Ekta Kaul is an award-winning textile artist known for her embroidered story maps. Her exhibition, Mapping Meaning, is at The Festival of Quilts for its 20th Anniversary at the NEC Birmingham from 3rd-6th August 2023. Ekta will be speaking about her artistic practice in a lecture called Transformation: The Power of Stitch at The Festival of Quilts on Thursday 3rd August.
Ekta, you express yourself creatively through fabric and thread, telling stories of place, history and belonging. You’ve described embroidery and the act of stitching as an act of ‘mapping memory’. Can you tell us more about that and about the appeal of maps for storytelling?
Maps are receptacles of meaning. Not only are they visually arresting objects, they are also narrative devices to share stories and have been used throughout history to tell specific versions of truth. When I look at historical maps, I am so intrigued by what is on the map and also what is left out, who is the narrator and who is the intended audience.
I am interested in exploring how maps can be used to tell contemporary stories of individuals and communities. They hold so many affinities with quilts – the layers of meaning, the coming together of symbolic motifs and telling of stories. So, I embroider maps of places that are meaningful to me, using emblems and motifs that are personally significant as a way of connecting to my memories and expressing my interiority. To me my embroidered maps are segues into exploring ideas that I am interested in – place, history, belonging, identity.
You spent your early life and artistic education in India. Duality of home is a theme for some of your work. What role does stitch play in connecting you to your Indian heritage and to your family and ancestors?
I grew up in India surrounded by beautiful textiles. My mother collected saris from all over India, so I had an early education into India’s handmade traditions in weave, print and stitch that stretch back thousands of years. She was also a prolific needlewoman, along with my grandmother who quilted. Together they instilled a love of textiles in me. Encouraged by my parents to follow my creativity, I trained at India’s premier design school, the National Institute of Design (NID, Ahmedabad), and later came to the UK to study for a Masters degree in Textiles. Embroidery has been part of the Indian fabric of life – from domestic textiles made by mothers for their daughters, to those produced in ateliers patronised by nobles and courts around the world. It is still a tradition that is alive and thriving. I feel so proud of having inherited this rich heritage.
As I grappled with the idea of home after I had moved away from India to the UK, embroidery became a way to access the memories and comfort of home and a connection to the women in my family.
Creativity is your passion and you share that passion with others by teaching embroidery masterclasses. Can anyone pick up a needle and thread and learn to express themselves meaningfully?
Creativity is a human instinct. We all have the ability to be creative. Unfortunately, as we grow older, we often become convinced that we lack creativity. We start to associate creativity with who we consider “proper” artists – the ones who went to art school, or showcase their exhibitions etc. Our inner artist retreats, often as a result of conditioning or an unkind word from figures of authority.
However, humans have painted, embroidered, sculpted and have expressed themselves in hundreds of ways since the dawn of time. I firmly believe that at its core, creativity is about expressing our humanity. A needle and thread are such simple tools and demand such little in the way of skills or logistics that they are accessible to everyone. Moreover, cloth is such a universally emotive material – it holds memories and meaning for us all. So, anyone can pick up a needle and cloth and carve out room for creativity in their lives.
My classes are an invitation to return to the joy of artmaking, to develop confidence in one’s own creative voice and to learn to express oneself through thread on cloth.
You’re a multi award-winning artist with work in several collections. Do you feel that textile artists still have a way to go to gain the recognition they deserve in the world of fine art?
The fibre arts have traditionally been marginalised because of their gendered history. Hierarchies of fine art and craft created during the Renaissance excluded women’s work from being recognised as fine art and have sadly continued to hold sway until recently. This exclusion is evident in the limited representation of textiles in art museums and fairs. In my view, these outdated hierarchies ought to have no place in the 21st century. The world is rapidly changing, thanks to social media and the Internet, breaking down traditional barriers between art and its patrons. Textile artists now have direct access to collectors who actively support their work. There is a groundswell movement, and the onus is on the gatekeepers of the artworld to throw open their doors and invite in the prodigious talent they have been missing out on.
As we celebrate 20 years of the quilting community coming together here at The Festival of Quilts, what does it mean to you to be part of this worldwide quilting family?
Textiles are a force of connection. They transcend divides of geography, language, generations and culture. Through my stitches, I feel connected to my mother and grandmothers who embroidered and quilted. When the pandemic struck, I began to hold weekly gatherings online in an effort to hold space for connection through textiles. We stitched and shared stories of hope. Little did I know that these virtual gatherings would become a meeting point for hundreds of passionate textile enthusiasts from around the globe over the two years. So, I have witnessed first-hand how this common thread of love for textiles unites us, bringing immense joy, solace, and comfort to all who participate.
For 20 years, The Festival of Quilts has been bringing the quilting community together, offering inspiration, instruction in skills, and connection. I feel very privileged to be a part of this global family and feel so delighted at showcasing my work at the Festival celebrating its 20th anniversary.