Australian Art Textiles: Passion, Collaboration and Cloth

Australian Art Textiles: Passion, Collaboration and Cloth

photos: farina foto, kristian laemmie-ruff, simon strong, hannah morgan and ian hobbs

2015 has already proved to be an year when contemporary textiles have been able to claim a place within visual arts for the innovative, cross-disciplinary work produced by dedicated artists. Whether from a social, cultural, historical, personal or political perspective, contemporary practitioners are innovative an d inspirational, passionately presenting their unique interpretation of the world.

Ilka White. Well. Dry grass, beading line, hand-spun thread (core spun stainless steel coated in mixed fibres)  44 x 15 x 15 cm. 2013

Contemporary textile practice in Australia continues to engage and intrigue, attract often complex ways of communicating, engaging and presenting their vision to the world. From the handmade to the digital; experimental, conceptual or practical; utilitarian, functional, domestic or esoteric and theoretical – all sit within contemporary practice. Materials, processes and technologies can be old or new; hand or digital; existing or newly created. Some practitioners prefer to work collaboratively, combining their expertise across fields. Some have dedicated time and energy to mastering technical or material expertise, while others have a more flexible, exploratory approach, preferring to sample a variety of processes and techniques. All speak passionately and in their own voices having created an appropriate language through thread, stitch, cloth, weave, structure and colour to communicate their vision!

Talking of cloth, I’m reminded of a quote from the introduction to Cloth and the Human Experience l?J Jane Schneider and Annette B. Weiner –

Cloth lends itse!f to an extraordinary range if decorative variation, whether through the patterned weaving if coloured warps and wefts, or through the embroidery, staining, painting or c!Jeing if the whole. These broad possibilities if construction, colour, and patterning give cloth an almost limitless potential for communication.

If we view cloth as representing textiles, art textiles, textile art or fibre art, this 30-year-old quote still has relevance today. Whatever the descriptor, contemporary practitioners’ use of diverse textile and fibre materials, techniques and processes has resulted in innovative, challenging and compelling works for exhibitions in Australia in 2015.

This article introduces contemporary Australian art textile practice by commenting on specific exhibitions, most current, but some older to provide contexts, but also focuses on a number of solo exhibitions. All of them show the diversity of practice, and unique ways artists reference textiles, as well as giving a sense of the artwork created.

Australia is a land of diverse cultures, multi-cultural communities and heritages. Of them, the culture of the Indigenous Aboriginal is of upmost importance.

Ilka White (in collaboration with photographer Kristian Laemmle-Ruff and jeweller Darren Harvry). Heron. Photographic print, dry grass, copper, silver, Merri creek billabong, presence, dawn 66 x 64 cm  2014

Australians regularly begin public presentations and events by acknowledging the original owners of the land, the Australian Indigenous Aboriginal peoples and their elders past and present; they acknowledge the rich heritage and culture that has been given to the present inhabitants. I mention this as a way of introducing the rich heritage of indigenous fibre work and its history.

There are two main streams of Indigenous fibre – weaving and surface design techniques of batik and screen-printing; both areas have been well docu­mented by researchers and curators. Dr Louise Bamby’s writings document the historical and contemporary fibre practices of western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and the cultural significance of designs across anthropology, art, history and fibre.3 Bamby’s curated works include ‘Art on a String: Aboriginal threaded objects from the Central Desert and Arnhem Land’ 4 which showcase indigenous fibre body adornment as well as ‘Woven Forms: contempo­rary basket making in Australia’, a 2005 survey of indigenous weaving across the country; both shown at Sydney’s Object Galleries prior to national tours. Another such exhibition was the 2009 ‘Floating Life: contemporary Aboriginal fibre art’ at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)

Kate Just. HOPE BANNER. Bricklayers yarn, retroreflective thread, viscose, cotton, aluminium, steel paint 125 x 280 x 25 cm. 2013 (Image shows HOPE BANNER not illuminated)
Kate Just. SAFE BANNER Bricklayers yarn, retroreflective thread, viscose, cotton, aluminium, steel paint 125 x 280 x 25 cm. 2014 (Image shows SAFE BANNER illuminated)

In 2015, Fiona Hall AO is the artist representing Australia in the 56th Venice Biennale with her exhibi­tion titled ‘Wrong Way Time’, an exploration of human actions and their impact on the world; it is a reflection on the perilous state of the world we live in. As well as creating her distinctive artwork, Hall collaborated with a group of Tjanpi Weavers in remote South Australia to convey ‘their experiences from Maralinga to the present, as an essential part of the whole’.5 ‘Kuka Irititja (Animals From Another Time)’ is a collection of hand-made figures of native, extinct and endangered animals created with hardy tjanpi grass and other natural materials; these are objects made by weaving and a indigenous grass technique called ‘cobbling’. Many international exhibitions have profiled Indigenous art practices but few have drawn attention to Indigenous fibre artwork as this installa­tion has, that belatedly follows Yvonne Koolmatrie’s Venice Biennale exhibition in 1997.

