It’s not a solo exhibition – yet. 😉 But you may remember a couple of years ago that I took part in an exhibition organised by South London Women Artists (SLWA), entitled Pillow Talk. It was a collaboration with the Women’s Art Library (WAL) and took the form of a pop-up reading lounge in a geodesic dome furnished with a selection of readings, cuttings and ephemera from the WAL collection and art pillows by SLWA artists as seating.
My contribution, a felt snail pillow, was inspired by the idea of a nomadic library, carrying information about the ambitions, stories and histories of women artists around the country.
Now the exhibition (and snail) has reached Tate Modern. As part of a homage to the centenary of women getting the vote in February 1918, Pillow Talk will form part of the Uniqlo Tate Late event on Friday 23 February, 6-10pm.
For this event, the pillows will be laid out on the floor in the shape of the female symbol where visitors will be invited to sit, read and have conversations. At its heart will be a mobile library full of publications, catalogues, magazines and ephemera about women artists.
We’ll be on Level 2 in the Blavatnik Building – hope to see you there!
I finally got round to visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum this weekend to see the exhibition of finalists in the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize.
Launched in 2017 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Woman’s Hour, the prize seeks to “reward originality and excellence in concept, design and process and to recognise a craft practitioner or designer-maker who is an outstanding artist and who has significantly contributed to craft practice in the last five years”.
The winner of the £10,000 prize was Phoebe Cummings for her fountain made from raw clay. The fountain is turned on at noon each day for one minute, so it erodes and dissolves over time.
Predictably, the work that appealed most to me was by Laura Youngson Coll. Her sculptures of microscopic marine organisms, made from goat vellum, were inspired by Haeckel.
Romilly Saumarez Smith is a jeweller who combines precious metals and other materials with found objects to create organic or natural forms.
Andrea Walsh combines glass and bone china to make beautiful delicate and translucent boxes and vessels.
Another finalist, Celia Pym, uses darning, knitting and embroidery to mend other people’s clothes, drawing out memories and meanings through the process.
In an adjoining room there was a drop-in workshop displaying clothes that people had brought in for Celia to mend throughout the exhibition.
Now, fond as I am of upcycling, I’ve never been a great mender of clothes (it takes me forever to get round to sewing on buttons that have come off). My mum used to have a darning mushroom in her workbox, though I have to confess I never saw her use it.
However, by coincidence, between Christmas and new year I did patch a pair of much loved jeans by sewing an extra piece of denim on the inside and then stitching over the top. Do you think it will show? 😉
After seeing the exhibition I was inspired to have a go at mending a very holey cashmere sweater. There are still a lot of holes to go – it will probably end up more purple than grey by the time I’ve finished. 🙂
ESP has offered me some socks if I want more darning practice but I have to draw the line somewhere!
Prism is a group showcasing high quality fine art textile practice and craftsmanship, which holds an annual exhibition in London (and sometimes elsewhere – they also exhibited at Birmingham earlier this year).
Their current exhibition at Hoxton Arches Gallery in east London is entitled “Another View”. Here are some of my favourite pieces.
Anita Bruce combined natural history books with delicate baskets and stitching to represent her own natural history.
Dee Thomas used beautifully subtle hand dyed fabrics and silk thread to interpret the markings on pebbles found on the beach.
In a brighter vein, Susie Vickery‘s embroidered portraits of Syrian refugees represented them as individuals with hopes and dreams rather than victims.
Also on the subject of conflict, Jo Coombes‘ print with paper lamination and hand embroidery represents the ruined buildings and shattered lives of wastelands like Aleppo due to intransigent world views.
Catherine Gowthorpe‘s nine intricately embroidered squares explore the variability possible in squares within squares ad infinitum.
I didn’t know much about the Scythians – Siberian nomads who roamed from Mongolia to the Ukraine from around 800 to 200BC – before this exhibition.
Not that it’s any excuse, but they pretty much disappeared from history until their artefacts started being rediscovered in the 18th century by expeditions sent to Siberia by Peter the Great.
