Breaking the Mould
photos: courtesy of aasim akhtar
Though very contemporary and untraditional, Faith Ringgold’s, Pinaree Sanpitak’s and Kimsooja’s practices retain their association with their traditionally female genre. At the same time they are
dramatic narratives that are difficult to categorise.
abolish the distance that separates art from life is a constant desire found in the art of the last two centuries. This does not, however, mean that art is to be dissolved in life but rather the desire is to link art to the concrete areas of life. The uniqueness of the artist lies in her/his capacity to reveal art’s relationship to the world.
Though very contemporary and untraditional, Faith Ringgold’s, Pinaree Sanpitak’s and Kimsooja’s works retain their association with what is traditionally a female genre. At the same time, they are dramatic narratives that are difficult to categorise. Through their choice of form and content, they have produced a meaning of their own that subverts hegemonic language and questions male dominance and power. In their highly individual ways, and through their personal strategies ( combining the quilt format, narrative, painting, stitchery, and photo-etching, and interweaving traditional folktales and contemporary stories), they assert the woman’s voice. These three female artists place folklore, anecdote, and family legend in contemporary settings. They do not moralise; instead, they raise questions they do not purport to answer. Framed by the woman’s voice, the works of Ringgold, Sanpitak and Kimsooja reflect back on themselves and question the stereotyped and gendered definitions of women in hegemonic texts and images.
The past decade has witnessed a revolution in the art world centred on the emergence of the quilt as a fine art medium articulating a history and social sensitivity that is distinctively female. At the epicentre of this movement, both as one of its chief architects and arguably its most charismatic figure, has been the artist Faith Ringgold. Born Faith Jones in Harlem during the Great Depression and raised in a middleclass African American family with a tradition of fibre art and storytelling, Ringgold has used the quilt and the American flag as logical sites for both her activism and her ongoing effort to celebrate the beauty and humanity of the African American experience.1
Ringgold’s work with the American flag tells an important story about the ways in which unresolved tensions and ambiguities at the core of the national consciousness get both managed and displaced. In her skilful hands, the national icon is presented as a fetish: an impassioned object designed to gain ‘symbolic control’ over the afflictions at the core of American identity. The incorporation of textiles and written narrative into her aesthetic was essential to Ringgold’s ability to assume an enlightened, empowered position. The soft sculpture dolls, masks, and tankas that populated Ringgold’s portfolio in the early 1970s enabled her to break away from an obeisance to cumbersome wooden frames and stretched canvas. In addition, as collaborative efforts with the assistance of her fashion designer mother, these works gave her access to forms of praxis closely linked with a distinctly female, familyoriented cultural legacy.
In 1985, Ringgold brought her interest in both the quilt and written narrative to her work with the American flag. Like her previous flag paintings, Flag Story Quilt inverts the meaning of the national banner by integrating its forms with unlikely elements. As its title implies, both the quilt and the story form are incorporated into Ringgold’s ongoing interrogation of the American experience through the image of the national banner. The symbolism of its patchwork design and its association with domesticity, warmth, and tradition have often been employed within hegemonic discourses to legitimise, maintain, and reproduce both patriotic master narratives and prevailing social hierarchies. But within the African American experience such meanings are far out weighed by the quilt’s long and intimate tradition as both a collaborative art form and a key site of memory, especially among women. Ringgold’s collaboration with her mother continued until the latter’s death in 1981. Significantly, their last joint effort, which Ringgold describes as their “great work together,” was for a group show of quilts by women artists done with women quilters. Titled Echoes of Harlem, the quilt, which combines thirty painted faces within rectangular divisions and traditional quilted strips of multi-coloured fabric, places the men and women of Harlem in a traditional context. It also provides a link with Ringgold’s own family
tradition, for her own grandmother had taught her mother. Moreover, in most cultures, the quilt is a part of daily life. Ringgold commented on its purpose as a functional object to be used by people. “It is for a bed, to be laid out flat … it covers people. It has the possibility of being part of someone’s life forever.”
The eloquence of Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? for instance, is vital, colourful, complex, and completely absorbs the spectator. It crosses two folk forms, the folktale ( or family legend) and the quilt, both of which use traditional methods and prefabricated materials (characters, motifs, and structures) inherited from a long tradition – materials they recycle and adapt. The spectator recognises the visual and literary genre; at the same time, the specificity of the protagonists of
this fictitious family legend makes it clear that they are real people whom Ringgold has known. In fact, Jemima Blakey, the beautiful dark-black businesswoman in her colourful dress and elegant hat, appears to be an incarnation of Ringgold’s mother, who died shortly after she and her daughter completed their ollaborative quilt.
