empowering women at unesco

by Nikki Gonnissen

In October 2016, Nikki was invited by Mr Peng and Mrs Pei from Nanjing to speak about Empowerment of Women through Art and Design at UNESCO in Paris. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand here before you as a maker, mother, wife and daughter, as a company director and a president… As a woman. 

In all these roles I look for a position in which gender isn’t seen as an excuse nor as a particular achievement. I admire the strength of activist artists like Yajoi Kusama who got herself arrested several times for what was then, in 1960’s America, seen as ‘indecent exposure’ of the female body. I guess I’m not an activist like her. But I definitely take inspiration from her example. I believe that well-conceived provocations can be the start of a dialogue, and that dialogue will help us get rid of preconceived ideas and prejudice about issues such as race, age, sexuality or gender.

It has always been my drive to perform to the best of my abilities and expand my horizon as much as possible. Through my work I hope I can push others to achieve the same. Men and women alike. But still, it cannot be denied that, living in the Netherlands, my position as a ‘working girl’ – compared to that of women in countries like Brazil, Turkey or China – is pretty comfortable and relatively equal.

Good afternoon.
I’m Nikki Gonnissen, graphic designer, founder and director of thonik, a design studio in Amsterdam. In our design projects thonik operates in the world of culture, but also in political environments. All our projects are meant to connect. We aim to open up cultural institutions to new audiences. Our designs for local governments are intended to inform and involve citizens in the political process that shapes their daily lives.

Recently I was appointed president of the Alliance Graphique International. AGI is an international organisation of graphic designers dedicated to promote quality in visual communication. My presidency is again about connecting.

I’d like to expose this community of respected designers – many of them male, white and Western – to the voices of other cultures and to younger generations of designers; male as well as female. I believe that true international exchange and collaborations are paramount to create understanding between cultures, and to enforce much-needed social innovation.

Today I’d like to talk about a few examples of how this works, based on my own experience. In doing so I will take you on a high-speed tour from Shanghai, China to Nanjing, China. In the mean time we’ll have crossed the globe in just a matter of minutes. So, hold on to your hats!

In 2008 thonik had a retrospective exhibition in the Shanghai Art Museum. Our Chinese counterparts were very open and interested in the culture we represent. But we did not just want to bring our designs to China; we also wanted to learn and interact. That’s why we decided to work with local crafts people who turned our cultural and political designs into handcrafted woolen carpets which were then installed in the exhibition.

These huge carpets introduced an unexpected nomadic notion: you could just role them up and move on. This aspect acquired new meaning when we were invited to show the carpets in Venice, Paris, New York and Tokyo. Suddenly, a Dutch-Chinese co-production traveled the world.

In 2015 I participated in the Design Biennial in Florianópolis, Brazil. For this project I found inspiration in the Novembrada-protests of 1979, the first large-scale demonstration against the military regime that was eventually overthrown. The protests took place in the bustling centre of Florianópolis, where the Design Biennial would now be staged.

We designed a series of flags that corresponded with some of the typical houses in Florianópolis. The idea was to represent citizens and families – “one man – one vote”. We then presented the flags to the occupants and asked them to pose for a photograph. Many participants started sharing stories about their lives, their political views and their vision of the future. A simple flag provided citizens with a tool to express themselves. It empowered people to participate.

The flag then traveled to Istanbul, the gateway between East and West: a city of opportunities and conflicts. Today Istanbul faces many challenges. Refugees, terrorist attacks, citizen protests, and a failed coup d’etat have all left their mark on the Turkish population. This was the backdrop for my contribution to the İstanbul Graphic Design Week, earlier this year.

I wanted to explore if and how design can bridge the growing gap between the local community and the refugees.

 I asked Turkish art students to each get in touch with a refugee and design a personal flag for him or her. To design a flag that would truly represent the situation, a student had to share the life of the subject. Perhaps that explains why the final ceremony, when the flags were handed over, was so emotional, happy and intense. All the sorrow magically transformed into an energy that culminated in this peaceful moment. Enduring friendships were created. 

The last stop on today’s journey is Nanjing, China where thonik is preparing a residency. We visited a Yunjin brocade workshop and immediately fell in love with the intricate technique that combines weaving and embroidery in a painstakingly complex process. Two women operate the loom. Their work is so time-consuming that even extremely skilled weavers can only produce 1 cm of cloth per hour.

Nanjing brocade once catered to the emperor of China. Now it serves the consumer market. The highly developed sense of quality we found in several museum pieces has suffered dearly from this transition. The women who work on the looms are still as skilled as ever. But when it comes to the choice of designs and patterns, on which management decides, the companies are vulnerable.

We intend to continue on the experiences we gathered in Brazil and Turkey. Instead of focusing on the brocade itself, we will focus on the weavers. And more specifically on two women weavers, Qian Yu and Siu Fang, who are willing to share their dazzling knowledge and ability.

Last month we worked with them for 10 days. Together we visited museums, trying to understand the great historical examples of their craft. And we found a common goal. One weaver, Qian Yu, has a dream of making a wedding dress for her daughter, Yen Fei. We immediately decided that this dress should be the outcome of our collaboration.

In this process weavers and designers will collaborate on an equal basis, investing their individual talents in a joined creation.

Differences in culture, gender, talent and generation should not divide us. Instead, these differences are the main source of human potential.

This is the goal I see for the Nanjing residency, for my presidency of AGI and for the work at thonik. All these platforms will show how design can empower people in their search for a just and equal position in today’s society, and how this might help us build a better world.

Yajoi Kusama, Naked Happening Orgy and Flagburning on the Brooklyn Bridge, New York. 17 May 1968.

See also