David alesworth Textile interventions on carpets
photos: courtesy of david alesworth
David Alesworth’s carpets present surfaces on which different regimes of power and knowledge have inscribed their meanings and effects. They are scarred bodies, produced in discursive formations on art and craft; but from their corporeal suffering springs conceptual play.
Decoration is a product of evolution, wrote the art historian, Ernst Gombrich, in 1979. It is the result of a gradual process of mimesis, repetition, fusion and adaptation. Describing the etymology of decorative motifs, he notes how the border of a 17th century Persian carpet could be traced back via the acanthus scroll found in a classical architectural ornament of ancient Greece to the lotus friezes of ancient Egypt. Kader Attia is a contemporary artist who sees repair as the underlying principle of development and evolution in both culture and nature.
To quote from tradition without slipping into nostalgia is a problem for contemporary artists. How to make references that have meaning in the present is a challenge, especially when working not just with repair but with re-invention. Decoration in any craft form is not simply concerned with ornament, but also with meaning. As Wittgenstein observes, meaning and use are related because use helps to determine meaning. The use of ornament throughout history has been to seduce, to enchant, to compel; its use, therefore, empowers. In textile art and design, patterns from ethnic and urban, ancient and contemporary contexts, high and low modes can be speedily interfused in ways that play a metaphorical role and stir interrogation. This is the intention of David Alesworth with his textile interventions on carpets.
He sees himself as an artist/ gardener, since he is a practicing landscape designer and horticultural consultant as well as a sculptor. Alesworth’s work illustrates his fascination with taxonomy and classification, particularly of flora and fauna and their historical genealogies. His copious readings in this area have led him to explore the rapport between garden history and colonial power. Living and working in the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Karachi for thirty years, with intermittent travel into the mountains, has allowed him a privileged time and space for research, which is based on exploring the tension between culture and nature that he experiences in everyday shifts between urban and pastoral sites.
gardens and embroidery in the west
When we explore the links between western landscape and memory, they reveal links between gardening and embroidery and colonialism. Their hierarchical relationships clearly manifest changes in class and gender hegemonies over time. In 1600, Nicholas Hilliard wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning that painters and painting had no connection at all with other arts such as embroidery or tapestry since the wealthy upper classes commissioned paintings to furnish their houses, whereas embroidery could even be supplied by women in households. In the 17th century, male guild embroiderers had demanding techniques and fixed projects that promoted individualism, even signing their work. Such shifts were due to the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism which implied the beginning of the individual balance sheet and the death of community work. Meanwhile at home, arduous sewing exercises kept women silent and still, having been conditioned by the ideology of self-discipline as seen in the sampler system with embroidered pledges to obey parents. In the more ambitious Stump work, often inspired by painting, and performed by male embroiderers, there was repetition of images of great houses or castles set in rolling landscapes, often showing a garden with a pool or fountain and metal threads to adorn costumes and sets. In biblical narratives there were depictions of the natural world as well as of hunting scenes, harvesting and details of gardens. New imported plants were adapted as royalist symbols especially with the 17th century rise in crewel embroidery: large hangings with exotic landscapes and fauna owing much to eastern textiles from the increasing trade with India and China: imported Chinese embroideries and Indian painted or printed cotton. Gradually inspiration for decoration came from diverse textiles rather than from oil painting.
In the 18th century, the mode for a ‘landscaped’ dress became fashionable. Extraordinary work was done by women embroiderers such as Mary Delany who made her own ‘court’ dress embroidered with two hundred different flowers. As an amateur embroiderer and botanist she composed Flora Delanica: ten volumes of illustrations of flowers and shrubs that used coloured cut-outs. She also painted and made shell work, feather work, silhouettes; designed furniture, spun wool, and even wrote and illustrated a novel, experimenting with paper collage, when she was eighty years old! Either as symbol of aristocratic pleasure or of moral duty, of confinement or comfort, embroidery was seen as a woman’s task or pastime according to class position.
Gardens and carpets, poets and painters: travellers in the east, influence in the west
Embroidery, carpet and garden design are closely related arts in Persian and Indian history. The florally inspired designs predate Islam and after the 17th century there is evidence of garden design in both the east and the west as inspired by carpets. The grandest period for the fabrication of Persian carpets was the Safavid (1499-1722).
In Northwest Persia in the 16th and 17th centuries ‘ designs for carpet making and those for embroidery were very similar as both crafts were often pursued in the same house. Apart from the rampant geometric pattern common to architectural decoration, natural forms play a role, often so stylised as to be almost non-representational; yet there were recognisable floral and fauna motifs, especially birds, because of their relationship to scenes of Paradise: the garden idealised in the Persian carpet.
