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Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles

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Featured photo: Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

13th February-28th-26th May 2024
Barbican Centre, London, UK

I have written about textile or fibre art, whatever it may be called, over 4 decades. It is only now in the 21st century, that has been such a flurry of excitement over international exhibitions that have sought to unravel some of the themes of the 1960s of feminist material practices, dissolving the boundaries between high art and craft. I wrote once about the expanded field drawing on Rosalind Krauss idea that sculpture had changed beyond all accepted definitions that it was difficult to know to define it Krauss, 1979). Arguably, a corresponding analysis applies to textile art, except that there are new dialogues and contested ground that encompasses what is or not embedded in the power and politics of textiles, now.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

In an interview in Craft Horizons magazine, and quoted by one of the Barbican curators, Lotte Johnson in the accompanying catalogue to Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles, Louise Bourgeois damned the works, which included pieces by Sheila Hicks and Magdalena Abakanowicz, with faint praise. “If they must be classified,” Bourgeois said, “they would fall somewhere between fine and applied art.”  At the time of the first major exhibition, 1969 show Wall Hangings at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the installation limited the audience’s ability to see the works—like Abakanowicz’s Abakans—in the round, as recently shown at TATE Modern’s Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope, London, UK, 17 November 2022 to 21 May 2023.
It is ironic that Bourgeois, herself who challenged boundaries and hierarchies, should be reinforcing the boundary between applied and fine art. Paradoxically, Bourgeois, Hicks as well as Jagoda Buic, Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Cecilia Vicuna should occupy the Barbican Centre, a concrete jungle of brutalist architecture and severity, but ensuring it is a riot of form scale and colour. There is a contrast between Solanga Pessoa’s bright yellow, ballooning sacs of earth sag and bulging ‘guts’ to L.J.Roberts’ small stitched images that depict dyke parades and protests following a transphobic attack.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

Unravel is not only curated by Lotte Johnson and Wells Fray-Smith but also Amanda Pinatih from the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam. The exhibition travels to the Stedelijk, who have been collecting textile art since the l960s, later in 2024. Aside from examples of the Stedilijk’s collection (including Abakanowicz and Buic to name but two) the curators acknowledge their historical precedents, in terms of artists but also curators and writers. Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book Fray: Art and Textile Politics (2017) had an enormous impact on their curatorial thinking, so much so that she acted as a critical friend to the Barbican exhibition.  Bryan Wilson contributes a thought proving essay to the Unravel catalogue, that delves into ideas of textile critterciscm ‘and the strict divisions between the human-made and the hand-made as we interact daily with creaturely stuff (wool, silk, etc).  whilst the curatorial essays in Unravel suggest that textiles are uniquely placed to navigate complex socio-political moments, their historical association with norms of gender, sexuality and identity make them particularly relevant for activism, as feminist practices once did last century with exhibitions like The Subversive Stitch,1984 (Barnett and Harris, Whitworth Art Gallery, Women and Textile Their Lives and Work, Women’s Artists Slide Library, Battersea Arts Centre,1982).  Many readers will recognise that textiles are often informed by community, indigenous or pre-colonial practices that give them a potency in commenting on colonial legacies as well as imbued with metaphorical language.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

What a viewer will discover on entering Barbican’s main gallery space, is an engagement with work that has incorporated textile methods and techniques alongside stories of resilience, diverse communities across disparate geographical and cultural worlds.  51 international artists are included, and 100 works installed from the 1960s to 2023.

Unravel is divided into six themes, Subversive Stitch (after Rozika Parker’s seminal book The Subversive Stitch, 1984), Fabric of Everyday Life, Borderlands, Bearing Witness, Wound and Repair and Ancestral Threads.  The Barbican is not a very hospitable building, a concrete jungle of brutalist architecture. To ensure the exhibition is welcoming and inclusive, the curators have opened the large space downstairs to an abundant display of large, sculptural installations. These are foregrounded by Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson. His creations on canvas with leather and ribbon are identified under the subversive stitch theme but could equally be thought of as bearing witness, wound and repair moving towards the theme of ancestral threads. Ancestral Threads, which takes up most of the ground floor of the gallery and is home to some of the most monumental works, featuring artists who look back at textile histories (Abakanowicz, Buic, Mukherjee). Some illuminate the effects of globalism and trade – Antonio Jose Guzman and Iva Jankovic’s patchworks, dyed with valuable indigo, focus on the exploitation of African enslaved people who brought with them expertise in its cultivation; at one point a length of indigo cloth equated in monetary value to one enslaved human.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

As Lotte Johnson, explained at the press conference (February 12th) rather than dictating a chronological history of fibre art, the exhibition is organised in thematic dialogues between artists — across both generations and geographies — to explore how artists have embraced textiles to critique or push up against regimes of power. Johnson says that Hlobo’s use of ribbons because of their association with women’s garments and thus rebellious possibilities. For many artists who engage, as Hlobo does, with legacies of violence and discrimination, stitching has potential for healing. In what is the most remarkable and moving of works, the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has collaborated with a family of Kuna descent to produce a shroud-like textile. A second work is made with the with the Harlem Needle arts institute. Dyleguad (Entierrro) and Dyleggued (Burial) 2013) use fabric, blood (from the body of a woman) and Mola, which draw the distinction between artistic and judiric, where blood is the evidence of a crime, giving rise to trauma, anger and textual hauntology, commemorating the police killings of Black men and women, or the assassination of the 17-year-old Jadeth Rosano Lopez in Panama City. Is there a possibility of healing?  Harmony Hammond’s canvas is draped in blood-drenched bandages, healing, or damage? Think of all the textile processes, like to repair, and renew, to sew and to weave and to join, to patch and to shroud, and we are in the realm of transformation and threads of embodied knowledge.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

The show’s historical works include creations on burlap with applique and patchwork made by arpillaristas, Chilean women, who came together in community spaces to express the atrocities they endured under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Personal memories are entwinned with ancestral ones ranging from the traditional Native American garments playfully queered by artist Jeffrey Gibson to the great poet and visual artist, Cecilia Vicuña’s use of ancient Andean knotting systems, in which weaving is a sacred and healing language.

