Please note, this article includes references to domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Image: Willemien de Villiers, Female Notions 3 (detail). Hand stitched with cotton thread on used, stained domestic linen.
In the week where we celebrate International Women’s Day, we expand on our interview (Issue 97 Red) with South African artist Willemien de Villiers, who uses embroidery to create her arresting pieces. On the colour red, Willemien notes that the full range of the hue - from soft pinks all the way to deep ox blood red - help express the feminist themes that are encountered in her work: patriarchy and toxic masculinity, as well as the fecund and deeply creative qualities of femaleness. Red speaks of blood and guts; of vitality and life; as well as warnings and danger, while softer, gentler shades of pink are used to counterpoint themes of toxic masculinity. In one work she stitched images of male reproduction organs in these pastel tones to de-weaponise that which is used to control, hurt and rape.
Image: Willemien de Villiers, Manhood 1. Hand stitched with cotton thread on used, stained domestic linen.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Willemien notes that she is sensitised to any form of abuse, especially that of women and children. “A lingering effect of abuse, sexual or otherwise, is a sense of disconnection, and I’ve found it very helpful to integrate my thoughts and feelings into my embroideries. The very act of stitching is healing, in that it allows chaos to transform into a calm order.” To highlight and spark a conversation about the global issue of gender-based violence, Willemien cross-stitched snippets of police reports onto pastoral scenes often found on tray cloths, tablecloths and doilies. These reported details of domestic abuse are subtly stitched into these domestic textiles to draw viewers in and force engagement with the textile and the message.
Image: Willemien de Villiers, Her Mouth (detail). Hand stitched with cotton thread on used, stained domestic linen.
Willemien searches for the materials used in her work in charity shops - seeking out domestic textiles that show a lot of wear and tear, and give a sense of previous lives and narratives on which to work upon and with. “I like to imagine the women who embroidered them; their lives. Most of them happy and content, I hope, but sometimes I sense a darkness, a sadness stitched and knotted into the bucolic scene of flowers and happy homes so often found on these small acts of domesticity.” These textiles often speak to a time when there was an expectation for women to ‘make nice'; to keep a clean and tidy house, and to be providers of superficial beauty and order. Willemien aims to subvert that history, and stitch alternative narratives onto these items, helping her to heal, and feel close to those who have suffered abuse, and that the finished work will inspire conversations and raise awareness about these issues in our society.