The other highly regarded Indigenous textile technique is batik, particularly silk batik. Introduced to various central Australian indigenous communities in the 1970s via workshops, their women were taught by an American artist who had trained in Indonesia. Raiki Wara, Long cloths from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait, exhibition and publication at the National Gallery of Victoria, surveys the history of batik, silk painted and dyed textile practice in both rural and urban communities and their prolific production in the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to this recent rise in profile of indigenous weaving, batik and screen-printing were included in many national and international exhibi­tions and acquired for national collections.

Individual indigenous practitioners who have had notable success recently are Lola Greeno, Lucy Simpson and Nicole Foreshaw. Lola Greeno is a shell­worker and artist from Tasmania whose career spans 30 years. In 2014, she was selected for Object: Australian Design Centre’s Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft award, that involved a publication, an exhibition and a national tour to regional galleries. This beautifully presented exhibition focussed on materials, process and cultural references.

Paula do Prado Miss Artigas  Acrylic, gesso, cotton, couching, cord, pins, linen fringing, cotton string, polyfoil 107 x 23 x 10 cm. 2015

After graduating with a Bachelor of Design from UNSW Art & Design in Sydney in 2009, Lucy Simpson established ‘Gaawaa Miyay’ as a way of sharing aspects of her country and contemporary South Eastern Aboriginal culture. Through storytelling and narratives, she creates individually designed and hand printed textiles. In 2014, Simpson was selected for the British Council’s Indigenous Creative Leader­ship Programme Accelerate, enabling research into Indigenous collections in the UK; now in 2015, with work made in response to this research, she has been selected for the Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2015 ‘Primavera’ exhibition for young, emerging Australian artists. ‘Primavera’ curator, Nicole Foreshaw’s own arts practice links Indigenous rights, art and science. Working with holograms and 3D digital technologies alongside plants, pigments or minerals to dye or permeate cloth, Foreshaw has established an innovative approach to installation.

Australia has a wide network of regional galleries, many with specialist collections. Beginning in the 1970s, Tamworth Regional Gallery in Tamworth northern New South Wales (NSW) has exhibited and collected contemporary textiles for over thirty-five years by profiling what had happened during the heady days of the craft movement. It presented the Tam­worth Fibre/Textile Biennial exhibitions from 2009 until the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial ‘Sensorial Loop’ curated by the academic and artist, Dr Patrick Snelling, opened in 2011 and, as with all past Tam­worth exhibitions, toured regional galleries around the country with selected works acquired for the Tam­worth collection.

The 2nd Tamworth Textile Triennial ‘Group Exchange’6 opened at the Tamworth Regional Gallery in late 2014 and has been touring nationally and will do so till 2016. Curated by academic and artist Cecilia Heffer, ‘Group Exchange’ exhibits works of twenty­two artists from around Australia; works that emerged from the curators challenge to engage in ‘collaboration and inter-disciplinary thinking in relation to their practice’. In questioning what collaboration can mean for their practice, artists engaged in a dynamic creative dialogue to demonstrate how new works and meanings emerges from relationships and exchanges.

How artists collaborate vary. For Ilka White, a billabong, served as collaborator and muse, providing materials for delicately woven grass structures whose central theme of ‘interconnectedness with the world’ conveyed her thinking that ‘everything affects every­thing else, whether subtly or powerfully’.7 White’s installation in ‘Group Exchange’ consisted of seven artworks – some woven, some constructed, some digital images – all giving a poetical impression of the interconnectedness of the world.

For Anita Larkin, it was collaborations with musicians, an instrument maker and composer to come up with her work The breathe between us, a sculpture object that highlighted her expertise in felted wool shapes.8 Dr Belinda von Mengerson’s work The table uses the ‘artistic tradition of still-life to draw attention to the collaborative relationship and tensions’9 evident in the work between table, light and folded cloth. The ‘Group Exchange’ exhibition poetically teases out relationships, links and bonds between artists, ideas and materials giving intriguing insights into how collaboration can elicit new and innovative work.