The traditional Persian garden was conceived as a sacred space, a charbagh based on the four main parts of the world with its umbilical centre as a basin or fountain. The Koran, promises the faithful a paradise containing ‘four gardens beneath which waters flow’. The word is derived from the old Persian word pairidaeza meaning a garden enclosed by walls. This became a standard form in western monastic gardens; Cistercian monks were each given their own small allotment to tend, a sort of mini-Eden. It is interesting to note how the ‘healing knot’ gardens of such monasteries reflect the charbagh, the four corner format, which itself predates Islam. Knotting – embroidery with knots – performed by women offers itself as a metaphor for the gendered framing of this craft between virtue and mindlessness, as seen in a quote by Samuel Johnson, “next to mere idleness, I think knotting is to be reckoned in the scale of insignificance; though I once attempted to learn knotting.” Refined western 18th century ladies were often depicted in portraits as engaged with knotting, but how this relates to the monks ‘healing knot’ gardens poses further questions as to the gender hierarchy between the formal and informal acts of gardening, embroidery and miniature painting: all officially denied to women.
Since miniaturists often provided cartoons for carpet designs, miniature paintings are the best source for the study of the formal layout of the garden and its imitation in carpets. The great 16th century Persian painter Bihzad was celebrated for his compositions representing complex scenes with a ‘bird’s eye view’, which is how many garden carpets are drawn, often in squares containing tree and animal imagery. Older carpets have such squares separated by channels and pools of wavy lines and images of fish and fowl but later carpets have ornamental trellises or just straight lines as borders. At the centre lies the pool, the fountain of life or a medallion. Platonic theories of the cosmic unities state that all great waters can be traced back to the stream arising at the base of the Tree of Life in the garden of paradise, and 15th century travellers believed that the Nile flowed, through subterranean passages, ultimately from paradise.
Where the preoccupation with water was both vital and spiritually symbolic in Asian contexts, it became more of a symbol of material status in its western interpretations outside the monasteries. Le Notre, who had studied Islamic ornament whilst assisting Simon Vouet at the Louvre palace of Louis XIII in the 17th century, was the creator of the grandiose gardens at Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles. It is curious to note that in one description, the low-clipped boxwood hedges are designated as ‘broderies’, “marking the
‘carefully patterned composition’ … the gravel walks and the pools, all harmonising in discreet selfcongratulation”. However, ‘Mechanics over Nature’ was the cry of the ‘artist-gardeners’ in 17th century France. Le Notre employed hydraulic engineers to make the fountains, reflecting basins, great water grilles and lakes as theatrical platforms for spectacular entertainments incorporating water and fireworks on a scale worthy of warfare.
Curiously matching accounts of despotic decadence can be found in tales of Mughal fetes. Gascoigne describes how Jahangir transformed a natural paradise near Srinagar into an artificial one. Vernag was the site of a spring tamed into a forty-two feet deep pool of turquoise water, surrounded by domed pavilions in his magnificent garden. For the opening party, guests were offered alcohol and fine peaches brought by runners from Kabul. Together with his wife Nur Jahan, Jahangir had put gold rings into the noses of the large fishes in the pool, recorded as still present forty years later by the traveller Francois Bernier.
Poets composed texts for the ornamental inscriptions on the carpets, often in praise of works whose male designers and makers sometimes signed and dated, contributing to a rich mix of decorative, historical and iconographic features. These are revisited by western artists’ depiction of Persian carpets from as early as the 14th century (Simone Martini: St Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of A,you 1317, Naples) and in the early 16th century with Carpaccio’s images of carpets hung over balconies for festive occasions (St Tryphon taming the Basilisk, 1502, Schiavoni School). Portraits by Holbein the Younger contained such rich depictions of geometrically detailed carpets that they gave their name to a type of carpet from Asia Minor called ‘Holbein’.
After the founding of the Mughal empire in northern India in 1526, the import of Persian artists and craftworkers by Emperor Akbar coincided with the influx of foreigners wanting to trade. Indian craftsmen either worked foreign designs by translating them into their own idiom or else they adapted them to suit their foreign customers. For example, an IndoPortuguese silk rug (Musee des Arts Decoratifs) is composed of stylised scroll work around a central image of a double-headed eagle and crown which places the date of the rug between 1580, when Philip of Spain incorporated Portugal and her dominions under the Spanish crown, and 1640, when Portugal recovered her independence. The formation of the East India Company in 1601 brought a steady influx of textiles, and embroidery, in and out of India. Many crewelwork hangings of the 17th century, far from being derived from Indian palampores, were in fact embroidered in India in the indigenous tradition from designs sent out from England. Thus trade brought technical innovations as well as cultural politics. (The latter often led to chaos as with the plight of the protestant Huguenots, celebrated for their weaving and embroidery, whose right to religious freedom in France were revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, leading to their persecution and emigration to England and Holland.)
