Visual strategies for ongoing care. Appealing to American donors to support Belgian lacemakers after the First World War

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


A postcard series from the Summer of 1920 and sent to the US shows Belgian lacemakers of different ages making lace against a backdrop of ruined churches and houses. These arresting images were artistically curated and collectable artistic commodities in their own right, referencing but also disturbing a well-known cultural iconography of women in the process of making lace in familiar and familial settings. During the war, humanitarian organisations had supported Belgian lacemakers, providing materials to produce lace destined for sale in the U.S. and Allied Countries. After the armistice, most of them wrapped up their programmes, yet some wished to continue their efforts to revive the Belgian lace industry. As they were urged to transition from wartime relief to developmental aid, they engaged in a form of humanitarian knowledge production which foregrounded ‘shared humanity’ and care through cultural preservation of European heritage, gendered commerce, and the restoration or ‘reconstruction’ of European civilisation in the aftermath of war, including the gendered divisions of labour.
In this paper, these visual strategies are explored. As a starting point, we use the lenses adopted in the recent film Thread Routes chapter 2 dedicated to lacemaking by the Korean multidisciplinary conceptual artist Kimsooja (b. 1957). Through the framework of non-narrative documentary, she plunges the viewer into the realm of poetry and devises a kind of ‘visual anthropology’ that situates craft process in relation to gender, landscape and architecture. Her film aids us to unpack the post-war postcard series of Belgian lacemakers and position it on the intersection between the centuries-long tradition of representing lacemakers in Western art, and the more recent humanitarian photography of craftspersons found in the publicity campaigns of development organisations. In this way we offer an alternative to the ‘atrocity’ photography often used in humanitarian campaigns and seek to explore how supporters were moved to invest in craft-making practices.
Period16 Sep 2022
Held atFondation Brocher, Switzerland
Degree of RecognitionInternational