Exploring the geometric art of South America, the exhibition included architecture, painting, sculpture, ceramics and textiles from indigenous communities as well as well known artists.
For me the textile highlight was Brumas, an installation by Olga de Amaral. Layered curtains of cotton thread painted with acrylic and gesso hung in the centre of a darkened room, the colours and shapes changing as you walked around it. And the shadows on the floor were equally fascinating.
There were also some delightful woven bags on show, mostly from Paraguay. In the picture below, those on the top row are by the Nivaklé, who weave by hand but also use a vertical loom. The designs show an Andean influence.
Those in the bottom row are by the Ayoreo, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of South America. Woven from plant fibres or wool, the geometric patterns hark back to Pre-Columbian art.
Also from Paraguay were these wonderful chief’s sticks woven from plant fibres by the Mbyá-Guarani tribe. The light coloured fibres are bamboo, while the darker ones are some kind of creeper. Again, the patterns have been inherited from the Pre-Columbian era.
I also have to mention these vessels by Mexican ceramicist Gustavo Pérez. Although clay rather than textiles, they look as though they could be leather or even paper.
Regular followers of this blog will know that my primary textile interests are to do with form and texture. So I haven’t paid much attention to weaving (although my recent explorations in basketry rely on weaving techniques). Two recent events have punctured this insularity.
Ironically, Albers faced a similar prejudice when she attended the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany, in 1922. Despite its pretensions to equality, women students were often shepherded into the weaving classes rather than painting or sculpture.
But Albers made the most of the hand she was dealt. Weaving, with its warp and weft, admirably fitted in with the modernist grid concept, but by using unusual materials, such as cellophane and metallic threads, her pieces created painterly effects such as the impression of shifting light as well as retaining their texture.
In 1933 the Nazis forced the Bauhaus school to close, and Albers moved to the US with her husband Josef. As well as teaching, she started making “pictorial weavings” – artworks to be hung on a wall rather than used as fabric. I found these to be some of her most interesting pieces, experimenting with twisted warp threads, double warp layers, and gathering yarn to create bobbles.
As well as art textiles, Albers also worked on architectural commissions, including room dividers and window covers for furniture designer Florence Knoll in 1951. These included very open weave lattices in linen that filtered light while also allowing air to circulate.
Albers’ most ambitious pictorial weaving was a memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York. Although she was from a Jewish family, Albers had been baptised as a Protestant and didn’t regard herself as really Jewish. But her piece, Six Prayers, beautifully interprets the Torah scrolls and Hebrew script.
Albers was a master of technique, creating multilayered, highly textured pieces. But she also saw thread as a material she could use to “draw”.
She also turned to more conventional drawing, painting, embossing and printing techniques in a series of entangled knots, one of which was interpreted in this rug.
Albers didn’t keep many sketchbooks, but she did produce lots of samples, which are absolutely fascinating.
Albers is probably best known for her seminal 1965 book On Weaving. The exhibition includes some of the source material she gathered for the book, including woven pieces from around the world.
Anni Albers continues at Tate Modern until 27 January 2019.
On a slightly smaller scale, the other event that made me reassess weaving was the Praktis 2018 exhibition in the lovely Bury Court Farm in Hampshire. Two friends, Barbara Kennington and Lucy Goffin (aka Material Being) were exhibiting some of their exquisite embroidered waistcoats, stitched pictures and paintings.
Also taking part was weaver Ann Richards, who uses high twist yarns to create pleating that happens spontaneously when the fabric is soaked in water. Ann did a demonstration while I was there, putting a small woven piece in a glass of water, whereupon it pleated by itself, apparently by magic!
The pleats instantly reminded me of arashi shibori, and I couldn’t resist buying a bracelet.
The inner three layers were woven from hemp that I bought at the textile market in Belgium. The innermost ball is black, so you can’t see it very well. (Lesson for next time – make the inside ball a light colour!)
The fourth layer was made from paper yarn dyed with onion skins.
And the outer layer was paper yarn dyed with indigo.
With five layers it was even more fiddly to get the inner moulds out, but I got there eventually without destroying the outer layers. I’m not sure I could do any more layers though!
