‘Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed’ – Anni Albers, ‘Material as Metaphor’ (1982)
2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Bauhaus, an experimental German art school that sought to reimagine the role of art and design in everyday life. Walter Gropius, the school’s founder, declared that the Bauhaus would welcome everyone ‘without regard to age or gender’, but women students soon discovered that they had little choice but to join the weaving workshop. Despite the school’s progressive, egalitarian ethos, in practice it reflected the gender bias prevalent in the European art world and society as a whole. Gropius believed that women – ‘the beautiful sex’ – thought in ‘two dimensions’ and so were only suited to weaving; by contrast, men – ‘the strong sex’ – thought in three dimensions and were therefore naturally suited to painting, architecture, and design. The workshop members, such such as Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl, Otti Berger, Benita Otte, Michiko Yamawaki, and Lily Reich, soon proved Gropius wrong: through their skill and pioneering vision, they made the weaving workshop a radical site of experimentation and innovation that would have a lasting impact on art and design over the course of the century that followed.
For Weave It!, an exhibition held at Stour Space in Hackney Wick in November 2019, Decorating Dissidence assembled 13 contemporary artists whose practice takes the avant-garde legacy of the Bauhaus weaving workshop in bold new directions. Taking aesthetic, political, and conceptual approaches to the act of weaving, we brought together works that considered the legacies of craft from modernism to the contemporary through a variety of approaches to making that touch on wider themes of process, movement, and form, as well as notions of community and collective building. We were interested in drawing out what Albers’ refers to as the ‘ever-extending relationships’ that open out from ‘the event of the thread’ – whether through socially-engaged community art practice, acts of assemblage that draw us closer to our environment, or dynamic dialogues between traditional and digital modes of making. Weave It! took the viewer on a journey, from the geometric forms and minimalist rigor of the Bauhaus, to tactile e-textiles and the ‘digital stratum’ on which our everyday lives are now built, placing modernism in dialogue with explorations of intimacy, migration, and community.
The works displayed in Weave It! each demonstrated a strong spatial element that keyed in to Albers’ interventions in the built environment in projects such as sound-proof wall-hangings created for Hannes Meyer’s auditorium and Six Prayers (1966-67), a memorial for the Jewish Museum in New York. Visitors to Weave It! were first met with striking textile works by Michelle House and Hannah Waldron, artists whose graphic hand-crafted pieces translate the dynamism of modern architecture into fabric designs. Fiona Curran’s work was placed in dialogue with House and Waldron, drawing out the ways that Curran is similarly interested in developing the ‘slow process’ of needlepoint in ways that speak to the ever-evolving material world around us. Curran’s screen-sized pieces (with vibrant colour-palettes inspired by the screens of digital devices) consider the role of technology in mediating our experiences. How the data arrange themselves (2017) and Radiator Assembly (2017) are tactile works that reinsert traditions of abstraction and decorative art into the contemporary by tapping in to the patterns, codes, and data that make up the architecture of everyday life in the twenty-first century. Seungwon Jung Digital Strata #2 (2019) and companion piece Mound (2018) also mediates between the digital and material realms to examine human existence in relation to our vast and ultimately unknowable environment. Jung’s interdisciplinary practice combines handcraft and technology both to collapse time and space and draw together the domestic and the global: working from a digital image of a geological strata, she computer-generates a textile pattern, and then creates a hand-knotted rug (Mound) from the original digital image – ‘a pixel transforms as a cell of the textile pattern, then as a knot of the rug’. In this way, Jung digitises the ‘event of the thread’ to offer a fresh perspective on the complex interconnections between daily life and the vast geological history of our planet.
Many of the works displayed in Weave It! focussed on unravelling and examining the ties that connect us to the world. Through her assemblages Those Long Hot Summers (2017) and Batik Orifice (2017), Madi Acharya-Baskerville considers where the boundary between the organic and manufactured lies. Weaving together natural materials and discarded items, her work foregrounds surprising juxtapositions that comment on the lifespan of objects as well as the transformation of our environment as a result of excessive waste and consumption. Kristen Kong also works with discarded materials, transforming leftover pieces from the plastic manufacturing process into vibrant woven sculptures. In Wilderness (2017), Kong knits together discarded plastic sprues, coloured acetate strips, and LED lights to create a magical glowing structure that illuminates the space around it. Kong’s work evokes Albers’ innovative use of cellophane in her wall hangings, remodelled to reflect a world struggling with the damage caused by plastic pollution.
