ALEXIA WALKER: Lowly textiles are superbly wrenched from their contexts to create high art
Works on show at Cape Town's Norval Foundation point to the use of the materials as a widespread practice in contemporary art
Two exhibitions running until August at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, Yinka Shonibare’s Trade Winds and Ibrahim Mahama’s Labour of Many point to the use of textiles as a widespread practice in contemporary art.
It is certainly nothing new. Weaving, embroidering, quilting and crocheting are among some of the oldest art forms. Since the 20th century however, artists have begun to use textiles in different contexts and often to express sociopolitical concerns.
The Nigerian-English Shonibare is renowned for the use of African fabrics in his sculptures, installations and photographs. He has explained that he chose this particular material because it confronts and subverts the very notion of a single cultural experience. Through his artworks, he asks why nowadays people still insist on a singular identity.
Indeed Shonibare discovered that what is accepted as African fabrics were in fact manufactured in the 19th century by the Dutch to copy the wax-printed batiks made in Indonesia. The fabrics were initially intended for the Indonesian market but were a commercial failure. The Dutch sold them to West Africa instead and with resounding success, thus inspiring the English to produce them too. They are now considered authentic African prints. It is what Shonibare calls the “fakeness” of it that fascinates him.
Ghanaian Mahama has elected to work with hessian sack as his signature material. The spectacular 9m-high installation at the Norval Foundation is a gripping example of his work. The artist stitches together bags originating from India and Bangladesh that the Ghana Cocoa Board once used to transport cocoa, the nation’s main export commodity.
The sacks have since pervaded every part of Ghanaians’ daily lives. They have been reused to transport charcoal and repurposed again to carry goods of all kinds. Mahama’s work offers a subtle reflection on the place of Africa in the global exchange of commodities.
The choice of specific materials is directly informed by the artist’s culture and the material itself is the carrier of profound meaning.
It is interesting to look back at the 1960s and 70s in Italy when artists of the Arte Povera (“poor art”) movement rejected traditional mediums such as oil on canvas, marble and bronze to embrace everyday materials. They celebrated the very essence of rags, soil and sticks instead of using conventional art materials to represent something else.
It was during the same period that the feminist movement elevated textiles and fibres, previously demoted to craft and women’s work, into “high art”. Since the 1980s, the use of textiles in art has become more and more conceptual while some artists are pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a textile.
A number of artists in SA have developed compelling bodies of work associated with specific materials. Turiya Magadlela tears, cuts, stitches, folds and stretches pantyhose over canvas and across wooden frames. Her choice of a vulnerable material loaded with cultural significance enables her to explore themes of womanhood. “Pantyhose became to me a familiar voice where materials directly equate concept,” she says.
Frances Goodman similarly works with objects associated with woman identity. She constructs sculptures and wall pieces out of acrylic nails glued together.
“I was inspired to use false acrylic nails as I could imagine that if assembled en masse, in a structured pattern, they would look slick and wet, almost like snake skins,” Goodman says. Her pieces have a tapestry-like texture.
Goodman says the use of unconventional materials pushes her “to keep looking at the unexpected and insignificant in order to transform them into something meaningful, beautiful and unnerving; into something of value”.
Billie Zangewa creates tapestries that she calls silk collages. She painstakingly sews together pieces of silk in various colours to recreate intimate scenes of domestic life in which she is often a main protagonist.
“I love the generosity of the medium and the act of sewing is a powerful one…. Silk leads me to continue to uncover its secrets, that it reveals to me little by little,” she says.
Athi-Patra Ruga, whose first solo retrospective in London closed earlier in 2019, has made hand-embroidered petit point tapestries his chosen medium alongside his performance practice.
Through his body of work, Ruga has created a series of myths and alternative identities as a form of sociopolitical commentary. In his woven pieces, he has developed a visual language that gloriously continues the age-old tradition of the tapestry as a medium to retell legends and history.
Works by some of these artists and others from the continent and the diaspora can be seen at the group exhibition Material Insanity that runs until September at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Macaal) in Marrakesh, Morocco. The show explores the material and its symbolic significance in a plurality of dimensions and formal experiences.
These kinds of artworks require special care. Silk for instance should be protected against possible moth damage. As for pantyhose, it famously runs. Turiya Magadlela takes preventive steps by spraying her artworks with a protective layer derived from the car industry. Textiles need regular but adequate cleaning that won’t threaten the integrity of the piece.
• Walker is an independent art adviser.