Igshaan Adams’s stunning installation of ebullient wire clouds dominates the idea of Borderlands. Boundaries and borderlines are Adams’ material and conceptual starting point. In the Barbican, Gebedswolke (Prayer Clouds, 2021-2023) is stitched together with fragments of locally sourced wood, plastic, beads, shells, string, and rope, they are deeply linked to commodity trading and local environs in postcolonial Africa. In some tapestries, Adams records other types of movement by drawing from “desire lines,” unplanned paths made because of erosion from foot traffic, which throughout the Apartheid era in South Africa were used to connect communities that the government wanted too forcibly separate.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

Connected to Unravel but outside of the Barbican gallery space, Ibrahim Mahama has been commissioned to transform the Barbican’s Lakeside Terrace this spring, enveloping the building’s concrete walls with approximately 2000 square metres of bespoke woven cloth. The work incorporates 100 traditional Ghanaian batakari robes, sourced by the artist from local communities and embroidered onto bright pink and purple swathes of fabric in collaboration with hundreds of local craftspeople in the artist’s hometown, Tamale.  The commission is on view 10 April – 18 August 2024 at the Barbican’s Lakeside Terrace.

If Unravel attempts to focus on the political materiality of textiles, it also had to deal with politics from outside the confines of its galleries.

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

The artists—Diedrick Brackens, Yto Barrada, Mounira al Solh, and Cian Dayrit—have requested their works be removed from the Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, following the lead of the collectors, Lorenzo Legarda Leviste, and Fahad Mayet, who pulled their loan of two quilts by Loretta Pettway (a member of the Southern American artist collective Gee’s Bend) in February 2024. He said in a statement shared with ARTnews (11th March 2024) “It is disheartening that this exhibition has to be dismantled work by work in order to expose the complicity of the institution in silencing those of us who are speaking out against the historical and ongoing violence being committed in Gaza.”

These actions took place following reports that the Barbican would no longer present a lecture series organized by the London Review of Books set to take place over February and March. The decision was made in protest of the centre’s “censorship and repression” and “in solidarity with Palestine,” the couple said in a statement later published and published in ARTnews (29th February 2024).

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 13 Feb – 26 May 2024 © Jemima Yong / Barbican Art Gallery

Inside the Barbican Gallery, there is now a plinth where the two Pettway works were displayed. Affixed to that plinth is text reading: “These two works have been withdrawn at the request of the lenders, as an act of solidarity with Palestine, in response to the Barbican’s decision to not host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series.”

Martin Jay in (“The Aesthetic Ideology” as Ideology, Cultural Critique, Spring, 1992) posed the question, what does it mean to Aestheticze Politics? Put another way, what are the implications of ‘politicizing art’? The debate remains open.

Janis Jefferies

Janis Jefferies is emeritus professor of Visual Arts and Research Fellow, Goldsmiths and Research Fellow at Textile Collection and Constance Howard Gallery, London. She was one of the founding editors of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, curator, National Tapestry exhibition, City Art Gallery and contributor to Abakanowicz: Metamorfizm/Metamorphism, Centralne Muzeum Włokiennictwa w Łodzi (2019), Chief Editor. A Reader. TEXTYLE 2.0 FabPublic, Talking about Textiles, Community and Public Space. (CHAT, Hong Kong, 2018), co-editor of the Handbook of Textile Culture (Bloomsbury, 2016), research collaboration, with Barbara Layne, The Enchantment of Textiles exhibition, 8th International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art, Matadero Central de Diseño. Madrid and International Art and Science Exhibition and Symposium, Tsinghua University and the National Museum of China Beijing (2018). She was the curator of the National Exhibition of Tapestry at the City Art Gallery, Łodz and produced the curatorial text for 16th International Triennial of Tapestry, Łódź. Breaching Borders.162-188. Łódź. Centralne Muzeum Włókiennictwa w Łodzi. Poland. (2019). 'Polish Ghosts' in Abakanowicz: Metamorfizm/Metamorphism, ed. Marta Koweskla, Centralne Muzeum Włokiennictwa w Łodzi August and 2019, Special Issue. ‘Magdalena Abakanowicz: Recollections’. Ed. Janis Jefferies for a special issue of of Textile, 16, Volume 4. ISSN 145-9756. Jefferies is contributing 'Art, Craft & Design technologies’ to Dr Charlie Gere and Dr Francesca Franco, three-volume Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of New Media Art, to be published in 2022. Practice Research eds. Graig Vear, Linda Candy and Ernest Edmonds, Routledge 2021 and Co-Chief Editor of the Bloomsbury Encyclopeda of World Textiles with Dr Vivienne Richmond, due 2023.