Baby blanket. A child’s football jersey. A boyfriend’s shirt, a grandmother’s dress. A shroud. There is something very expressive about the cloth; we wear it, we use it to keep it warm, to keep it safe; we give it ritual importance, we value it. Its complex formation is the basis of countless metaphors – we weave stories, we tie knots.
And yet as an art form, textiles have been consistently underrated. Often dismissed as ‘craft’ or ‘women’s work’, its connection to the native transcends its flexibility, resonance, and complexity.
All this makes it perfect as a political form. That is the broad focus of this new exhibition at the Barbican, Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, which features more than 100 works of art, from small embroideries to huge installations, by 50 international artists including Yinka Shonibare, Cecilia Vicuña , Magdalena Abakanowicz (recently the subject of a major solo exhibition at Tate Modern), Nicholas Hlobo and more. Many are likely to be new discoveries for visitors.
The show is organized thematically, although there is a transition involved. ‘Bearing Witness’ continues heavily into politics, with works such as community-made collages by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles commemorating the police killings of Black men and women, or the assassination of 17-year-old Jadeth Rosano Lopez in Panama City, sewn by his aunts.
Exhibition made anonymously earlfelt and fabric representations of gender oppression or state-sponsored violence created under Pinochet’s regime in Chile, deceptively simple but very powerful (typically, initially dismissed as ‘feminine, domestic and therefore apolitical activity ‘. the end of his regime, Pinochet was calling them ‘tapestries of defamation’).
‘Wound and Repair’ looks at physical and emotional repair, with works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois (of course) and Dietrich Brackens. The second tapestry, a fire made by several dragons – in which a black figure in flames holds another from the fire – explores the care and safety found in community.
It is prompted by a shocking 2016 statistic that suggested that if current diagnosis rates continued, about one in two Black and one in four Latino men who sleep with men in the US would be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. On the other hand, Angela Su’s delicate drawings, made entirely of sewn human hair, are extremely moving and quite funny.
The idea of ’Borderlands’ feels a little weak, although it is an opportunity to show the eerie wire clouds of South African artist Igshaan Adams’ installations, which explore hybrid identities and the notion of the ‘trail of desire’, which it is given more weight in the strict division. apartheid context. But ‘Subversive Stitch’, a part of the show that mainly focuses on gender, is a rich seam, since the medium of textiles has been seen as the domain of women and is respected accordingly.
Here Judy Chicago tackles it with her Birth Project series, created in response to what the artist considers to be the “iconic void” of birth images in Western art. True, you don’t see it much, but here it is in all its glory in the quilted and embroidered panel Birth Tear/Tear, 1982, created to a Chicago design by highly skilled volunteer Jane Gaddie Thompson and shown in lush red, Psychedelic. silk the anguish of the vaginal tearing that often comes with pushing out a baby.
Tracey Emin’s No Chance (WHAT A YEAR) hangs nearby, 1999, which recalls in plain appliquéd text the year she was raped at age 13, and some examples of LJ Robert’s tiny, embroidered portraits of her LGBTQ+ friends, at using a medium of little value for recording. the lives of the underrepresented.
This homage to the ordinary can be seen elsewhere under the theme of ‘The Fabric of Everyday Life’, in the work of artists such as Sheila Hicks, whose Family Treasures, 1993, consists of beloved garments from friends tied together with colorful thread into small bundles shiny, piled high. like many treasures, or Filipino artist Pacita Abad, whose painted and closely stitched crochet depicts in vibrant colors the lives of migrants and refugees in the US, her adopted home.
‘Ancestral Threads’, which takes up most of the ground floor of the gallery and contains some of the most significant works, shows artists looking back at textile history. Some give insight into the effects of globalization and trade – Antonio Jose Guzman and Iva Jankovic’s checkered works, dyed with precious indigo, recall the exploitation of enslaved Africans who brought with them expertise in their cultivation; at one point a length of indigo cloth was equivalent in monetary value to one enslaved person.
Others are reviving stories or techniques from the past, like Mercedes Azpilicueta’s commemorative tapestry panel delightfully surrealistically ripping off popular Argentine legend Lucia Miranda, the first. cativa – a white woman captured by the native population, or Myrlande Constant, whose amazing beadwork draws on the Haitian Vodou religion. The IS Vodou drape (a flag showing the spirits) shown here is a wonderful riot, the glitter of figures rewarding the long view.
As with most Barbican exhibitions, limited in meaning by their vast space, it can, perhaps, seem a little overwhelming. It certainly feels at first that there is too much text – but in fact, with the exception of a few irritating events into false artspeak, the explanations on the walls, for almost every piece, are both informative and really interesting. Not every work will resonate, but it’s never interesting. Give yourself time to let this show out.
Barbican Art Gallery, 13 February to 26 May; barbican.org.uk