Within the context of the media partnership between ArteMorbida and the sixth edition of Contextile, the Portuguese Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Tina Struthers, a fibre and visual artist originally from Cape Town, South Africa, who lives and works permanently in Montreal, Quebec.
Struthers is one of eight artists invited to participate in the residency organised for Contextile 2022 in Guimaraes, led by director Joaquim Pinheiro, with the support of curator and artistic director Cláudia Santos Melo.
This internationally oriented project aimed to create artworks connected with the Biennial theme: RE-MAKE.
In this interview, Struthers shares with us the path of research and reflection that led her to the creation of Sleep in the bed that you made while also giving us an overview of her established artistic practice.
You are an established artist with consolidated experience especially in the field of fibre art. What kind of research characterizes your production?
As a textile and visual artist, the origins of the materiality of things are tied tightly to my understanding of the world and its complex eco, inter-human, political, cultural and economic systems. For example, when considering ecological systems, and the impact of the textile industry on environmental structures, I intuitively seek its tangible traces. Within this process of visualizing the entangled state of interdependency between human and inhuman entities, and their parallel realities, I imagine a woven cloth, a multidimensional map, a Jacquard loom… suspended in time, it is an attempt to be able to untwist and unravel each individual thread to try to gain a better understanding of my environment and the time period I am living in, and a sense of my place within it.
I am interested in a variety of themes; I usually focus on a research interest for a specific body of work, for example water and the fragility of this resources has been a recurring theme. Lately I am very interest ideas surrounding folds and unfolding as a metaphor. New materialist concepts and the entanglement of matter relate to this research too.
Within my art practice specifically related to fiber and material practices, I am interested in the historical context of textile making, and fiber production, as well as the geographical origins and displacement of textile material and objects. The jacquard loom for example as a powerful symbol for the overlapping and dimensional structural qualities of time, technological development, and cultural heritage that becomes entangled in our present moment. I focus often on ecological impact of the textile and garment industries, the invisibility of the hands of the makers being mostly women historically, and how the transmission of these techniques is imbedded in cultural heritage.
What mainly influences your imagination and your artistic practice?
Often, I think my work has a strong personal emotional narrative, a response to observations and feelings. This is overlapped with current interests and research; the physical landscape and natural environment really triggers my imagination too.
My work often considers the entangled matters of materiality, ecological and social structures, and the memories of places and things. Throughout my creation process I organically embed my reflections into cloth, mapping my journey with needle and thread.
Using textiles as the basis for construction in my work, I often imagine a flow, a conversation back and forth between me and the materials that I am creating with. I start with a concept, sketches, but the fluidity of this process is important to me. Constantly adapting and changing while trying to understand how the fibers want to transform, leaving behind in the works an element of my tactile memories. I think cloth carries the imprint of this struggle and interaction.
These months you are involved in an artist residency in Guimarães. This project is part of the partnership between the BILP and Contextile aimed at promoting art and culture. International residencies, in particular, create a bridge between countries and cultures and are an opportunity to appreciate how cultural diversity can be an opportunity for enrichment. What is, in your experience, the role that a project like this plays for the art world and in particular for contemporary textile art?
Partnerships and artistic exchange are crucially important in the development of contemporary artists, but even more so in expanding the presence and recognition of contemporary textile arts on a global visual arts platform.
I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding as to what exactly contemporary textile arts is, especially in the larger art community. Very often there is parallels but also confusion about the difference between a craft versus arts practice, when using textile-based techniques for visual expression. Simply I think you are an artist first, and you choose to communicate through textile or fibers.
This residency opens these conversations to a larger audience, both locally, but also between countries and artists. It was really inspiring to see similarities and differences in how textile shaped the Communities here and in parallel to Quebec. The BILP is in a territory marked by linen tradition, very diffrenst climate and circumstances, but the traces of textile tradition is also strongly imbedded into local culture in this region of Quebec.
Meeting and working alongside a diverse group of artists during the residency, weaves new connection, but also enlarges the imprint and importance of international exchange between textile-based artists. I think this experience is unique and due to the length of time allowed me to really absorb local culture. As you move through the city and surrounding landscape, you really have an opportunity to imbed yourself firsthand into the environment, listening to the rhythm of the language, and discovering everyday life details.
The artists had the unique opportunity to visit local Portuguese textile industry, but also to learn of the cultural heritage, and traditional textile richness of the region, and how the textile industry shaped the development of the city. it was such a great experience to be so well supported, by the entire Contextile team. The artists receive artistic and installation support from the dynamic Contextile team, under guidance by the director of Contextile Joachim Pinheiro and Curator, and Artistic Director, Claudia Santos Melo.
It is a beautiful moving experience to connect with artisans from the region. To be reminded that fine craft and making connect people beyond the barriers of language, it pauses time, and makes the past breathe and become present through the hands.
This process of making and teaching can create bonds between people, without any words needing to be exchanged. This is the magic of making, and weaving connections through textiles.
The possibility of being in an active cultural environment where you can confront yourself with other artists, relate to an unknown social and territorial context with a rich textile tradition, experiment with new practices … What motivated you to participate in this artist residency?
It was a long personal dream to be able to participate in the Contextile residencies. In 2018, I had the privilege to participate in Textile-talks, and I fell in love with the city of Guimaraes, the territory breaths textile, you can feel it here. The biennial is also recognized for its high standard, and promotion of artistic exchange, values that are important to me in my arts practice too. For personal reasons I could not travel for such an extended period the last few years. It was specifically my interest in the connectivity of place to textile heritage that is so unique in the way that it shaped the city and its cultural identity that inspired me. The experience was far richer than I ever imagined, opening new ideas, new connections, and new approaches to the visualization of my work.
