“Craft-anarchy” is how Stephanie Syjuco describes her knock-offs of branded goods—in crochet. “I chose crochet because it’s easier than knitting. Knitting is too straight. Crochet is more of a craft-anarchy project.” Syjuco sounds sweet yet subversive as she addresses a crowd at a panel discussion on Women and Political Art in San Francisco, CA.
Syjuco, petite and sporting a chic haircut, amuses and humors the audience with her art project called “The Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy),” which loosely deals with the issues of the black market, copyright infringement, globalization, the crafting community and labor issues. In 2006, she created a website, counterfeitcrochet.org, encouraging people to use a small image of a designer bag like Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton and replicate it in crochet as best as they could. The result: an array of attractive crocheted designer bag knockoffs. This led to a dialogue between “counterfeiter” and the copyright holder, as well as on the perceptions of crochet as a leisurely task vis-a-vis contemporary, mass-produced manufacturing.
As the website took off, crocheted designer bag knockoffs piled up. Curators from Beijing to Istanbul expressed interest in exhibiting the collaborators’ works. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the premiere space for contemporary art in San Francisco, featured Counterfeit Crochet in its recent exhibition, “The Way We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics.” Counterfeit Crochet workshops were held as an installation in the show along with feminist ideologies and movements of the past.
What is it about San Francisco and its art scene? “I love the cultural diversity of San Francisco, the people, the architecture, and the progressiveness. On the downside, at times it can feel like the little sister city to larger cosmopolitan centers,” says Syjuco. “I know I’m biased since I’m a part of it, but I really feel like the art scene here is super-talented and of high caliber, a really tight-knit and supportive community. What we seem to be short of is the infrastructure and critical support that cities like New York or Los Angeles have, and that can be frustrating when you see great work being made that doesn’t get enough exposure outside of the local art scene.”
San Francisco is one of the major population centers for the Filipino-American community, and Syjuco derives her influences from her compatriots who are also in the art scene. “There is an amazingly strong Filipino-American artist community here in the Bay Area and we have grown rather tight. Sometimes, it feels like pulling out deep-buried memories from childhood, like talking with each other about habits your parents used to do when you were little, and certain sights, smells, and sounds: adobo cooking on the stove; the hustle of a day in Manila; our titas gossiping,” she recalls.
At a young age, Syjuco felt she was destined for a career in the arts. “I had always been drawing and making weird art projects since I was little. My high school was an academic public school consisting of mostly first-generation immigrants whose parents wanted them to follow moneymaking careers,” she says. When she decided to get her bachelor in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute and her masters from Stanford University, “it felt like I was thumbing my nose at the establishment. I was going to follow my own path and be an artist.”
As an artist, Syjuco realized she had the license to tackle a wide variety of topics—politics, social issues, aesthetics, and more. Merging her visions while creating her own brand of art was a difficult process. “It took a lot of discipline and hard work, spending a lot of time making mistakes and figuring out my own voice in my art practice.” She participated in museum and gallery exhibitions both in the US and abroad. Her works have been exhibited in leading art museums in San Francisco, New York City, Honolulu, Istanbul, Manila, Madrid and Beijing.
As an artist, Syjuco is comfortable with any medium. She considers herself “omnivorous” when it comes to working on various genres of art. “I’m drawn to making objects and working with objects because of the direct human relationship ‘things’ have to bodies, trade, and commerce. I like artworks that work on multiple levels: the social critique, the aesthetic display, and the material processes.” She’s worked with video, photography, drawing and digital media.
Syjuco taught a studio sculpture course at Carnegie Mellon in 2008 and has worked on projects dealing with issues of cultural communication, translation, and misinterpretation. In one project, she took on a local Fil-Am newspaper and reprinted a version of it that took all the images, text blocks, and information and turned them into blocks of color that mimic minimalist Bauhaus diagrams from the 1930s. Her interests of late lie in resuscitating historical art movements to discover how relevant they are today.
The counterfeit crochet project was an idea she nurtured for some time. “I was purposefully trying to create a playful yet critical project—it looks like a humorous attempt to mimic current fashion trends and status symbols, but on the other hand it is actively encouraging individuals to create designer knockoffs for themselves. Folks from the craft and fashion communities and the art world have all found ways to discuss these issues together through this project. I also wanted to work with people who didn’t necessarily see themselves as ‘artists’ but had the skills and know-how to make amazing things with their own hands.
“As for the politics of it, it can be read as a ‘feminist’ act that takes a devalued form of what is considered a traditionally women’s craft and deals with contemporary political and social concerns.”
Who would have thought that humor and crafts could trigger a critique on mass production and the public’s criticized desire for designer goods? Ensconced among a tangle of crochet yarn and fashion magazines, the crochet coterie discusses. Art permeates the rules of man, and Syjuco proudly raises the needle.
(First published in Marie Claire, August 2008; photos used with permission from Stephanie Syjuco, main photo by Julius Dimanlig)