Productive Discomfort at Xpace Cultural Centre

By Rebecca Casalino

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Productive Discomfort, 2019. Installation view, works by Jessica Watkin, Anne Ruccetto, Susan Blight, and James Yeboah in view. Photo credit: Polina Teif

March 1-30, 2019

Anne Rucchetto, Kaythi, Seiji, Susan Blight, Jessica Watkin,

Heidi Cho, and James Yeboah

Curated by Lauren Cullen

As part of Myseum Intersections Festival: Revisionist Toronto.


Women’s craft and labour is a topic explored in feminist circles, yet we do not see it often directly reflected in the mediums of contemporary artists’ practices. I myself am guilty of this, citing women’s labour in my own work, and comparing the repeated actions in my practice to sewing or knitting. Walking into Xpace and seeing Productive Discomfort for the first time I was happily surprised by bright colours and political discourse. This was not the women’s craft I had grown up learning.

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Susan Blight, An Unwelcome Mat for these Times, Niwiiji Anishinaabeg, 2019. Photo credit: Polina Teif

One of the carpets that caught my eye hung from the west wall and had long trails of pink and red yarn streaming down from a rectangle emblazoned with an Anishinaabemowin phrase. The artist, Susan Blight, lifts the rug from the floor indicating to the viewer they are not easily welcomed by the artist. This challenge presented by Blight is delivered with an object filled with labour and embroidered with a language foreign to a settler audience. The anger surrounding Canada’s relationship to the Indigenous communities is felt in Toronto with protests supporting Wet’suwet’en land defenders gaining momentum and residents choosing to call the city Tkaronto, a Mohawk word meaning “where there are trees in the water”. Land acknowledgments have become the standard at gatherings to keep the history of colonial violence in our minds. This infusion of Indigenous politics into the urban settler mainstream discussion is long overdue. In my own primary and secondary education, the history of Turtle Island’s Indigenous peoples was a hasty stereotypical sketch of a complex culture the invading settlers refused to acknowledge. It was only in university, through my own course selection, I began to learn about the rich art historical canon of the Aboriginal, Metis and Inuit peoples. As settlers, we must pressure our institutions to engage with Indigenous voices so we can honour the flourishing communities on the land they cared for long before settlers landed here.  Blight’s refusal to lay down her welcome mat reads as a message to myself and fellow settlers that our presence is still not welcome, and our support is too little and too late.

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Kaythi, Our Lady of Profound Failure, 2019. Photo Credit: Polina Teif

Our Lady of Profound Failure created by Kaythi was another rug that drew my attention. It’s deep red subject popped against the blue background. The rug had oranges and greens, woven as a kind of collage, dancing around the edges making the composition playful and fun. Visitors are encouraged to kneel on the rug; this made me giggle, thinking about kneeling in connection to prayer and oral sex. The rug pops with its bright colours and DYKES ONLY is written in bold black across a bent figure. The red distorted figure bends with its back arching along the top of the rug. This work claims space by welcoming an exclusive social group. Spaces reserved for ‘dykes’ are rare and usually very fluid, for example, The Beaver, a gay bar/café. I don’t consider myself a dyke, but I feel the word hooked into a rug allows queers like myself to be in on the joke.

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Kaythi, Our Lady of Profound Failure, 2019. Photo Credit: Polina Teif

What interests me most about this exhibition is the dedication to labour and the dissemination of knowledge. For the exhibition, Lauren Cullen taught the artists how to make hooked rugs, a craft she has been practicing for nine years. This passing of knowledge without the platform of a classroom or the internet is labourious and intimate, creating an immediate community. I attended Cullen’s event at Xpace to learn how to make hooked rugs and happily sat at a table with a graphic design student, an architect, a jeweller, and a comedian. Cullen stood in front of the video projecting artists in the show making their rugs. Each of us peeked up at the video from time to time to compare our tiny squares to their work. Cullen came around to each table spending time with attendee’s offering them tea and cheezies. The room was filled with light conversation as everyone concentrated on their tiny rugs. Materials were spread across a table complete with leggings, shirts, yarn, and pre-sliced striped of cloth. At the end of the session, we were all hesitant to leave and crowded around Cullen to individually thank her for such a lovely day of bonding and making. Cullen’s practice seems to revolve around these kinds of exchanges and community building as she discussed with one of the participants her passion for “unlearning”. Artists from the show were also in attendance and sat at the tables with participants happy to talk about their experiences learning with Cullen for the show. Cullen created a learning environment of balance and calm.


Cullen uses “the social practice and conventions of rug hooking as a tool for critical education, grounded in anti-racist, anti-colonial and feminist queer crip frameworks” to replace traditional institutional and academic methods of teaching. In creating these ‘unwelcome’ mats Cullen leads artists Rucchetto, Kaythi, Seiji, Blight, Watkin, Cho, and Yeboah in their rug hooking practices to convey their own political narratives surrounding craft, textile works, and labour. Productive Discomfort engages with a myriad of political topics allowing each artist to harness textiles to hook their point of view. My relationship with textiles has never been so complex and politically engaging. As a child, I sat with my Nonna on the couch watching her crochet blankets and listening to stories about her younger more nimble fingers embroidering sheets, handkerchiefs, and pillowcases for her wedding chest. Cullen uses feminist theory and rug hooking to identify, “a significant site of matrilineage: a site of material culture gaining legitimacy through an inter-generational practice of passing down rugs and skills between women.” This summarizes my experience with textiles and shapes textile art in a feminist light allowing myself and other contemporary artists to engage with rug hooking on a new level. Productive Discomfort brings the conversation around textile arts into the conversation surrounding community, marginalized narratives, and women’s labour.

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