the menstrual hut can be read as empowering because the female-only space is where isolated individuals can come together, share information and form a community.

Inside Mitchell’s Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut plays Afghanimation, a protest film she made about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

In the film, Mitchell covers and uncovers a traditional afghan rug containing the portrait of a woman playing a musical instrument, surrounded by grenades, evoking a sense of the concealment of knowledge as well as of the marginalization of women’s lives. The presence of the film in the chilled-out hut draws attention to the way in which the war has invaded with armies and ideologies, interrupting cultures as well as individual civilian lives.

The hut, as a venue, is as political as it is inviting, pulling onlookers into its quaint, homemade space. Despite the potentially off-putting title of the exhibit, the space doesn’t reveal its name until you enter the space. Mitchell said she’s not trying to dilute the message or sugar-coat it but rather encourage communication.

“A severe politique can be articulated in a cozy space and it doesn’t take away from it,” she said.

“I’m aware of my audience I want them to come to my work. Partly that happens with using a sense of humour. By cracking a joke, it puts people at ease.”

The subject matter and found material Mitchell works with are both political and subversive in and of themselves. Coming from radical eco-queer, feminist politics, Mitchell implements this in her work. Frequenting bazaars and thrift-stores for many of her found items, Mitchell’s scavenges produce a sort of critical look at pop culture’s past, present and the magnitude of its waste.

“I’m a hunter and gatherer of those materials,” she said.

“It’s often a comment on consumerism and how we just get new stuff and throw out the old stuff. I wish it was a freecycle [system] instead of landfills.

“I know I can go to any given Goodwill and find particular things at almost all of them. Partly that’s why I used materials from the 1970s and 80s because people are discarding that stuff to get fashions of the zero-zeroes.”

As an academic, activist and artist, Mitchell said she found making the art itself a more fun and democratic process than the academic essays because art can embody these theories, communicating them in a more accessible forum.

“I was learning these incredible ideas through feminist theory and they were really shaking up my life and my mind. I felt frustrated sometimes that I hadn’t had access to that information earlier and the way that that information gets communicated is so inaccessible—not to say that work isn’t super important,” she said.

“I find that through the art I was making I was trying to tinker with articulating these ideas I was learning in the academy into objects and film, sharing them with a different kind of audience.

“The art is making that information more democratic. Just the ideas are amazing and figuring out different ideas and discourses about them that isn’t just the written essay, the traditional ways of understanding academic ideas.”

The ideas Mitchell is working with come through in her ability to make radical feminist statements aesthetically enjoyable and intriguing. There’s a sense of humour and political vigor that isn’t alienating but engaging with its rich colours, thrift-store resourcefulness, warm wools and reinterpretation of cultural objects and space.

“Girls aren’t dupes—and that’s the point. They’re not just these saccharine sweet, pink perfection things. They also have really complex lives that are emotional, difficult, that are smart and incorporate the easy bake oven and rocket science at the same time.”

Mitchell’s work will be exhibiting in the main gallery and Project Room of the Union Gallery until October 17.

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