Journeys and movements across real and imagined landscapes recurred as a theme elsewhere in Weave It! Betül Aksu’s soundscape installation yürüme takes the listener on a journey through language, weaving recorded speech to imagine the ‘pure’ language of the mind. Manamou (Mother Mine) (2019) – a hand-woven textile installation by Majeda Clarke and Charlotte Bainbridge – commemorates the journeys of members of the Citizens of the World Choir, refugees and migrants building new lives in London. Each person contributed a small item or trinket that reminded them of home, which were then arranged onto the silk panel designed by Clarke and Bainbridge. This narrative work serves as a visual record of community, mixing collective memory with notions of home and belonging. Clarke views textile design as ‘a space where storytelling, making and memory meet’, and this is evident in her wall hanging Albers, Rose (2019) which was also on display in the exhibition. Combining geometric modernist designs with traditional techniques from regional communities in Wales and Bangladesh, Clarke’s textile works map new, global histories of design.
Clarke’s interest in the myriad ways that textiles bring us closer to one another is picked up on by many of the other artists who were part of Weave It! Güzel Derman (Beautiful Cure), a documentary by Nataša Cordeaux, Cheyenne Ritfeld, and Ricarda Theobald, offers an intimate glimpse into the women’s weekly handcraft workshop at Derman, a charity that promotes health and well-being among Turkish and Kurdish refugee women in Hackney, London. The viewer becomes a silent part of the knitting circle, watching as the women weave stories, songs, and craft to create a space of care and community. Craft becomes an act of collective place-making, reminding the viewer of the ways that, through acts of making, our lives become embedded in larger social narratives.
Like Majeda Clarke, Sarah-Joy Ford uses textiles to uncover hidden histories and model narratives of closeness and connection. Her quilt Sixteen Love Poems (2018) is an intimate, tactile work inspired by depictions of love between women on screen, which are embroidered on the fabric. Love Songs exemplifies Ford’s concern with the liminal spaces between the public and the private, intimacy and exposure, oppression and freedom of expression. Sophie Skaach and Naa Teki’s intensely tactile work Text and Illes (2017) also encouraged the viewer to come closer. Consisting of jumpers woven from conducive yarn, this is an interactive installation that responds to the visitor’s touch with audio recordings of poems. Text and Illes foregrounds textile’s narrative dimensions, drawing attention to the stories woven into the materials that make up our everyday lives.
Weave It!’s key themes and concerns were strikingly writ large during the exhibition’s launch night, through multi-disciplinary artist Raisa Kabir’s workshop and sound-led feminist performer Julie Rose Bower‘s sonic installation. With Two Loom Cloth, Kabir staged an active, participatory weaving workshop in which two people wove together on a back-strap loom. This collaborative act of making opened up wider explorations of spaces of care, contemplation and healing. More interested in process than product, Two Loom Cloth provided a space for participants to reflect on the movements of their bodies, the embodied relationship between their hands and the woven materials, and the tension and energy moving between themselves and their co-weaver. Kabir’s workshop suggest the collaborative spirit of the Bauhaus weaving workshop whilst also encouraging us to think beyond the systems of labour and commerce that modernist design is often associated with.
Julie Rose Bower staged an embodied, tactile performance to a very different effect. Ticket to America, an installation monitoring the live-crochet of a curtain of sound, used the trans-migratory sonic processes of craft to situate the physicality of making in a wider exploration of migration and creation. Bower chose the name of the performance as a reference to the description of Albers’ sonic curtain as her ‘ticket to America’. The movement, resonance, and echoes of Bower’s piece evoke Albers’ journey from the Bauhaus to the Black Mountain College, where her teachings influenced – and continues to influence – generations of textile artists.
Through Weave It! Decorating Dissidence aimed to both celebrate and challenge the legacies of the Bauhaus. The exhibiting artists demonstrated the fundamental influence of the Bauhaus and the crucial (but long overlooked) impact of its weavers on the trajectory of textile art through modern and contemporary art. However, their work highlighted the gaps and acts of appropriation that are also frustratingly integral to so much avant-garde art. Weave It!’s exhibition of works that explore migration and movement, ethical acts of making, and moments of regeneration, renewal and interconnection suggests new narratives of art that acknowledge silent voices and hidden histories. Through a diverse range of practices, each artist embodies the pioneering spirit of the Bauhaus weaving workshop by expanding on its experimental practices to weave narratives that reflect the world we live in today.
Words: Lottie Whalen
Exhibition Photography by Leo Garbutt.