Established in 2011, the Wangaratta Art Gallery’s Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award (WCTA) is a biennial acquisitive award and exhibition which has quickly gained a significant place in the calendar for Australian professional textile artists. Located in Wangaratta, northern Victoria, the gallery invites artists working in any style of textile media to submit works for consideration within a competitive selection process. Celebrating the diversity and strength of Australia’s textile artistry, the 2015 exhibition included contemporary art works by forty-seven artists with one being awarded the $10,000 prize – Kate Just was selected by Judge Katie Somerville, Senior Curator of Textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria, with artworks HOPE BANNER and SAFE BANNER

A focal point in Just’s practice is the development of representations of the body and womanhood that embrace subjective, embodied and multifarious perspectives. As part of her recent public art projects, HOPE and SAFE, belong to a series of knitted banners made in collaboration with a number of groups in Australia and the United Kingdom. As a response to violence against women, the community knitting workshops and pieced banners reference pivotal moments in feminist history in which collective action and craftwork were deployed to enact change. HOPE and SAFE invoke a utopian reimagining of women’s safety and agency within the urban environ­ment’.10 The SAFE banner was paraded as part of the Reclaim the Nthtmarch in Melbourne 2014 to demand greater safety on the streets following several tragic events.

Liz Williamson. Earth Lines 1. Silk fabric dyed in Eucalyptus pilularis (Blackbutt) with cotton embroidery threads dyed in Eucalyptus cinerea (Argyle Apple) and Eucalyptus pillars Blackbutt) with an iron mordant, French knots. 31 x42 cm. 2015

Other standout exhibits in the 2015 WCTA exhibit” were Teresa Bennett’s Hth Rise, a sculptural form crocheted from video tape commenting on the migrant experience in Australia; a previous awardee, Mandy Gunn’s Architext built with words from recycled book pages as a monument to the written word, that she perceives to be a fast disappearing medium in this digital age; Douglas McManus’ Memento Mori Blosifeldt, that consists of 3D printed and laser cut shapes paying homage to historical creative figures; Beth Peters’ poetic Weeping Memory (the remains), with thousands of tear shapes hand cut into tissue papers that ‘resonates a weeping upon remembrance’; and Meredith Woolnough’s monochromatic Typologies, twenty-five circular embroidered traceries, reflective the fragility of natural forms and the interconnectivity of life on earth.

One of the delights of being a patron and viewer of the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award, is seeing what the latest ideas practitioners are exploring and experimenting with; what particular memories, stories or issues they are telling in their own creative way; how colour, texture, form and shape are integrated to relay ideas and concerns and to give a unique view or responses.

Other group exhibitions have profiled specific textiles or formats for contemporary textiles; but another that has focussed on makers from specific communities is ‘Labours of Love: Australian Quilts 1845 – 2015’. This exhibition has been curated by Louise Mitchell, and opened at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, Sydney in early August 2015. It explores the history of quilting in Australia and reflects changes in technology, textiles, interest and fashion over the period. Many artists have used the quilt format as a vehicle for ideas and this exhibition includes eleven practitioners from New South Wales; among them of note are Lucas Grogan, Adrienne Doig, Emma Peters, Paula do Prada, Gillian Lavery and Belinda von Mengersen, all artists actively creating works in a variety of formats who regularly exhibit in solo and group exhibitions, locally and nationally.

Emma Peter’s Topograpl!J of memory quilt references the wagga, the utilitarian Australian quilt associated with the ‘make do and mend’ resourcefulness of previous generations, when quilts were made of any available material for warmth and comfort. Peter’s quilt, laboriously made with hand stitching and markmaking techniques on to a felted wool and silk surface, becomes a receptacle of memories and personal narratives. Childhood and adulthood memories and meanings intersect with the use of materials sourced from specific sites.

Paula do Prado’s Luclg Swag art quilt is part of the artist’s ongoing desire to unpack and interrogate her sense of self in relation to place through her art practice. Referencing the iconic Australian bedroll or swag as a symbol of home and belonging, her work is made in the ‘make-do’ tradition instilled into her by her grandmother, mother and aunts. Do Prado regularly incorporates text into her work- Luclg Swag includes ‘slang and colloquial language to investigate the awkward space you live in socially and culturally as an assimilated migrant’.12 Do Prado, originally from Uruguay, is a prolific artist who earlier in 2015 produced a suite of figures for ‘Mythology of my land’ exhibition; all nine of which ‘take their name from Uruguayan regions or cities and like beauty pageant contestants at the yearly Afro-Uruguayan carnival celebrations, the cloth figures represent the enduring impact of the African diaspora’.13

Like the Tamworth Regional Gallery, the Ararat Regional Art Gallery in central Victoria has been exhibiting and acquiring contemporary textiles since the 1970s. Under director Anthony Camm’s current leadership, the gallery is dedicated to curating exhibitions that explore Australia’s fibre art history and actively acquiring works that reveal the rich diversity of current fibre/textile focussed contemporary practice. Of note are the exhibitions ’40 Highlights from the Ararat Regional Art Gallery Fibre Collection’ (2008), ‘About Time: Australian Studio Tapestry 1975- 2005’ (2010-2012), ‘Douglas Fuchs – Floating Forest: 30th anniversary exhibition’ (2012) and ‘Making Time: The Art of John Corbett 1974-2013’ (2013). The gallery regularly presents solo exhibitions by senior Australian fibre artists.