19th century: ambiguous attitudes
Slight shifts took place with the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris’ positive attitude towards craft and embroidery. However, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s aim to revive the medieval union of artist and craftworker remained gender-biased in its choice of imagery. Embroidery was represented through romantic depictions of sad damsels silently stitching; Morris even urged embroiderers to think of their work as,” … gardening with silk and gold thread” and urged that it should always be, ” … beautiful, elegant and refined … “. Male artists and architects and designers of the 19th century continued to envisage embroidery as a signature of femininity and social status. Whilst advocating embroidery for its self-evident labour and patience, they made it clear that it should be performed with ease, ” … the distinction of true breeding.”
Such bourgeois ideology of masking strenuous effort by nonchalance and wit is exposed in the story behind the portrait of Richard Pococke in Oriental Dress Oean Etienne Liotard, 1739). The painting recounts an expedition to Mont Blanc as part of the Grand Tour undertaken by all young wannabee empire builders. Together with his climbing party, ‘bivouacing’ in a Swiss meadow whilst their servants prepared dinner, Pococke dressed up in the Oriental finery he had collected over his travels in Egypt and Greece, and very probably they dined seated on a Persian rug since these were already highly sought after commodities in the west. The tone of this behaviour, dandy-like in its hedonist aestheticism reflects the nature of an 18th and 19th century orientalist perspective, lucidly deconstructed by Edward Said in the 20th century, and it contrasts strongly with Alesworth’s discourse.
21st century: unambiguous attitudes
All Alesworth’s work in Pakistan has been a dialogue with craft traditions. During the eighteen years that he lived and worked in Karachi, Alesworth engaged with the urban crafts of metal casting, Shaadi light decorators and plastic toy production with his Chamak Patti and Stainless Steel repousse works. His participation in the Truck Art movement was followed by a shift to the use of galvanised steel in his series of Probes and Missiles. His move to Lahore after 2000 took him to a pace of life less metropolitan and more cultural in all senses of the word: he had chickens and a vegetable garden on his roof and the connection between Kew and Lawrence Gardens revived his horticultural instincts.
Alesworth’s desire with his textile interventions is to demonstrate the sheer hard work and fatigue of the processes of both weaving and embroidering through deconstructing their visual aesthetics and reconstructing their tactile or haptic sense through memory. They represent other places, heterotopias, in other lands. The fact that his Persian carpets are worn and restored even before his intervention offers a history to be explored. He selects them for this very reason. The carpets are heavy with mud and dust and history … they are retrieved, washed, shaved, repaired, revived and remodelled with woven threads: a communal process that conjures up images of curating in its original healing sense. The sheer physicality of the work is challenging. Alesworth works mostly with male assistants from diverse craft backgrounds because carpet embroiderers are extant and female fabric embroiderers recoil from the hard task of pulling the needles through thick pile with pliers. He says, “These are not tapestries on linen … the double or triple multi-stranded wool breaks very frequently … the carpets are resistant… it’s a crazy thing to try and do.” Alesworth sees it as a form of homage to the intensity of the manufacturing process, ”A pilgrimage of penance towards a deeper understanding of the work”. His description celebrates the participatory nature of the practice through animating the carpet as a major agent of social relations, ”We would often cook a big biryani and have a collective lunch on the carpet before beginning to work on it… there is something about textile work that is so collaborative and communal.”
Domestication of nature through gardening has played a major part through colonial systems of power, yet it is the indigenisation of those systems that intrigues Alesworth. By attaching maps onto the surfaces, he is mapping ‘other’ landscapes on to existing carpets and thus creating a palimpsest, a geological layering that stirs interrogation of its contents.
He cites Foucault’s view that the oldest contradictory site of heterotopia is the garden and that the Persian carpet is a microcosm of the walled garden, ” … the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space.” A ‘Flying Carpet’ in other words!