The Aunt Jemima quilt, therefore, is a tribute to Ringgold’s mother. In designing and stitching it,
Ringgold worked through her grief, and could smile at her mother’s gift to her: a tradition of strength, independence, and survival in a less-than-perfect world.
Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? was a turning point in Ringgold’s art. After its completion, she devoted her creative energies exclusively to the making of story quilts with complex narratives, some derived from her own experience, others structured as parables. In either case, they are Ringgold’s means of telling her own story. Through storytelling and the manipulation of racial iconography, she has created a narrative that transforms our perceptions of black people.
The dilemma of survival carries over into Ringgold’s own life, as she recorded it in her autobiographical quilt Change: Faith llinggold’s Over 100 Pounds Wezght Loss Performance Story Quilt, on which she worked during 1985-86. Change not only records Ringgold’s gain and loss of weight over the last five decades, it also serves as a pictorial transcription of her autobiography, in which she puts the story of her physical changes in the context of psychological and emotional changes in her struggle to be independent. The quilt combines photo-etched panels grouping photographs from each decade of her life. Each panel is devoted to one decade, from childhood and adolescence, through her career as a model for her mother, to her life as a grandmother and a political activist. In these panels Ringgold visually records the progressive transformation of a woman from what she is expected to be to what she wants to be. The weight gain is part of that
struggle and a response to the stress and pressures of conflicting demands and expectations. It becomes a protective shield in Ringgold’s denial of her stereotyped image as a sex object.
The idea of womanhood and the qualities of being a woman are also explored in the works of Pinaree Sanpitak. From the beginning of her professional career as an artist, Sanpitak has been absorbed in ideas of femaleness. She has celebrated the nurturing and nourishing qualities of womanhood through her breast works, vessels, mounds, noon-nom and stupas. In paintings, sculptures, weavings and drawings, she has played with the concave and convex possibilities of
the divided hemispherical form, negotiating the tensions between the solid and the void, the opaque and the transparent, the filled and the unfilled, and the formed and the unformed. There is such a strong thread that connects her ideas that one has to read the personal, the tangible and the experiential into her art.
Sanpitak’s concept and inspiration come from what is closest to her: her precious and meaningful experience as a woman – a mother with utmost love for her son.2 The extraordinary quality in her work is how she portrays and reflects her experience of a woman’s unique ordeal as a mother. She sensitively records that account starting from her pregnancy to childbirth to child nurturing. The symbol that she has adopted to signify the bond between a mother and child is the mother’s ‘bosom’. Thus the emblem of the ‘breast’ becomes an important reference in her artwork. The image of the breast in Sanpitak’s work narrates the feelings, passion, thoughts and points of view, which define her life experience at different periods. They tell of delightful times, happiness, weariness and decline, which follow the path of time. They also delve deeper to demonstrate the truth of the body, and the psychological effects on being a mother.
Sanpitak’s work is characterised by the repeated appearance of the breast, which moves from simple straightforward figures to abstract characters. She shifts from two-dimensional works on paper to hemp and silk. Small and large images on these fabrics resemble grand and dignified stupas, which take on a more sacred meaning than her two-dimensional works.
To walk through the hanging panels of woven textiles, each of which is distinct and has a stupa defined on it by drawn threads, is like wending one’s way through giant prayer cloths on a quiet, personal journey of inner meditation and peaceful exploration. The stupa-like images vary: some are pointed like chedis and some are rounded like breasts. In the installation Breast Stupas (2000-2001), the breast becomes translucent on the heavy piece of J W Thompson silk from the process of unthreading strands of silk within the designated outline. Many women have been delighted in sharing this experience by helping Pinaree remove the silken threads, one strand after the other. The twenty-seven pieces of silk (500cm x 122cm) appear in shades of grey and black with tinges of beige. They are hung from ceiling to floor. Life is tangible on these pieces of silk – the way the threads hang, whether taut or loose, resulting from the way the threads are pulled, reflecting the change in the body and life with time. The installation, set up like a stage, lures the audience into an atmosphere replete with seduction and tangibility. Each piece is both opaque and translucent, exposing the soul, dignity and a feminine sensibility.
On one occasion, these towering, silken drapes of Breast Stupas filled the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum like a forest of threaded light. It wasn’t just the cunning way in which the long swatches of fabric had been dethreaded, which drew attention to the textural beauty of the piece – the representation of the female breast enlarged to a menacing size that intimidated a new generation of art goers.