I also had a go at making a random weave cube – this was a harder shape to mould. Because I left open areas it was also harder to photograph, as it’s difficult to distinguish the different surfaces.
After the first basket made with cane, we moved on to working with paper yarn. Here are some samples made by Polly to inspire us.
First we dyed some of the yarn using Rit liquid dyes, which were new to me but are pretty simple to use – just add to water and vinegar, put in the yarn and leave until you’re happy with the colour, rinse and dry.
As before, we made a mould with rice, clingfilm and sticky tape, and created a base layer with some thicker paper yarn. Then we used the thinner dyed yarn to weave into the base layer, using soumak stitch – essentially looping it round a base strand – going in random directions.
You can build this up in the same or different colours. Here’s my piece in progress.
And here’s the finished piece. I didn’t leave the yarn in the Rit dye long enough to get a really dark blue, so I dyed some in indigo. 🙂
I also started on a more ambitious piece but didn’t manage to finish it. Here’s a sneak preview of the beginning – watch this space for a progress report!
At the end of the class we had a display of all the work created over the four weeks – there were some really lovely pieces in paper, cane and wire, as well as some wrapped glass.
After the talk I went to on Japanese baskets I became interested in what I now know is called the random style of weaving. So I jumped at the chance to attend a short course on random weave basketry with Polly Pollock at City Lit.
The course runs for one evening a week over four weeks, so it’s a fairly speedy canter. But Polly provides good handouts of techniques, plus sources of suppliers and further sources of inspiration.
We started by making a cane basket – Polly brought some samples to show us what we were aiming for.
First we made moulds around which the pieces are woven. Obviously they need to be removable once the weaving is finished! We made ours by putting rice into thin plastic bags, moulding them with clingfilm and then firming up with sellotape. The mould needs to be very solid to keep the weave firm.
Then it was on to the weaving. The cane was soaked in hot water for a couple of minutes to make it flexible, and we had to keep it moist with a damp sponge while working with it.
We marked the opening on the sellotape to remind us not to weave over it. Then we started on the first layer, keeping it in place with bits of masking tape, which were peeled off later.
Polly explained the importance of interlocking triangles to ensure that the piece didn’t unravel when we removed the mould. Reassuringly, she said that this had never happened yet in her class!
We didn’t manage to finish the pieces in class, so we took them home and then brought them back the following week to remove the moulds.
This was done by jabbing a metal fid (you can also use a potato peeler or scissors) through the plastic to create a hole through which we poured out the rice. Then we cut up the plastic with scissors and pulled it out with tweezers.
And here’s my first finished piece.
Because we finally had nice weather at the weekend we did a lot of work in the garden. We trimmed back a lot of ivy, so I decided to try making another piece using the ivy stems – waste not want not! 🙂
I had more difficulty removing the mould from this one, as I didn’t leave an opening. But with persistence and some nifty tweezer work I finally succeeded!
Here’s the result:
You can see from the photos that bend at angles rather than curving smoothly – maybe I should have soaked the stems first to try to increase flexibility. But I like the irregularity of the different thicknesses of the stems.
Bamboo is very important in Japan, as an element of simplicity. Before the 16th century, most bamboo baskets were imported from China and used for ikebana in the chanoyu tea ceremony during the summer months. When the Japanese started making their own baskets they were largely copies of Chinese styles and, unlike other crafts of the time, were unsigned. So we know little about the earliest Japanese basket makers.
Hayakawa Shokusai (1815-1897) was the first Japanese basket maker to sign his work, perhaps because he started to combine twining with more open weave techniques to create a more distinctive Japanese style rather than simply copying the Chinese. One of his most unusual works was a Western-style rattan bowler hat!
Basket making seems to run in families. Shokusai’s son also went on to become a basket maker. Tanabe Chikuunsai (1877-1937), who created an art-deco inspired Japanese style, had a son and grandson who also went on to become great basket makers.
