Thoughts towards concept
How do we position the art of textile in the context of contemporary art making? The canons which dominated the ‘fine arts’ have, until very recently, excluded practices which did not fit comfortably within their precincts. In spite of lively and sometimes contentious debates, there was a firm line drawn between artisanal practices and those invested with a more theoretical representation.
Jamini invited scholars, critics, curators and practitioners from multiple locations – Canada, Australia, UK, and South Asia – to examine the rapidly altering world of textiles, their new avatars, and their growing ascendancy in the visual arts. These essays and features encapsulate some of the developments and debates which have been instrumental in creating these shifts. Mainstream art histories have long considered the textile arts, together with other ‘crafts’, to be restricted in ‘meaning’ and ‘purity’. The rich repertoire of skills in these arts, although universally respected, were nevertheless deemed to be repetitive, burdened by history, and devoid of innovation. However, a diverse set of developments in recent decades has challenged these hegemonic views and canons. Resistance to such perceptions occurred through the writings of feminist art historians and the work of women artists.
In many cultures the ‘domestic’ arts, such as weaving, sewing, knitting and embroidery, were considered the woman’s domain and thus of lesser significance than ‘fine art’. Feminist critique rejected such patriarchal perceptions that downgraded these arts by labelling them ‘women’s work’. Feminist historians Roszikar Parker and Griselda Pollack pointed out that the history of art was a ‘particular way of seeing and interpreting’, reflecting the beliefs and assumptions of historians who unconsciously reproduced patriarchal ideologies. Revealing these underpinnings by feminists became the first step in unravelling the canon. Aasim Akhtar’s essay, ‘Breaking the Mould’, looks at three women artists whose distinct practices, despite originating in different parts of the globe, challenged the canon they had inherited. Challenges, once accepted, became transformative processes, leading ultimately to a construction of revolutionary personal vocabularies. This is also found in the tapestries of Rashid Choudhury. There is no ‘feminisation’ in any aspect of his work. But, as Syed Manzoorul Islam writes, “Choudhury knew the two-fold challenges he was going to face – elevating tapestry to the level of art and making it transcend the limitations of traditional woven art.”
Alongside feminist critique came the realisation that, in non-Western cultures, textile practices were quite capable of holding their own in terms of profound thought, personal narratives and innovative initiatives, as in any other form of art. These practices were often divided equally between the sexes and embraced the complexity of their lived experience. However, the indigenous arts are rife with hierarchies and complex issues of representation. ‘Frames to Fame – Representing Indigenous Practices in Contemporary Times’ by Neeti Bose is an in-depth investigation into how folk art and craft traditions survive into contemporary times. As an academic who has studied and worked closely with practitioners, she has analysed the deep chasms and class structures that divide patronage, representation and the creative impulse. This issue is further addressed in an interview with Mayank Mansingh Kaul revealing the new directions being taken to showcase these practices in the mainstream arts scene, as he talks about the approach to curating the first textiles art exhibition of its kind for the Devi Art Foundation. Liz Williamson, who is familiar with the work of Australian indigenous aboriginal artists, touches upon how aboriginal beliefs and processes have enriched artistic practices. Collaborative work has emerged as a staple factor today, demonstrated most recently in the Venice Biennale where Fiona Hall collaborated with a group of Tjanpi weavers from Southern Australia. Clearly, because ‘art making’ and ‘craft’ are important components of material culture, they can share inferred meanings, structures and ways of representation.
Artists have sought to excavate sources of knowledge which embrace the making of textiles even as multiple canons have surfaced simultaneously in art practices all over the world. They have provided space for self-reflective relationships and new processes and materials for artists. Fibre, whether organic or humanmade, lends itself to manipulation and narrative, as well as to construction of metaphors. From dyes and pigments to ropes and silks, the blurring of boundaries for art making has been deeply satisfying and profound. Virginia Whiles and Tim Parry-Williams focus on the art practices of David Alesworth and Matthew Harris. For Alesworth, having lived and worked in Pakistan for thirty years as a sculptor and landscape designer, working with carpets appeared an inevitable move. Whiles delves into the fascinating re-birth of disintegrating textiles, and comments on the tensions between histories, gardens and the intricate process of embroidery. Collaboration with artisans can be a laborious process, but also witty and occasionally unpredictable. Such artisan-artist relationships are echoed in many locales in different ways. Matthew Harris’s passion for music and engagement with John Cage’s philosophy is the driving inspiration in his ‘gentle, yet chaotic’ assemblage of works employing cloth or paper. ParryWilliams notes the presence of certain traditions, such as the stitch, which have acquired a halo born of centuries of labour and embellishment. Whiles also notes in her essay that “to quote from tradition without slipping into nostalgia is a problem for contemporary artists”. Harris escapes the trap as do those artists described by Maureen Korp in her review of the Moon Rain Centre for Textile Arts base in Ottawa Valley, Canada. The effort to reclaim memory inherent in fabric is of vital importance to communities which were once thriving centres of textile production. The links between the textile histories of the area, the natural environment, and the continuance of artistic textile practice are reassuringly substantial.
‘Outsider’ processes, weaving, knotting, tying, stamping, printing, and embroidering have been validated by both contemporary artists and textile practitioners. The need to build on these wide-ranging skills and ways of mark making are understood and embraced intuitively. Haema Sivanesan talks with Angela Teng, a visual artist based in Toronto, to explore her unique take on painting, where she imbues paint with the quality of textile and thread and crochets paint to create her art.