Pinaree Sanpitak is well known for her restrained and restated lexicon of images associated with the female body. Reworked in various media, evoking different moods, Sanpitak’s subtly differentiated breast icons are always visually fresh despite thematic repetition. Providing the artist with an unselfconscious alter ego, they can be an expression of joy, wonder, sadness, power, desire. The universality of the artist’s message, albeit conveyed in a deeply personal manner, takes her practice beyond gender art to give it a broad resonance, the breast a vehicle for thought rather than merely a gender emblem. another direction. Here the breast is exploited differently, its publicly acknowledged iconic quality emphasised and its metaphoric incarnation of women explored. Evoking, both potency and vulnerability, the breast in Noon Nom explodes from the artist’s inner world, an extroverted creation speaking boldly of world issues. Dislocated from the female body, while also re-examined within that physical context, the breast transcends its many circumscribed roles to evoke freedom, empowerment, and a reclaimed sense of individuality. Sanpitak’s silken breasts are also pillow-objects, comfortable and utilitarian. The piece’s duality of function, embodied on the one hand by its practical calling as cushions, and on the other, by its reference to sexuality and seduction, creates a tension that underscores Noon Nom’s liberating and demystifying force.
The onomatopoeic resonance of ‘noon-nom’ needs no translation. It represents the all-encompassing, sustaining power of Nature. Sanpitak celebrates the role of women by referencing her own body and her own experience as a woman and a mother. In so doing, she infuses her art with insights into the feminine psyche and subconscious.
Another artist who is as much involved with transcending these boundaries of traditional constraints to portray a more globalised identity is Kimsooja. The portrayal of women’s identities and the usage traditional Korean mediums are integral parts of her visual language.
‘Without a needle, there would be no fabric, and without each individual no fabric of society … 3 One dqy while sewing a bedcover with my mother, I had a surprising experience in which my thought, sensibility and action, at that moment, seemed to converge. I discovered new possibilities for convrying buried memories and pain, as well as life’s quiet passions. I was fascinated l?J the fundamental orthogonal structure of the fabric, the needle and thread moving through the plane surface of the emotive and evocative power of colourful traditional fabric. “
Soon after, Kimsooja made a complete break with the established medium of a blank canvas stretched over a frame. From then on, by assembling a variety of fabrics Kimsooja created her own ‘canvas’. Assembling for her became heterogeneous and less dependent on the wall. The fabric spread out, hung, and wrapped various objects. This gave birth to the series called
The first deductive objects were tools Deductive Oiject.
and frames covered in strips of fabric. They became bodies made of a skeleton and skin. In spite of the desire to forge a new relationship between materials that constitute a painting, these objects became fetishes. At that point, Kimsooja chose to minimise gesture and instead gave way to nostalgia and dreams. The following year, she showed a piece of bedcover spread over the ground, bundles of anonymous cloths, and pieces of fabric inserted into cracks in the walls. Physical structure was eliminated and the materials used consisted of worn clothing and the bedspread. The artist lent ‘structure’ to these works only through time-honoured gestures of handling fabrics: spreading, folding, enveloping, wrapping, knotting, etc.
The big rectangles of fabric used by Kimsooja were the decorative covers of Korean bedding. These bedcovers are, in fact, “the basic fields of birth and death.” In the Korean daily environment, these fabrics with their bright colours and symbolic motifs belong to hidden, private lives. The contrast of red and green symbolises newlyweds; flowers, birds, and butterflies depict a happy marriage – symbols of long life, happiness, joy and riches spread like prayers all over the surface. The women make bedding for their homes using this material. They too unfold them every evening and fold them back each morning. The bedcovers are a reminder of night-time, bodies in repose, intimacy and dreams and women. Kimsooja spreads them on the ground, and on tables; she uses them to wrap other objects; she hangs them on washing lines. A square fabric on a table shown at PS 1 in New York City in 1993 developed into a large-scale setup in Edinburgh’s Fruit Market Gallery, at the Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and at Setagaya Museum in Tokyo. At the three sites, she covered all the tables in the cafeterias with multi-coloured bedcovers. “I tried to invite people to express themselves right on the tablecloths. Spreading bedcovers on tables is like creating a canvas which is invisibly wrapping the whole space.”
When examining Kimsooja’s oeuvre, we can find unavoidable implications and associations with regards to gender. Encounter-Looking into Sewing, for example, is an appropriate segue into the discussion of her role as a woman. The striking photograph suggests a woman’s figure completely veiled by multiple layers of traditional bedcovers, capturing the multi-layered complexity of female identity – not only questioning its societal construct but also moving beyond conventional gender paradigms. The female figure hinted by the gomusin shrouded in cloths represents tradition, signifying the weight of Confucian values that to varying extents still govern gender roles in Korean society. Yet the gomusin is taking a step forward, seemingly an allusion to the position of women still striving to redefine their status and position at large. At this point we can compare Kimsooja’s photograph with a late-Joseon dynasty photograph of a young Korean woman in street costume, not so different from the burqa. In late 19th century Korea, women were expected to cover their bodies and heads in public as a sign of propriety. The incredibly similar form of cloths engulfing the female figure insinuates gender politics, gender roles and women’s rights issues.
