Saturday 4 May 2024

Unravel - The Power & Politics of Textiles in Art at Barbican, London

Sarah Zapata - To Teach or To Assume Authority
Ancestral Threads

The Unravel exhibition presents artists from the 1960s to the present, who use textiles, fibre and thread to tell stories of resilience, rebellion, emancipation and hope.  It is divided thematically into 6 sections: Subversive Stitching, Fabric of Everyday Life, Borderlands, Bearing Witness, Wound and Repair, and Ancestral Threads.  

Please be aware that some works in this exhibition (and shown in this blog) may contain nudity, references to forms of systemic violence including police brutality, sexual violence, colonialism, racism and the transatlantic slave trade

Also, a number of artists in the exhibition have chosen to withdraw their work or provide an accompanying statement as an act of solidarity with Palestine in response the the Barbican's decision not to host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series.  

Here's a very brief flavour.  

Subversive Stitching -

"Stitching can be a subversive act; thread can work as a language to challenge fixed ideas and voice free expression" 
(* see note at the end of this blogpost)

Tracey Emin's piece "No Chance", which is a handstitched appliqued blanket, expresses her feelings and relates to 1977 and her 13 year old self.  It was also the year she was raped...

Tracey Emin - No Chance (WHAT A YEAR)

LJ Roberts embroiders their friends and their activism. Roberts shows the front and back of each work - behind every person or story lies a messy underside...

LJ Roberts - Frederick Weston  (front & back)

Fabric of Everyday Life -

Textiles are part of our lives in our clothes and our homes and so are particularly suited to express stories of lived experience.

Sanford Biggers is interested in "codeswitching" where people, usually from the global majority, change their behaviour, not just to fit in, but to survive. He has used an antique quilt, representing a first layer of code, and added cut, sewn and painted patterns to add another layer of code...

Sanford Biggers - Sweven

Drawing on the intimacy of textiles, Sheila Hicks asked family and close friends to give her a piece of much loved clothing which she wrapped in colourful yarn and thread to create a bundle of what we hold dear...

Sheila Hicks - Family Treasures

Borderlands -

Borderlands are places were two or more cultures meet, where people of different races inhabit the same space, where social classes collide.  These emotionally charged spaces can provide the inspiration for much creativity and questioning.

Igshaan Adams had created a series of amazing pieces based on an exploration of "desire lines" created in post-apartheid South Africa.  These informal pathways, often creating short cuts, he sees as symbolic of collective acts of resistance by a community who have been segregated and marginalised through spatial planning...

Igshaan Adams

Vinoja's work recalls the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) and represents aerial maps based on her memories and testimonies of others showing such things as borders, bunkers, checkpoints and burial sites...

T Vinoja - Bunker & Border

Bearing Witness -

Here textiles are used to document political violence and commemorate victims of oppression and speak their truth to power. 

Hannah Ryggen's "Blood in the Grass" addresses the attrocities of the Vietnam War (1955-76) which she read about in Dagbladet (a Swedish newspaper) which was delivered to her remote Norwegian home.  The man in the hat is Lyndon B Johnson, who was the US president at the time.  He is presiding over a lush green landscape dissected by bloodshed...

Hannah Ryggen - Blood in the Grass

Violeta Parra's embroidery depicts a scene from an epic 16th Century poem that tells the story of the Spanish conquest of Chile especially the Arauco war fought between the Spaniards and the indigenous Mapuche people...

Violeta Parra - Fresia and Caupolican (detail)

Wound and Repair - 

Here we see stories of personal and collective trauma but there is also recuperative potential. "Many of the artists turn to sewing as a metaphor for healing in the aftermath of violence..."

Angela Su's work, sewn in hair - with its charged associations with the body and femininity, was made in response to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, drawing on the tradition of body sewing in protest of the suppression of freedom of speech...

Angela Su - Sewing Together My Split Mind: Straight Stitch

This work of Louise Bourgeois relates to the condition of hysteria which in the past was thought to be a psychic condition affecting mainly women.  Bourgeois was interested how psychic pain might be expressed through the body - an arched back reflecting psychic wounds...

Louise Bourgeois - Arch of Hysteria

Ancestral Threads - 

Here there is much unravelling of the stories embedded in textiles, of globalisation and trade, of the use of enslaved labour, of the use of traditional indigenous techniques.  Artists express stories of the past and challenge the present.

This was my favourite section of the exhibition.

Tau Lewis, using recycled fabrics and seashells in her patchwork quilt, pays homage to the enslaved women and children who died during the enforced transport across the ocean of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries.  She reimagines them as  sea creatures who are now free, overcoming the trauma held in these undersea territories...

Tau Lewis - The Coral Reef Preservation Society

Sarah Zapata's "shag" sculpture (top picture) references the architecture of the Nazca ceremonial site of Cahuachi, where a huge woven cloth was excavated in 1952.  The colourful piece, made using a rug making technique, demands that such a place should be remembered and its form subverts the notion that rugs should be on the floor. Indigenous peoples in Peru did not put textiles on the floor until after the Spanish conquest.

Kerunen creates deeply personal abstract sculptures from woven natural fibres inspired by her experiences of joy, love and ecstacy.  They celebrates the skills and labour of communities in Uganda and were made collaboratively with women who had learned their techniques from other women. Ayelele, made from natural fibres, "came from the earth and  will return to the earth" reflects Kerunen's concern for climate change...

Acaye Kerunen - Ayelele

Unravel, which I found thought provoking, uncomfortable and visually enthralling, is on until Sunday 26 May 2024.  Lotte Johnson, the curator hopes the exhibition will inspire visitors to pick up a needle and thread to express their own stories.  

Purple Hibiscus being installed - Ibrahim Mahama

When I went, Purple Hibiscus by Ibrahim Mahama was just being installed. This artwork, of around 2000 square meters, covers the concrete walls of the Barbican's lakeside terrace.  It is a collaborative work involving hundreds of crafts people in Tamale, Ghana. The panels have been woven then stitched together to fit the building. Onto this fabric, 100 batakaris (a traditional Ghanaian men's garment) have been appliqued. These treasured textiles may be kept in families for generations and carry the memory of those who wore them. We are told that Ibrahim Mahama holds a deep interest in the life cycle of textiles and what can be learnt from the historical memories embedded within them.

If you're in London before Unravel closes on 26 May 2024 take a look!

Passages in quotes are taken from exhibition information provided by the Barbican e.g. wall texts.

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