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Embroidery and contemporary art: the S.E.W. in Rome

Translation by Marina Dlacic 

The works of over sixty artists who use embroidery and fibers as an expressive language were exhibited at Palazzo Velli in Rome in a major exhibition – “Surface and depth” – which brought the public closer to this medium considered too often obsolete and hobby or at most artisanal and here instead applied to contemporary art. A courageous project by The Society for Embroidered Work (SEW) an Anglo-Saxon international association which, as Olga Teksheva, one of the curators of the exhibition explains, “was founded in 2018 by two English artists, Catherine Frampton and Emily Tull, with the aim of promote “stitched art” in the world of contemporary art. “

Many of the artists who join the association have a background in classical painting or drawing but all have in common a subsequent experimentation with threads, embroidery and fibers.

I waited for the dismantling and shipping of the works to finish and I met Olga Teksheva to take stock of this experience and understand more about the exhibition and the reception of the Roman public.

DIONNE SWIFT, Murmurations, Free machine embroidery on wool with cotton and viscose threads. Measurements: 150 x 150 x 25 cm, Year: 2021. ALESSIJA SPAGNA

Olga, how did the idea of ​​setting up this exhibition in Rome come about?

With around 600 members in 40 countries around the world, our dream is to be able to set up a major international Stitched Art exhibition every year in a different country. The first of these S.E.W. was organized in London in 2019; in 2020, the pandemic stopped programming.This year, however, someone had to “reopen the dance” and therefore why not do it in Italy, in Rome – I thought – by inserting our event in the official program of Rome Art Week, a container that grows every year and has now become one of the main contemporary art events in the capital.The idea was liked by the management of S.E.W. I knew that proposing an exhibition of just under seventy artists of Stitched Art in Rome would not be easy: unlike Milan, Rome is less used to this language of art,but precisely for this reason, it could have been an opportunity to be the first to propose an exhibition of contemporary embroidery of this magnitude in Rome. In Russian, my mother tongue, we say “those who do not take risks, do not toast success with prosecco”. And I decided to take a chance! And, fortunately, we were also able to toast to success.

Hidden Treasures I. Crocheted fishing thread, metal wire, textiles, hand embroidery. Measurements: 23 x 62 cm. Year: 2021. Ph Alessija Spagna

What was the theme around which the artists were called to reflect through their works?

Painting with threads would be the basic idea of ​​our artists’ work. But it seemed interesting to me to go beyond painting, to sculpting to show the infinite possibilities of fibers as an artistic material. Thus was born the idea of ​​”Surface and Depth”. With Cat Frampton and Felicity Griffin Clark – the other two curators – we invited artists to experiment with unusual materials for the surface (e.g. technical fabrics, aluminum, industrial felt) and classic embroidery stitches with alternative yarns (instead of classic silk) the raffia, the rope, the metal thread.We also asked to go towards a three-dimensional research, experimenting with drapery and found objects, creating real embroidery sculptures. The results exceeded our best expectations as works of great interest and diversity in form and content arrived.

JOLANDA DRUKKER MURRAY. Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil. Reclaimed fabrics, cow horns, antique Aubusson arm rest, part of a chandelier, zippers, embroidery. Measurements: height 120 – 140 cm, width 23 – 35 cm, depth 20 – 28 cm. Year: 2021. Ph Alessija Spagna

Definitely a challenging project, with works from different countries, including the United Kingdom now outside the EU and therefore subjected to more complex regulations for import and export. Net of these difficulties, what was the public response?

I want to thank the public for the absolutely excellent welcome, with a continuous influx of curious visitors. I was prepared to hear comments on the genre “even my grandmother loved to embroider” – the worst nightmare of every fiber artist – and instead to my great joy the public immediately grasped the strength of this language of contemporary art without any misunderstanding about their nature of artwork.Every time I attempted a brief introduction to the exhibition and the artists’ work, I found myself taking a real guided tour complete with questions that betrayed an authentic interest in each individual work. Reflections, emotions, compliments: in short, everything a curator could wish for.

Jackie Hamilton, detail. Flux. Free motion and hand embroidery on gauze, hand embroidered and beaded X-ray photos. Measurements: 200 x 75 cm. Year: 2021. Ph Alessija Spagna

The artists and the works

A plurality of approaches, materials, techniques, contents characterize the works on display. The theme allowed the artists to draw from different fields, from fashion to literature, moving their investigation in various directions.

