Art_Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery: Buzzing with symbolism and struggle

By Angelika Rusbridge | 19 October 2015

Fine art and the resident internationally significant textiles collection meet in the Whitworth's new exhibition

A photo of a mannequin in a huge blue dress within a darkened gallery space as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Mary Sibande, Sophie Velucia (2009)© Courtesy the Whitworth
The spacious and light-filled corridors of Manchester Art Gallery are occupied by understated and impressive works. Down one of these, towards the centre of the gallery, Jennifer Harris, the curator of the new Art_Textiles exhibition, is keen to emphasise that textiles were presented as fine art long before their current increase in popularity.

Some of the works received little recognition. Abakan Rouge III, by Magdalena Abakanowicz, the central piece in the main room, came at the end of the artist’s career, between 1970 and 1971, when what she called a “craft ghetto” kept the pieces from being considered fine art.

The deep burgundy sisal rug hangs vertically, towering and held up by two wires in the ceiling. It keeps its flat, circular shape mainly through the strength of the woven material itself.

A photo of a mannequin in a huge blue dress within a darkened gallery space as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Mary Sibande, Sophie Velucia (2009)© Courtesy the Whitworth
Overhanging the top eighth of what seems more like a sculpture than a rug, another piece of fabric has tassles of raw material on the overhanging ends, with a visible partition down the bottom half giving it a vague resemblance to the female reproductive organ.

This very powerful piece is tied to a second reason to use textiles as a medium; to work around oppressive governments. Abakanowicz began her career in post-war Communist Poland, where Harris says artists used textiles “because they could get away with it”.

These artists worked in defiance, using sewing, embroidery and weaving - skills once considered “women's work” - to showcase their artistic flair despite living in a world that would not consider them artists.

A photo of a circular red textile hanging above a gallery floor as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Rouge III (1970-71). Installation view© Courtesy the Whitworth
“The relationship between women and domestic craft, identity, class, gender...there was so much to include, and I think it will be shown here,” believes Harris.

“What we really wanted is to get people to walk around and think.”

A quilt by Risham Syed, entitled The Seven Seas: Chittagong Hill Tracts, is one of two in another room. A circle surrounds the city of Chittagong, in Bangladesh – then Bengal, the year 1930, and the name Surya Sen.

A photo of a circular red textile hanging above a gallery floor as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
© Courtesy the Whitworth
The relationship between the piece and history is clear in the final written words of Sen, a freedom fighter, in a letter to his friends on January 11 1934:

“Death is knocking at my door. My mind is flying away towards eternity…at such a pleasant, at such a grave, at such a solemn moment, what shall I leave behind you? Only one thing, that is my dream, a golden dream-the dream of Free India…Never forget the 18th of April,1930, the day of the eastern Rebellion in Chittagong ...Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of the patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom.”

Several works by Anne Wilson are intriguing in their use of delicate hairs. From afar, Mourning Cloth seems almost dirty, messy and haphazard. But upon approaching, it becomes clear that every seemingly incidental hair has been deliberately placed.

A photo of words displayed behind lines of colour as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Ghada Amer, Sunset with Words (2013)© Private collection
The fabric is old and discolored in places. “There is a purpose to the fabric as well,” explains Harris.

“These cloths are about mourning, how the artist lives that sadness, and the use of these materials is deliberate.

“It changes, gets old – just like grief.”

Several works have slogans boldly embroidered or written upon their surfaces - No Home, No Hope, made by Michele Walker in 1994, Why Have We So Few Great Women Artists?, a 1985 work by Lyn Malcolm, and I did not Join the Struggle to be Poor, created by Lawrence Lemaoana this year.

A photo of a red piece of fabric as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Lawrence Lemaoana, I did not join the Struggle to be Poor (2015)© Courtesy Lawrence Lemaoana / Afronova, Johannesburg
Their room is buzzing with issues of class, gender and sexuality. One of the first pieces I was drawn to was Göttinnen (Goddesses), made by the late Helga Sophie Goetze in 1993 and 1994.

The subjects in the piece - and there are dozens - are all women and animals. There is the occasional phallic object, but no men. Naked women in nature, some pleasuring themselves, all without shame, dance around as if daring the observer to think of anything else but freedom.

The carefree, bright and easy way the artist depicts the subjects speaks to her career in activism, imploring the observer to think about what it really means to be sexually liberated.

Paraguayan-born multidisciplinary artist Faith Wilding, who has been involved in the feminist movement in the US since moving there in 1961, is particularly impressed by Goetze’s work.

“It is so free and rad,” she says, pointing at “that witchy, wonderful, Pagan hanging over there.” “I just love it and what it represents.”

as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Faith Wilding, Crocheted Environment (1972, 1995). Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Gift of the artist© Photo: Charles Mayer
Wilding has made a second version of Crotcheted Environment, originally made in 1972 for the Los Angeles display Womanhouse, for the exhibition. The first work was later dubbed the Womb Room.

“Well actually, I called them both Crocheted Environment. It was the public who called it Womb Room,” she says.

“Honestly, the first room, the one in Los Angeles, did seem a bit like a womb. I can see why they called it that, but this one here is much more of an environment. It’s a lot less...well, womb-y.”

A photo of a circular blue swirl as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Mary Sibande, Sophie Velucia and Madame CJ Walker (2009)© Courtesy Mary Sibande / Gallery Momo, Johannesburg
But when pressed for a favorite, she mentions many pieces.

“That one over there is just so powerful because of the history behind it,” she says, pointing to the Manchester suffragette banner from 1912.

“And this one, almost hidden in the corner here, is amazing, I can't stop looking at it.”

A photo of a large strand of brown fabric as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Dorathea Tanning, De Quel Amour (1970)© Courtesy Centre Pompidou, Musee d'art Moderne
She moves towards Miriam Shapiro's Anonymous was a Woman as she speaks.

“I mean, you can't tell from afar, but that is intricate, all this sewing. It's just amazing how we've taken this and made it our own, our power.”

She goes on to reminisce about her time growing up in a commune in South America, where she learned many of the skills she applies in her works today.

A photo of a large circular textile fabric hanging as part of the Art Textiles exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Rouge III (1970-71)© Courtesy Toms Pauli Foundation
“I mean, girls did sewing and stuff, and the guys would do leather.

“If I wanted I could do leather as well, but the boys would never sew, even then, you know?”

Standing in the room within the greater exhibition, the crocheted strands feel like strange vines and flowers. They also evoke primal fears surrounding webs.

“The relationship between the home and a woman is a complicated one,” she feels. “It can be a safe environment or it can trap you.” Wilding’s pieces show textiles as a fine art form, full of the raw power of symbolism and the rich context of history and struggle.

  • Art_Textiles is at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until January 31 2016. Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @WhitworthArt and on Facebook.

Follow Angelika Rusbridge on Twitter @AngelikaRusb.

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In the first paragraph, after....the spacious & light-filled corridors of...it should read "the WHITWORTH Art Gallery" (NOT Manchester Art Gallery, which is in the centre of the city).
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