Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art

Barbican (London), Feb-May/24

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art exhibition curated by Lotte Johnson and Wells Fray-Smith showcases the works of 50 international artists from the 1960s to today. Contemporary artists incorporate textiles, fibres and thread into their practices, echoing the 1960s fibre art movement in the United States. Wall hangings transitioned into sculptures challenging the boundaries between ‘fine art’ and ‘craft’. Stitching, weaving, braiding, beading and knotting, tell stories that challenge power structures and evoke the subversive potential of textiles.

Installation view Barbican Art Gallery, 2024. Credit Jemima Yong

The exhibition is organised into six thematic sections, the curators found recurring and persistent themes in the artists’ work: challenging binary ideas of gender and sexuality, boundaries, systems of power, marginalisation and trade.

In Ancestral Threads, Cecília Vicuña, Quipu Astral, 2012, installation has lengths of knotted, unspun wool streaming down from the ceiling, the knots a system of writing connect its makers to the cosmos.

Jeffrey Gibson works, Speak To Me So That I Can Understand, We Play Endlessly, both 2018, and People Like Us, 2019 are garments that draw on his Choctaw Cherokee heritage.

Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, from the series Out of Egypt, 2021.

In Entangled Earth, Animita (Spirit House) for Salvador Allende, 1974/2023, Vicuña’s delicate sculptures of found materials, a dialogue between nature and histories of disappearance. Poetic woven memories of resistance and human rights violation, a protest to Pinochet dictatorship.

Solange Pessoa, Hammock (part of 4 Hammocks )1999-2003, bags filled with earth from the orange Brazilian soil, hang in a corner between two walls. Forms resembling body organs, are vessels for living and decaying matter. Pessoa’s work explores the connection between landscape, and human body.

In Fabric of Everyday Life artists repurpose old clothes from their communities. Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach 2, 1990-92 a “story quilt”, symbolises the potential for freedom and self-possession., Sheila Hicks’ Family Treasures (1993) colourful bundles celebrate cherished items surrendered by family. Hicks sculptures challenge the domestic and decorative perception of textiles since 1960s.

Installation view Barbican Art Gallery, 2024. Jemima Yong

Textiles serve as mediums for protest, liberation, and resilience, as seen in works by artists Judy Chicago, Tracey Emin, and Feliciano Centurion.

Textiles convey messages, offering durability, flexibility for circulation, documenting, resisting and protesting against political violence and its forgetfulness.

Teresa Margolles and Zamthingla Ruivah are activist artists protesting against the social causes and consequences of death.

Artists Louise Bourgeois, Harmony Hammond, Angela Su and others use textiles to symbolise the process of healing transferring personal and collective struggles. The tactile nature of the materials and connection to the body permit exploration of pain and recovery. Josė Leonilson embroidered texts on queerness and AIDS reflects his identity and awareness of difference explaining his poetic visual language.

Louise Bourgeois was a pioneering artist who used textiles, a material disregarded by the art world. Her influence on gender and political identity in art is undeniable.

The exhibition delves into violence but also weaves tales of hope through the gentle touch of the materials.

Textiles are with us from birth and throughout our lives. Despite being seen as less important and associated with femininity, Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art aims to challenge this view.

The exhibition runs until 26 May at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Maria Herminia for London Art Walk
April 2024