Michael Sylvan Robinson in his “Venus Rising: a contemporary invocation” combines fashion, sculpture, street art and queer activism through the innovative use of fabric collages, machine and hand sewn. A sculpture-garment where layered and embroidered icons from the history of art and fragments of poetic texts printed by hand on the surface coexist – a reminder of the fragility of our world and, at the same time, a call to action.

MICHAEL SYLVAN ROBINSON (USA). Venus Rising: a Contemporary Invocation. Textile collage with embroidery, hand-stenciled text, applique, hand beading. Measurements: 71 x 96 x 8 cm. Year: 2019

The installation by Australian artist Felicity Griffin Clark, “Amazon’s Frock-Up” transforms an old wedding dress into the empty shell of a woman who, finally free, reveals her true nature as an Amazon, emancipated from a role that does not belong to her , evoked by small macabre trophies sewn on and become ornaments, talismans to overcome the boundaries of one’s prison. Through the “Flux” dress-installation, Jackie Hamilton investigates the boundary between surface and depth, between visible and invisible, like the radiography that completes it.The dress is a ghost, the dress is memory: one border element between life and death, the other connection between the intimate dimension and the outside world. Silvia Perramon Rubio also wonders about the limit between being and appearing with “The Limit” a shimmering portrait of Andy Warhol halfway between a glossy cover and a sacred icon.

Silvia Perramon,  The Limit. Hand embroidery on silk organza. Measurements: 100 x 100 cm. Year: 2018. The Limit, ALESSIJA SPAGNA

The theme of memory returns in Dionne Swift‘s abstract work, a large embroidery that has the movement of a vortex and the movement of a wave in which every single point is the wing of a bird. “Mormorations” are in fact the sounds of flocks that migrate in autumn. A flight to which the artist ideally entrusts the spirit of his brother who died last year.

Evocative is the work of Olga Teksheva, “The hidden treasures”, a cocoon that, like the tin boxes of her childhood where she hid the small treasures collected in the garden – a pebble, a lost clip, a butterfly wing – protects the mystery of its content. Only by approaching and looking inside through the small cracks does the work fully reveal itself to the observer. A reflection on the need to penetrate beyond the colored surface to fully understand the nature of things.

An invitation reaffirmed in “Stitching with Charles Dickens” by Julia O’Connell a small white bag on which a passage from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens is embroidered in white thread. What we see, however, is the back of the embroidery and therefore to read – and truly understand – the text it is essential to make a further effort.

Julia O’Connell SWCD exterior 2. ALESSIJA SPAGNA

Jolanda Drukker Murray with her installation “Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil” finds a meeting point between her recent interest in embroidery and her training as a sculptor. Human beings and their behaviors are at the center of the Dutch artist’s investigation who gives shape in this work to the widespread tendency not to want to see, to turn away in order not to take responsibility for the witness, in order not to be involved in the events happening around us.

Also on display the works by Ailish Henderson, Alicja Kozlowska, Alison Wake, Anne Kelly, Antje Rook, Assunta Miles, Ausra Merkelyte, Bridget Steel Jessop, Camila Jofre, Carrie Donohoe, Cat Frampton, Christina MacDonald, Clarke Reynolds, Courtney Cox, Dagmar Stap, Deborah Collum, Edith Barton, Emma Panell, Haf Weighton, Harpa Jonsdottir, Heidi Ingram, Helyne Jennings, Imogen Rhodes-Davies, Isabel Greenslade, Jessica Grady, Jinny Ly, Josephine Sams, Julie French, Julieanne  Long, Karen Byrne, Kim McCormack, Korey Rowswell, Kristine Stattin, Lin Belaunde Morla, Linda McBain Cuyler, Maria Constanza Villareal, Marian Jazmik, Matthew Downham, Nancy Cole, Nathalie Frost, Philippe Ashcroft, Pippa Hamilton, Rachel Gillard-Jones, Renee Toonen, Rhian Zwierat, Rima Day, Rozalie Sherwood, Sarah J. Hull, Sharon Cavalier, Sharon Peoples, Sue Lancaster, Susan Shafrir, Suzanne Campbell, Sylvie Millen, Violet Shirran, Wolfgang Woerner, Zane Shumeiko, Zelda Cunningham.