The image of the rug as a cosmic garden voyaging in space recalls the passion for cartography in 17th century Holland. Maps and carpets recur throughout the paintings of Jan Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and Samuel van Hoogstraten. Large wall maps appealed to the wealthy European mercantile class as a reflection of their social status and worldly knowledge. Ruling families and magnates employed them as ‘gifts’ to be presented to political rivals (not unlike the fate of miniature paintings) often as reminders of their loyalties or dues. Tapestry maps of landscape panoramas were popular amongst English landowners who displayed large copperplate maps of their houses and domains. Ship-owners had maps of other continents and sea charts showing off the routes of their trade. Maps of the Holy land or of Catholic victories over Protestant forces advertised their owners’ religious and political loyalties. ‘Theatre of War’ maps published from 1695 enabled purchasers to follow the course of a campaign. Chinese scroll landscapes originated in maps for warfare. Maps to illustrate boundaries have always served the forces of government administration, which are inevitably the most open to corruption and distortion.
Professional artists in the 19th century were employed as drawing masters at military academies; even Constable considered this as a job in 1802 and military draughtsmen dreamt of careers as artists. Such role-changing games invite an ironic comparison with the current mode for artists-as-anthropologists, engaged in research into borders, cultural crossovers and curiosity cabinets (Mark Dion, Shilpa Gupta, Grayson Perry, Kader Attia et al.
Representation, therefore, is the key issue. One must remember that for Foucault the production of knowledge is always crossed with questions of power and the body produced within discourse.
Alesworth’s palimpsests of embroidered carpets become historical sites. His choice of Versailles for Garden Palimpsest (2010) refers to the most flamboyant formality of imperialism dominating nature. Hyde Park (2011), originally inaccessible to the public, refers to the gently ‘wild’ landscape of the English urban imagination, romantic in its reflection of the arcadian mood proposed by William Kent, “the obliterator of boundaries between garden and nature”.
On to the restored Kashan carpet, Alesworth has sewn fragments of a Stanford map of Hyde Park dating from 1862, significant for its timely link to the annexation of the Punjab by the British Empire
(whose rule then covered a quarter of the world’s population).
Another of his works, Chinese Periodic Ba/ouch (2013) refers to the dual aspect of knowledge and power. The Periodic Table displays predicted elements in a form of mapping of the chemical universe and the site of Baluchistan is being mined by Chinese prospectors for its rare earth minerals. His intervention with multicoloured sheep wool embroidery uses an early handwritten rendition of the Periodic Table in Chinese. It fuses chemical and botanical taxonomy. Cantt Runner (2013) is an antique tribal carpet with dyed sheep wool embroidery based on a mapping of the Lahore Cantonment area in 1893 showing the colonial housing amidst its standard panoply of churches, graveyards, tennis courts, Lawrence Gardens, bazaars and cricket pitches.
Colonial sociology of rule has been embodied in much of Pakistan’s self-conception, particularly in bureaucracy, education and sport. Cricket is slowly liberating itself from its colonial framework by the localisation of its patronage and popularity, yet it is still gender bound. Alesworth’s methodical interventions propose a terrain that, like the shift of the lush green cricket pitch to the electric-wired lanes of the nighttime bazaar, is gradually changing through the local politics of indigenisation: could it be that women will even play cricket one day with as much gusto as they are making art?
Alesworth’s carpets present surfaces on which different regimes of power and knowledge have inscribed their meanings and effects. They are scarred bodies, produced in discursive formations on art and craft; as Foucault described, ” … imprinted by history and the processes of history’s deconstruction of the body.” But from their corporeal suffering springs conceptual play, “artists create models of thinking the world” (Alfredo Jaar, 2014).
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12. Sandford, Elisabeth. 1831. Woman in Her Social and Domestic Character. London. p 215.
13. Said, Edward. 1978. Orienta/ism. USA: Vintage Books.
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16. Foucault, Michel. 1967. ‘Des Espaces Autres (dans Dils et Ecrits 1954-88)’. ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuite no 5. Paris: Gallimard.
17. Foucault, Michel. 1977a. Discipline and Punish. London: Tavistock. p 63. 18. Barber, P. and Harper, T. 2010. Magnificent Maps, Power, Propaganda and Art. London: British Library.
Dr Virginia Whiles (PhD. Anthropology SOAS) trained as a painter, art historian and anthropologist. Whiles has worked as critic, curator and lecturer in cultural studies for over forty years in UK, France and South Asia. Author of Art and Polemic in Pakistan – Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting (I.B Tauris, 2010), she has written many articles and curated exhibitions in India, Japan, Switzerland, UK and France. Currently Associate Lecturer at the University of Arts, London (Chelsea), Whiles lives in London and Southern France.
Leading Image : The Indian VicerV’s Flag of 1885. 2012
photos: courtesy of david alesworth David Alesworth’s carpets present surfaces on which different regimes of power and knowledge have inscribed their meanings and effects. They are scarred bodies, produced in discursive formations on art and craft; but from their corporeal suffering springs conceptual play. Decoration is a product of evolution, wrote the art historian, Ernst…