A recent exhibition at the Ararat gallery is Slipstitch – Contemporary Embroidery’ that presents an interesting perspective on contemporary embroidery by a new generation of artists. The exhibition considers how the unique attributes of this medium are employed as a vehicle for artists exploring personal narratives. Curated by Dr Belinda von Mengersen, the exhibition features twelve artists including David Green, Lucas Grogan and Jane Theau.14 David Green is a formative influence on textile art having taught in Australian universities since 1978. Homage to a Fallen Hero, I, II & III (2010-2011) ‘offers a starting point and clear link to the radical application of embroidery as a drawing practice; where a stitched line unleashes the imagination in a place where things are not always what they seem, giving substance and order to chaos and chaos to order’.

Emma Peters Topograpry of memory Woo4 silk 160 x 2 5 3 cm 2015

Lucas Grogan uses drawing, painting and embroidery to tell complex stories exploring identity, sexuality, shared humanity, spiritual divorce and isolation. The UniverseQuilt(2013) was hand-embroidered over one year and conceptually attempts to capture both universality and minutiae through close examination and careful drawing. Concerned with the impossibility of continual economic growth in a world of finite resources, Jane Theau creates works that communicate with people, comment on current issues and yet don’t weigh heavily on the environment. Her thread drawings use simple cotton thread and shadows and are at time almost immaterial. Theau is conceptually concerned with sustainability: the metaphorical qualities of textiles interest her and her works use very little material and weigh only a few grams.

‘Y Fibre’, an exhibition highlighting the unique approaches to textile art of ten contemporary Austra­lian male artists, was shown during the ‘Art Month Sydney Contemporary Art Festival’ in March 2015. Curated by Jane Theau with a catalogue essay by Dr Belinda von Mengersen, the exhibition and catalogue addressed issues of gender-specificity and craftwork

bias artwork.15 The exhibition included Brett Alexan­der’s installation works in response to contemporary theoretical discourses, aligning his practice conceptu­ally to the marginalisation of both craft practices within the visual arts and queer culture within society; John Parke’s work addressing the question of labour in terms of transformation, time spent and ‘acts of making’ as necessary to re-envision the material; and Paul Yore’s needle-point works that rephrases known domestic forms through the application of sweetly seditious text, and that entrenches time through the use of an inordinate number of petite point stitches in his work.

The final section of this article is a small snapshot of recent solo exhibitions, most shown in Sydney galleries; other major cities would have similar listing of solo exhibitions. Julie Paterson, a UK-trained textile designer, established Cloth Fabric, a textile company in Sydney in 1995, to design and make contemporary furnishing fabric for the home and for commercial interiors. The majority of Cloth’s work is created by hand as screen printed yardage fabric using short batch production processes and natural base cloths, including his original, painted artwork. To celebrate the company’s twenty years of establishment, Julie wrote Cloth Bound, a book about her creative process and practice, tracing the ‘development of nine collections from the first inklings of an idea, to exploratory artworks made in my Blue Mountains studio, all the way through to the finished fabric designs and products … a celebration of creativity’. Her exhibition, ‘Cloth Fabric: twenty years in the making’ opened recently and is touring regional galleries in NSW.

Margarita Sampson works predominantly in soft textile sculpture and contemporary jewellery. Her work is ‘strongly influenced by her Norfolk Island background, referencing natural forms, patterns and textures, in particular underwater life forms… ideas colonisation, growth, opportunistic expansion, the organic versus the inorganic, are all central to her practice’. Her recent solo exhibition ‘The Salon of Infectious Desire’ was shown in Sydney prior to a regional tour. The Salon, a sculptural and installation series, ‘explores an imaginary literary salon where interiors are over-run by growths suggestive of coral colonies, flowers, bark and fungus; the forms are abstracted, multiplied and non-specific’.

