Some of our earliest modes of cultural expression found form in fibres. Fine strands from maguey leaves were used to knot soft baskets; linen from flax was woven into durable textiles; hemp became canvas, rope and paper; wool was knitted into insulating garments; cotton formed into soft, flexible lengths of cloth to bind around the body. These hard-won creations were seldom left bare and utilitarian in design: they were decorated or elaborated in celebration of the essential roles they played in human survival.
Knotwork, patterns, embroidery, and colour of specific textiles are all forms of coded communication. Originally, the muted colours of a Scottish highland tartan expressed the specific geography of the area in which it was woven through the plants locally available for dyes. In Anatolian rugs, the elibelinde motif represents a forceful woman with her hands on her hips — a form once derived from mother goddess figurines — while the pitrak is a stylized burdock flower, to ward off the evil eye.
Woven, a special section at this year’s Frieze London, curated by Cosmin Costinas of Hong Kong’s Para Site, honours the ancient techniques and knowledge bound into fibre and textile work through eight solo displays of artists of different generations, working primarily outside of the Global North. Costinas’s intention is to explore the relationship between modern fibre art and the legacies of what he terms ‘the colonial catastrophe’. Woven thus allows us to see the historic undervaluing of textile and fibre art in relation to colonial powers, and their relegation of indigenous forms of creative expression.
The cultural inheritance of Madagascar under colonization is the subject of Joël Andrianomearisoa’s series ‘Last Year in Antananarivo’ (2016). The Malagasy artist combines scraps of coloured-silk saris and blocks of found black textiles in dense works on canvas, inspired by photographs of a ball held in the island’s capital in 1900, in which local colonial subjects are dressed in elaborate French formal attire. The contrasting materials and colours of the series evoke implicit systems of classification, opposition and hierarchy. Andrianomearisoa’s canvases are displayed alongside black paper sculptures, and the colour black is a recurring, highly charged presence in his work — as rope, embroidery or suspended screens, like those composed from hundreds of sheets of black paper, each representing an individual plank from the Palace of Ilafy presented by the artist at the first Madagascar Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
‘Colour is the total expression because it is always there and dominates every work,’ explained Pacita Abad, by contrast. ‘My colours are strong — vibrant yellows, blues, greens, reds and browns.’ Born in the Philippines in 1946, Abad fell in with the hippie movement during the 1970s when she relocated to San Francisco. After graduating from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C., she developed a wide-ranging, vividly coloured practice inspired by the puppets, costumes and artistic techniques she encountered while travelling in Bangladesh, Sudan and Thailand. In the 1980s, she started working with trapunto — quilted and stuffed sculptural canvases — bringing a three-dimensional quality to her paintings. Many, such as Filipinas in Hong Kong (1995) and Caught at the Border (1991), explore international experiences of migration.
In parallel with Abad’s interest in vernacular forms and expressions, in the same period Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee started making monumental freestanding forms using a local Indian hemp rope known as san or shani. Ubiquitous at the time in rural India, the rope gave her sculptures a specific connection to place, but also looped her work in with international movements likewise deploying humble materials to anti-authoritarian ends: arte povera in Italy, for instance, or tropicalismo in Brazil. The Met Breuer’s acclaimed exhibition of Mukherjee’s anthropomorphic and biomorphic fibre sculptures earlier this year was the first significant survey of the artist’s work since her death in 2015, and only her second museum exhibition outside India in 25 years.
Woven’s exploration of the role played by cultural location and exchange is a distinct emphasis: the recent re-appraisal of textile and fibre art has tended to address the historic undervaluing of these forms in gendered, rather than geographical, terms. Textile hasn’t always historically been an exclusively female domain — a tapestry weaver in medieval Europe would be more likely to be a man than a woman — but it has acquired feminine associations. (Anni Albers, subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern last year, entered the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus in 1922 because women were not permitted to study in the painting department.) Though not all artist in the section are female, the gendered denigration of textile art links Woven to previous special sections at Frieze London which were dedicated to artwork by women: Sex Work (2017) and Social Work (2018), which featured works by artists as diverse as Sonia Boyce, Ipek Duben and Faith Ringgold.
Like Ringgold, both Angela Su and José Leonilson — whose work is included in Woven — have drawn on the emotive, domestic associations of embroidery and quilting. Su, like Leonilson, has turned to embroidery for its intimacy, using bed-clothes and personal garments associated both with sex and sickness. ‘Since I am a “troubled” woman I cannot help but produce yet another piece of art with the bed. Please accept my sincere apologies.’ reads Su’s embroidered work My Sincere Apologies (2017). Leonilson — who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993 aged 36, and is revered in his home country of Brazil, though less known internationally — produced a number of small embroidered works including Empty Man (1991) and Ninguém (‘Nobody’, 1992), in which that single word is stitched in a corner of an otherwise empty pink pillow. Such expressions of intimacy , like whispered pillow talk, tug at the heartstrings. Our human fate and all these spun and woven fibres remain today inextricably entwined.
Main image: José Leonilson, The tour, 1987. Courtesy: Galeria Marilia Razuk © Projeto Leonilson