Curatorial Insights with… Naomi Polonsky

Naomi Polonsky is the Assistant Curator at The Women’s Art Collection , a permanent collection of modern and contemporary art by women held at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. Walking into Murray Edwards College, artworks hang all around. There’s an Anni Albers sketch by the bathrooms, a Tracey Emin drawing in the reception. The collection numbers over six hundred paintings, works on paper, photographs and sculptures which are on display throughout the College and its gardens. We spoke with Naomi about her latest exhibition, What Lies Beneath: Women, Politics, Textiles, to find out more about how textiles play a role in the collection, the political power of craft, and curating in this unique space –––

Decorating Dissidence: First of all, could you tell a little bit about how the idea for the exhibition developed?

When I started a maternity cover position for the curator, I was told that I could have the next exhibition programme slot and basically do whatever I wanted with it. I immediately thought of doing a textile exhibition because I’d done studio visits with some emerging artists who were doing really interesting and inventive things with textiles. I co-curated the exhibition with an academic, Lorna Dillon, who specialises in Latin American textile practices, which has hugely enriched the exhibition, given it a new dimension, and contextualised a work that we have in the collection by a Chilean artist, Francisca Aninat.

So I began the exhibition research by looking to see what textile works we had already in the collection – and I was surprised that there were very few. We have some brilliant works by Miriam Schapiro, Permindar Kaur and Francisca Aninat. But they were it, really. I thought this was surprising because textiles are so fundamental to women’s art practices and art history. I decided this would be a really interesting medium to explore – and I wanted to select works that showed lots of different types of techniques. I also wanted this show to represent an intergenerational group of artists and to demonstrate the way in which specific works are rooted in their time, but also that textile techniques have been passed on through generations of women.

DD: How did you expand an understanding of ‘textile’ through different techniques included in the show?

The exhibition includes collage, fabric painting, knitting, quilting, rug hooking, appliqué, and embroidery to name a few…there are so many different techniques within the textiles medium. The common thread through the works is an underlying political meaning, whether that’s exposing human rights abuses on a global level or sharing personal experiences. I think that’s true of many textile practices – that they have multiple layers of meaning and hidden political messages, because women have used them in quite coded ways.

DD: Why do you think textile art has been so associated with political action?

NP: Well, I think that textile as a medium is very democratic, because most people have access to the materials that are used in textile art, and textile objects surround us in our everyday lives. Erika Silva, a founding member of Colectivo Memorarte who are modern day Chilean arpilleristas, said that the group’s use of found materials reflects their view of society, which is that all of these materials are equal and worthy of respect – just as all people are equal and worthy of respect.

On top of that, textile materials have been available to women throughout history in a similar way to how many women have created self portraits because they were barred from life drawing classes but they always had access to their own image. Similarly, the textile materials and techniques that were taught to them were available and therefore became a platform to communicate political messages and meanings.

DD: How do longer histories of subversive craft play a role in the exhibition?

NP: The curatorial assistants on this exhibition and I did a workshop at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The curator of Applied Arts there, Helen Richie, showed us textile works from many different regions and time periods. And in lots of those works, there are hidden messages – for example, in a Victorian sampler that she showed us. Samplers are slightly dismissed as being an art form made by young, middle class women, which are quite staid and traditional, but they often carried covert messages. So I think politics really pervades works in that medium.

DD: As we came in, we noticed there is a work by Nicola L on a staircase separated from the rest of the show. Did you feel like you had to set it apart in a very different context, because you have to go up and travel to see it? Did you think about how students go around and use the space? It’s an interesting space [the College] to have to curate when you consider the practicalities of shaping the show, once you had the theme and the artworks that you knew you wanted to display…

NP: Something that I was very conscious about was the emotional journey of the visitor and having a narrative as you walk down and see the works. Some works are paired visually, even if they’re quite distinct in terms of their makers and their meaning. For example, Permindar Kaur’s work is placed next to the Tejedoras de Mampuján work, in a pairing which highlights that both have a sculptural quality.

I wanted to open with the Miriam Schapiro work, which is the first piece that you see, and then end with her quote as a kind of bookend to the exhibition, which shows her significance to the overarching message. I thought that her quote would sit well alongside Anya Paintsil‘s work, even though Anya is living in a very different time. She’s also the youngest artist in the exhibition but her practice speaks strongly to what Schapiro was doing decades before.

When it came to the Nicola L work, I thought that it would be nice for the exhibition to extend beyond the walkway and signal to people when they’re coming into the college that this exhibition exists, and that they should go and see it. So it kind of alerts people to the fact that this exhibition is there, because you could quite easily miss it or just see it from afar because of the architecture of this building. It’s a very provocative work to have amongst the other works in the collection – so it’s in conversation with the existing collection, but also signalling the temporary exhibition.

DD: Could you pull out some of the distinctions between these works as craft objects, as fibre art and as decorative pieces. Do you see a difference between those delineations?

NP: Oh, that’s such an interesting question. Miriam Schapiro’s work is obviously very decorative – and she’s consciously making reference to the stage and performance. The work reminds me of ballet russes stage designs, and that might well have been a reference for her because her father was a Russian-Jewish refugee. That was her artistic lineage and she’s using decorative materials like sequins and gold thread to signal that. Elsewhere, the Gee’s Bend quilt-makers piece is a textile that’s made into a craft object initially used for a functional purpose to cover beds and keep out the cold.

DD: Even when you have a textile piece that is of use, it’s still decorative. I think that’s why it’s so interesting to think of these separate ways we can think about not just textiles, but any real craft object, it’s got so many different tones, or this kind of conveying, and placement is such an important part of its story.

NP: The question of placement and the decorative relates really interestingly to this collection because there have been times when people have treated the works as interior design! The collection has not always been considered a museum collection, sometimes more like a group of college acquisitions, which are dictated by personal taste. In some ways, its setting in its building is an equaliser and gives the collection a unique personality. But the flip side to that is that people sometimes don’t view the collection on the same level as collections in more traditional museum spaces.

DD: I suppose maybe another twist on that question is how do you tap into the tactile and haptic nature of craft? It’s something that this exhibition does really well – although there are some pieces behind glass, the viewer doesn’t feel too separated. You still feel involved with these textiles…

NP: The fact that we’re able to do that is because it’s in this living and working environment. And also, we weren’t borrowing from museums, which sometimes stipulate that we have to have barriers. For example, we learned this lesson from the Arts Council Collection. In our last exhibition, we displayed some photographs in ornate gilt frames, which the artist specified were an intrinsic part of the work. Because of that, the Arts Council Collection had categorised them as sculptures – so they had to be behind a barrier – when other photographs were able to be shown without one.

DD: Finally – what do you see for the future of the Women’s Art Collection? 

NP: It’s a really exciting moment for the collection. We have reverted the collection back to its original name – The Women’s Art Collection – to emphasise its founding aim of promoting women artists, and being a forum for discussion about women’s art history.

I think that we can be increasingly ambitious with our exhibitions and events. I like the idea of doing exhibitions that examine mediums or genres that have particularly touched women’s art practices.

That’s something that we’re able to do well, and the fact that the collection is in an academic environment, but open to the public means that we can bring in lots of different types of visitors. There’s enormous appetite in Cambridge for cultural events – and what we have is an extraordinary resource, artistically and academically. So, I hope that there are lots of exciting and interesting things ahead!

This interview took place in May 2022 at Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University with Jade French and Suzanna Petot.