Adrienne Doig has exhibited since the early 1990s and in 2015 has a solo exhibition titled Look Out at Martin Browne Contemporary art gallery in Sydney

(where she regularly exhibits). Doig, who will partici­pate in the ‘Labours of Love’ quilt exhibition, works in a variety of media, including embroidery, applique, drawing, sculpture, video and multimedia with a recurring image or theme in her work of self­portraiture.

Michele Elliot’s art practice spans twenty-five years and encompasses installation, thread, clothing, sculpture and drawing. Her 2014 exhibition ‘White­wash’ at Wollongong Art Gallery (NSW) was a response to Australian politics – issues surrounding boats, border control and the current political climate of disregard toward asylum seekers. She has exhibited in the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, in numerous exhibitions across Australia and more recently in India and Singapore.

Julie Ryder has been a practicing textile

designer/ artist for over twenty years with a practice spanning art and science. Her current exhibition

‘Fertile Ground’ is a solo exhibition of new and existing works based on natural materials for their creation and inception. ‘Plant extracts have been used as dyes and watercolours for paper and textiles; pollens, volcanic ash and ochres have been used in screen-printed images; and natural materials such as leaves, thorns and bones were used to create exquisite works on paper. Photomicrographs of plants and insects gathered during residencies at scientific institutions have been digitally manipulated to form strange new species of the future’.

The last exhibition to be mentioned is my own as it introduces a recent trend of artists and designers working with artisan groups in Asia. ‘Alanakar’ opened at Barometer Gallery, Sydney in April 2015 and showcased a recent collaboration with an Ari embroi­dery group of West Bengal, India, with the aim of creating new designs from delving into my woven textiles archive as well as looking into ideas of reserve, repetition and contemplation. These works were all perfectly described by the Bengali word Alanakar meaning “tracery, adornment or decoration”; metaphorically it represents visual enhancement or value addition. ‘Alanakar’, the exhibition, integrated pattern, line and motif into the tracery of natural colour with hand-made embroidered, dyed and woven textiles. Drawings of structures and woven interlacing were translated into Ari embroidery as part of an experimental collaboration with artisans in West Bengal. This cultural and social engagement project was facilitated by CRC Exports, Kolkata to integrate traditional artisan expertise, enhance design knowledge and inspire new directions.

2015 has already proved to be an year when contemporary textiles have been able to claim a place within visual arts for the innovative, cross-disciplinary work produced by dedicated artists. Whether from a social, cultural, historical, personal or political perspective, contemporary practitioners are innovative and inspirational, passionately presenting their unique interpretation of the world.

Works Cited

  1. Wangaratta Art Gallery. 2015. Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award. Victoria.
  2. Human Experience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
  3. Hamby, Louise (ed). 2005. Twined Together: Kunmadj Njalehnjaleken. Northern Territory: lnjalak Arts and Crafts.
  4. Hamby, Louise and Young, Diana (eds). 2001. Art on a String, Object Galleries/Centre for Cross-Cultural Research.
  5. Ewington, Julie. 2015. “Review of the 2015 Venice Biennale”. The Monthy. 2015 July.
  6. Group Exchange. 2nd Tamworth Textile Triennial. NSW: Tamworth Regional Gallery.
  7. ibid pg 33
  8. ibid pg 23
  9. ibid pg 32
  10. Phillips, Caroline. Watch this space. Melbourne.
  11. Wangaratta Art Gallery, 2015
  12. Lucky Swag. Artist statement sent to the author, 16 July 2015. 13 Mythology of my land. Artist statement sent to the author, 16 July
  13. 2015.
  14. Ararat Regional Art Gallery. 2015. S/ipstitch. Ararat, Victoria.
  15. Ewart Gallery. 2015. Y Fibre. Sydney, NSW.

Liz Williamson, eminent textile artist and educator from Australia. She regularly teaches a textiles course titled ‘Cultural textiles’ in Gujarat, India. Williamson was awarded the Object Galleries prestigious ‘Living Treasure’ Award in 2008 and in 2011 she was appointed Patron of the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award. Williamson is currently an Associate Professor and course convener for textiles at UNSW Art & Design, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Leading Image : From lift: Anita Larkin, Erica Grqy, Louise Ennis -Thomas Make.Shift Concepts (Armando Chant and Donna Sgro) and on the floor, Gwen Egg . Tamworth Regional Gallery. 2014

photos: farina foto, kristian laemmie-ruff, simon strong, hannah morgan and ian hobbs 2015 has already proved to be an year when contemporary textiles have been able to claim a place within visual arts for the innovative, cross-disciplinary work produced by dedicated artists. Whether from a social, cultural, historical, personal or political perspective, contemporary practitioners are…

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