Can you tell us about the work Sleep in the bed that you made that you designed and are creating as part of this residency? How did this work explore and materialise the theme of the biennial? Could we say that it is a work that responds to the place where it was created? Can you tell us about it?
Being in Guimaraes, a city that is interlaced with its rich connection and heritage to the textile industry, creates an interesting visual narrative, as you physically transition through these spaces and their history, but also filled with the rhythm of daily life.
For this project I was specifically interested in the inherent link between the industrialization of the textile industry, and the footprint this leaves on contemporary culture. It is also a thread that connects the history of place, its past, present, and future, entangled in the threads of textile making. It is this overlapping flux of time and its imprint on territory that I am exploring, specifically as it relates to Guimarães. Visualizing textile as skin, body traces on bed sheets, a place of healing as it connects to the hospital and the Convent Capuchos, where residencies are hosted. Working in the hospital space had a personal emotional charge and narrative for me, as I spent a lot of time in Quebec the last three years in and out of hospitals. it was a strange twist, to confront this space, and to understand it’s importance to the people here. It is a place of healing but also of loss.
For my project I had the privilege to work with Linen textile from the Têxteis Penedo factory. The structure and quality of this coarsely woven linen cloth, made it possible to mold, sculpt and shape the cloth in dimensional forms. I also worked with cotton fabric used for the manufacture of bed sheets. Cotton for me represents industrialization, and I always feel the weight of this material’s historical and ecological footprint. I am also interested in investigating the collapse of industrial and human structures and how one weak thread can damage an entire section of the “tissue” or cause the unraveling and collapse of multiple social systems.
My intention was to visualize the entanglements of the passage of time, textile industry, ecological impact, and the invisible traces of labor on the body, and thinking of the conditions of textile workers. Early in the residency we had a visit to the old hospital, and the guide spoke with us about the value of the linen cloth used for bedsheets in the hospital. How when they were completely worn out in the middle of the bedsheet by the bodies, they would be cut up to make pillowcases, later smaller pillowcases, and lastly, once the cloth was too worn-out for this to be used for bandages. This idea, of re-making beds, a daily action, of care, and of re-using until the last threads, inspired my abstractions. Interlaced with these concepts I am considering salt as part of this narrative, as an element that preserves, disinfects, and protects. Salt has a connection to the cod fish, omnipresent in this environment, with its beautiful glistening salted skin, but also its distinctive smell, salt is also an important element in textile dying.
These three themes, like entangled threads, the material, human and ecological, are underlying in the conversation between the works I created. These thoughts became a metaphor for how we can rethink our shared cushion of protection for the future, as this seemingly becomes smaller and smaller. I am thinking of how I can re-make my daily actions, to leave more positive traces for the future.
Binding, folding, and pleating of cloth are processes that relate to practices of care. When folding, more than half the fabric in a fold is hidden. Without the added depth, the fold cannot exist. Folds are layers, folding and unfolding is an act of care, a passage of time, a ceremony, a structured linear process of covering and revealing.
What are, in your opinion, the critical and strong points that an artist is confronted with when creating a work as part of a residency project? What is your personal experience?
What really is a strenght within a residency situation, is the condensed time span to complete a project. Being confronted with a spesific installation space, research period and being outside the comfort of your normal studio space, pushes you to aproach your work throught a new lens.
It opens the door to stretch how you practice your art.
Personally having a bubble of time just to focus on one principale project, really allowed me to focus, to reflect, to re-imagine possible outcomes, and installation methods. Questioning the line between intension and possibility. Remaing flexable and constantly adapting to tecnical challanges, but also the real feeling of escaping the solitude of creating within your own studio, and becoming part of a small artistic community with other artists in residence and the Contextile community.
Personally this was a very necessary moment for rethinking structures, material choices, and my visual narrative.
On 2 September, the exhibition with the works created during the residency opened. What do you hope for?
Finally I can re-make connections with my wider textile arts community and friends that I have not seen due to the pandemic the last few years. My hope is that visitors to the exhibition of all the artistic residency artists will be able to feel a bit of the narrative and connection that was developed between all the artists and the environment.
For my own work, I always hope that visitors will have a quiet moment to be with the work, as always when distancing from a completed project is that the viewers will leave with a feeling, an emotional response, and a thought to reflect on.
Are there themes, ideas, goals that you feel the need to develop or deepen in the continuation of your artistic career? What plans for the future?
Currently my fascination with the precision of lines and folds, the grid like structure of woven cloth, in contrast to the multidimensional layers of the vibrant, natural molecular structures that construct our reality is an interconnected dynamic that I really want to explore further: an inseparable coexistence.
A few other themes are the ability of cloth to hide, transform and heal things. Cloth can be twisted and contorted, it can be stretched and folded, I really want to challenge how to visualize some of these thoughts.
I continue to explore the social meanings we attribute to materials, the origins of giving feeling to matter, the potential for an emotional intuitive response to materials, their touch, and their interconnectedness.
I am thinking of caring, of mummification, wrapping the body slowly, meticulously in linen cloth, so that the skin will not decay. Coincidentally, the same action of wrapping of cloth is used when bandaging wounds, to call on the power of regeneration of the body. I am thinking about flux, circularity and interconnectivity, considering the agency of not human matter and particles.
For the next year I will focus amongst other group exhibitions on my next to solo shows in 2023, one in Quebec and the other, a first in Australia, there are a few other exciting projects under development… but too early to whisper about it.