This exhibition certainly dispels the myth that nomadic people lack art or culture. A stunning selection of gold belt buckles, mostly depicting nature red in tooth and claw (a vulture mauling a yak and tiger, a leopard attacking an elk) were, unsurprisingly, snapped up by Peter the Great for his personal collection (most of the exhibits in this show are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg). Gold plaques also decorated weapons and even clothing.
A beautiful piece of body armour consists of overlapping metal scales sewn onto a leather vest – only the upper edges are sewn so as not to restrict movement. By contrast, their shields were essentially made of basketry – wooden sticks threaded with leather!
But what is particularly interesting about this exhibition is the number of textiles on display. There are very few 2,300-year-old textiles that have survived, but in the Scythian burial mound site at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia, snow and rain entered the tomb chambers and froze permanently, preserving the contents.
And guess what – there’s a lot of felt! A large felt hanging that once lined the coffin chamber has an appliqué border of roaring lions’ heads, while a pair of felt stockings is also decorated with appliqué felt strips and wool embroidery.
More prosaically, there are felt rings used to steady the base of round-bottomed drinking vessels, made from twisted strips of felt and sewn with sinew threads.
My favourite felt object was a swan, with a strikingly curved neck and drooping wings; it was probably a decoration for a headpiece or even a horse mask.
Because horses were so important to the Scythians (being the main form of transport as well as providing meat, milk and hide), the animals were buried alongside their masters so that they could carry them to the next world. Decorations on show include a felt mane cover with leather appliqué cockerels, a felt and leather horse mask topped by a ram’s head with a cockerel between its horns, and elaborate bridles covered in gold foil.
Some intricate stitched pieces have also survived, including a decorated shoe with pyrite crystals perforated with holes less than 1mm across, and a stunning embroidery of a rearing winged bull.
On decorated belts, some of the stitches have been wrapped in tin leaf to resemble silver.
Analysis of some of the remains has also shown what was used for dyeing – a woollen skirt fragment was dyed with madder and red dye from the crushed bodies of kermes insects (rather like cochineal), indigo, sorrel and tannin.
But it wasn’t just the clothes and belongings that were preserved by the permafrost. In the Altai Mountains the ground was too hard to dig graves except in the summer, so bodies were preserved by mummification. The organs were removed and replaced with horsehair, pine needles and larch cones, then sewn up with sinews. The exhibition displays the head of a tribal chief, teeth intact, along with some of his heavily tattooed skin. Nice!
I make textiles, not clothes, as my sewing skills are somewhat basic and I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the glamorous world of fashion. But I was drawn to this exhibition because Balenciaga was more than a designer – he was a sculptor, or engineer, of fabric.
As the exhibition explains, “Most designers start with a sketch and then seek out a material. Balenciaga began with the fabrics and designed around them. ‘It is the fabric that decides’, he said.”
So he collaborated with the Swiss company Abraham to create gazar silk, a lightweight but sturdy fabric that could stand away from the body while retaining his sculptural silhouettes. However, he didn’t rely on fabric alone: as the X-ray behind show, this apparently loose, unstructured tulip dress was supported by a stiff corset and bar tacks under the arms to ensure a secure fit!
This historically inspired silk taffeta evening dress was supported by hoops, and the fabric was “bagged out” so that it filled with air to create more volume as the wearer walked. Less glamorously, the hem was secured with ties just above the knee (seen at the end of the video).
Intriguingly, many of his sculptural shapes were created from a single piece of fabric, like this evening dress.
Not all his sculptural designs were practical – only two of his famous envelope dresses were sold, and one was returned because the buyer couldn’t go to the toilet when wearing it!
Neither were all of Balenciaga’s designs minimalist. He worked closely with companies such as Lesage, who made luxury embellishments and accessories, including the stunning embroidery on this evening coat, made up of white pearls, teardrop and pink feather-shaped sequins, and Swarovski crystals.
Upstairs, the second part of the exhibition features the work of designers who have been influenced by the master, from Huert de Givenchy to Oscar de la Renta.