Kimsooja is a multi-disciplinary artist who rejects prescriptive identity such as gender and marital status as well as socio-political, socioeconomic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Her visual language may be rooted in Korean cultural traditions, and her mediums are often associated with women and craft, such as sewing and embroidery, yet she determines to reconstruct her identity, and weaves it into a global landscape.
Kimsooja recounts that though she had been predominantly influenced by the avant-garde aesthetic engagements in New York City, in actual fact, it was upon her return to Korea that she came to a critical realisation of the status of women in Korean society and her role when bundled up as a ‘ready-to-use’ object. It was Kimsooja’s awareness of the real world and socio-cultural issues that governed society that evolved into the Bottari series of works. She moved on to wrap the bottari with used clothing as a way of reinforcing fragments of reality in her ready-to-use object.
Bottari, which has become Kimsooja’s trademark, is a bundle containing objects, which are usually flexible and unbreakable such as clothes, bedding, and books. The bundle is a kind of improvised container, which is common in Korea. As with the idea of a bundle, bottari implies that it wraps things of little value. But for those leaving homes, the bundle contains the absolute essentials. The artist muses, ”Everyone around has bundles. I had them in my studio before I started to inco,porate them in my work. In 1992, when I was working at PSI, I happened to see a bundle in my studio. It was something new to me – a sculpture and a painting.”
Bottari is a symbol of wandering. For Koreans, who have moved homes to flee war and poverty and to find employment, bottari is a part of Korea’s history. Bottari is remembered seen on refugees’ shoulders, on the heads of travelling merchants, and on removal lorries. It is a form of mobility in an unlimited space, and at the same time, a receptacle closed around its contents.
Kimsooja was inspired by her childhood experiences as a young girl sewing bedcovers with her mother, which brought about the revelation of unity between her thoughts, sensitivity and activity, forming her aesthetic tenet. The use of textiles and the act of sewing are not so much a demonstration of a feminist standpoint, but rather as the artist states, “The engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of ‘tableau’.” Just as the act of sewing intertwines art and life, through this act, the artist also forges a renewed reality and experience. Therefore, the fabric and the act of sewing become the forms through which Kimsooja expresses the world of human beings. While at MoMA PS1 in New York City in 1992, she was roused to reassign meaning to used traditional Korean bedcovers as an aesthetic entity. Around that time, being away from home, she conceived of her iconic Bottari, which aggregates a wrapped two-dimensional ‘tableau’ into a three-dimensional sculptural form, through the act of filling it up with used clothes, and tying a knot to unite the contents. As such, this act of wrapping bodies and memories into a bundle was seen as a true formalist and aesthetic breakthrough.
We can read Kimsooja’s Bottari works as art for women by a woman, in the sense that these textiles as well as the tradition of wrapping bottaris are historically, functionally and aesthetically associated with women.
Though Faith Ringgold’s, Pinaree Sanpitak’s and Kimsooja’s art practices retain their traditional links, each artist has moulded their works to portray more than just the conventional ideas linked to fabric and feminine identity. Through their choice of form and content, they have produced a meaning of their own which have subverted hegemonic language and given rise to new narratives. ii
1. Ringgold, Faith.1998. Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts, University of California Press.
2. Morris, Linda. October 19, 2014, Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak embraces female form. <http://www.smh.eom.au/entertainmenUartand-design/thai-artist-pinaree-sanpitak-embraces-female-form- 20141023-115a01.html>
3. Sok, Christina Arum. 2014. Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity .
Aasim Akhtar is an independent artist, art critic and curator. His writing has been published in magazines, catalogues, and books both nationally and internationally, and his artwork has been widely exhibited, more recently at Whitechapel Gallery, London, as part of a commemorative show entitled, ‘Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’ (2010). He was a curator-in-residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan in 2002. He is the author of two published books, Regards Croises (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1996) and The Distant Steppe (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1997), and has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara. He teaches Art Appreciation and Studio Practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi.
Leading Image : Faith Ringgold. The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Aries (from The French Collection Part L #4). Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border. 7 4 x 80 inches. 1991
photos: courtesy of aasim akhtar Though very contemporary and untraditional, Faith Ringgold’s, Pinaree Sanpitak’s and Kimsooja’s practices retain their association with their traditionally female genre. At the same time they are dramatic narratives that are difficult to categorise. abolish the distance that separates art from life is a constant desire found in the art of…