According to Joe Earle, probably the greatest basket maker of all was IIzuka Rokansa (1890-1958). Inspired by rustic found objects, he often used smoked bamboo from the ceiling of workers’ houses. He also named all his pieces.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Rokansai also had a son, Iizuka Shokansai (1919-2004), to carry on the tradition. Shokansai was recognised as a Living National Treasure of Japan in 1982.
You sense that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili has a bit of the devil in him. When the Clothworkers’ Company approached him about commissioning a tapestry for their dining room, he sent back a list of conditions – a non-wish list, if you will. He didn’t want to meet them, he didn’t want to see where the tapestry would be hung, and he didn’t want a discussion about the content.
When the livery company agreed to all his demands, Ofili came up with a new ruse. In a fascinating BBC TV documentary following the creation of the tapestry, he twinkles:
“I thought it would be funny to see if the weavers could actually weave water. So I found myself making the watercolour and trying to release the pigment even more and giggling at the fact that it was almost impossible for them to achieve it – there’s no way they’re going to be able to do this! So let’s just sit back and watch!”
And watch we do, open mouthed as, over nearly three years, an amazing team of weavers at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh translate Ofili’s watery triptych of free-flowing colour and grazing charcoal into a shimmering fabrication of wool.
One of the weavers, Emma Jo Webster, explains: “The watercolour’s multilayered, so you’re often looking at the colours underneath to come up through the row as well. So rather than just a block of colour the mixing is very important….If you want to weave something that looks all the same colour but you don’t want it to look flat, like cardboard, you would make a mix of very close colours and then it will just gently look like the same colour.”
Viewing the tapestry close up at the National Gallery, you can see what they mean. Like an Impressionist painting, the flecks of individual colours dance before your eyes, before coalescing into luminous pools of colour bleeding into each other as you move further away.
The central scene could be seen as a modern-day Genesis, with Adam strumming a guitar while languid Eve’s cocktail glass is refilled by a somewhat abstract barman (based on footballer Mario Balotelli!) lurking in a palm tree. Storm clouds loom in the distance, presaging an imminent end to this paradise.
The setting is wonderfully theatrical, and not just because of the male and female figures on either side, holding back the curtains to allow us a glimpse of this intimate tableau.
Around the walls floats a chorus of grisaille dancers, their sinuous voluptuousness and billowing veils straight out of an Indian temple. But many have moustaches and goatee beards – another sign that not is all as it seems?
There’s been a bit of a radio silence as I’ve been on holiday followed by a week or so catching up with website work. And all of a sudden it feels like the run-up to the Christmas sales season, starting with Lambeth Open on 3-4 October, of which more later.
But first I want to tell you about a couple of amazing textile pieces I saw while on holiday. Bamberg, in Bavaria, southern Germany, is a beautiful medieval town that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The cathedral has some splendid sculptures, including the tomb of its founder, Emperor Henry II, and his wife Empress Cunigunde, both saints. Among the scenes from their lives carved by Tilman Riemenschneider on the tomb, there is one of Cunigunde walking on red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence.
But it was in the adjoining Cathedral Museum that I made this wonderful discovery. The star exhibit here is Henry II’s Star Mantle, which was given to him by Duke Ismahel of Bari and dates from 973-1024.
According to the Worshipful Company of Broiderers, “The original 11th century mantle was made of silk twill with medallions of the life of Christ and celestial bodies worked in couched gold thread, with some details in coloured silk in stem stitch. In the 15th century the embroidered elements were cut away and remounted on the current Italian silk damask, so the original placement of the motifs is not known.”
The condition and detail are superb – you can clearly make out signs of the zodiac and other constellations among the medallions.
In the adjoining room was another equally compelling piece of silk, known as Gunther’s shroud. This was given to or bought by Gunther von Bamberg, Bishop of Bamberg, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1064-65, and was buried with him when he died. It was rediscovered in 1830.
Although there is some damage to the piece, the colours are exquisitely preserved, and the figures are in classic Byzantine style, reminiscent of the famous mosaics in Ravenna.
Clearly the best way to preserve textiles is to bury them in a cathedral for 1,000 years!
On a lighter note, here’s a photo of some lace Lederhosen I spied in a shop window – rather more delicate than the real thing. 🙂