Narrative, representation, socio-political commentary, and gender chronicles have also found their way into thread and dye. These works breed great interconnectedness and powerful evocations. Jublee Dewan and Farhana Preya are two upcoming Bangladeshi artists who use textiles as a medium for storytelling and narration, whether it is one that reflects on the barrenness of a land marked by political strife, or the simple deconstruction of broken relationships. Shah Nahian explores the different way each artist weaves her stories into her art giving it a ‘vocal quality’ that makes one pay attention. Interviewed for this issue by Haema Sivanesan, Ghada Amer encompasses these ideas in her oeuvre. Amer, born in Cairo but now based in New York, probes art history and the works of prominent male white artists. Her use of thread as a medium for drawings that look at pornography and the female figure are startlingly potent, and “secures agency in a way that conventional paintings, drawings never could”, to quote Sivanesan.
Afghan War rugs were an unexpected by-product of the Soviet invasion of that country. The civil war disrupted communities and their social fabric. However, the upheavals in Afghanistan also demonstrated the capacity that certain traditional crafts have to cope with and assimilate disturbances and to spawn fresh ideas out of adversity. The invention of the war-rug is one such significant occurrence, as pointed out by anthropologist Jurgen Wasim Frembgen.
New trajectories demand transformations and mutations. Socio-economic forces impose on apparel, and can evolve into fashion. This is now an accepted phenomenon. The story of the haori from Japan is instructive in this regard. Its many configurations from catwalk to the beachfront do not detract from its claim to being an art form. Lois Barnett traces its drifts and chequered history as it moves into contemporary times. This is also seen in Niaz Zaman’s essay ‘The Magic of the Backstrap Loom’, which follows the enduring weaving traditions found in the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh as they use this loom. The author guides us through the history of the backstrap loom as it has been used to adapt to changing circumstances, and shows us indigenous weaving is not only a functional product but also a work of art and the preservation of a unique culture.
The primary role of fibre – woven, twisted or embellished – is undoubtedly to adorn the human body and, by extension, the human habitat. Embedded within garments and their surroundings are elements of performance. A design ensemble can be ‘read’ and ‘identified’ through the coverings of the body. Performance on stage is one such extension of the body’s power to communicate. The message is accentuated, amplified and interpreted by the designer who collaborates on costumes and sets with performers and directors. Kimie Nakano takes us through the whole process with Ruth Little, highlighting the constraints and the nitty-gritty of piecing the magic act together.
Textiles can be the stimuli which wend their way into the image-making of artists. Matisse, for instance, was a passionate collector of textiles, a connection most evident in his use of pattern and colour. Naazish Ataullah looks at the intertwining of textile practices such as embroidery and sewing in the work of artist Aisha Khalid, who originally trained as a miniature painter. The more overt references to fabric and pattern in interior spaces have mutated over the years, and have been replaced with actual fabric – dealt with in a symbolic manner, depicting beauty, bloodshed and death. These transitions which have been included in Khalid’s works are most telling in the manner in which they reveal the artist’s obsession with the ‘act’ of perforating the surface of the fabric with needle and thread. Rosalyn D’Mello’s cathartic piece reminisces upon the life and vivacity of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s spirit that lives on in her hemp sculptures, and reminds us of the enduring quality of art.
Surveys such as the ones that follow do throw up questions regarding the implications for art and design teaching institutions. How do they blur the boundaries between disciplines, hitherto segregated into ‘fine art’ and ‘design’? Case studies such as the one described by Shehnaz Ismail will facilitate the work of teachers, as will Zeb Bilal’s study of textile archives, namely the Watson.
Catalogues discovered by chance in the Lahore Museum. The meaning and interpretation of textile is referred to again and again by the essayists in these pages, underscoring the fact that there is much left to document, dissect and decipher. This edition of Jamini is dedicated to the possibilities in the world of fibre and textile which challenge claustrophobic frontiers and offer fresh insights into ways of creative inquiry and eloquent accomplishment. The stories presented here remain integral to our collective and personal identities.
Professor Salima Hashmi is an acclaimed Pakistani artist, educator, curator and writer on art. She represents the first generation of modern artists in Pakistan who carry an artistic identity different from indigenous artists. She taught for thirty years at the National College of Arts in Pakistan, before retiring as its Principal. Hashmi wrote the critically lauded book, Unveiling the Visible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan (2001), as well as coauthoring the book Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan (2006) with Indian art historian Yashodhara Dalmia. She has also edited Travels Mundane and Surreal: The Art of Esther Rahim (2008), The Eye Still Seeks: Pakistani Contemporary Art (2015), and Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan which accompanied the exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art for Asia Society Museum, New York in 2009. Hashmi has exhibited her own work, travelled and lectured extensively worldwide and has curated about a dozen international art shows in the UK, Europe, USA, Australia, Japan and India. She is a recipient of The President’s Award for Pride of Performance, Pakistan. Salima Hashmi is Founding Dean of the School of Visual Art and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
Leading Image : Mathew Harris . Lantern Cloth I . Dyed and Stiched cloth . 170 x 99 cm . 2008 . Photo: Peter Stone
How do we position the art of textile in the context of contemporary art making? The canons which dominated the ‘fine arts’ have, until very recently, excluded practices which did not fit comfortably within their precincts. In spite of lively and sometimes contentious debates, there was a firm line drawn between artisanal practices and those…