The exhibition, What Lies Beneath: Women, Politics, Textiles, curated by Naomi Polonsky and Lorna Dillon, explores how textiles can be used to radically comment on society. The exhibition highlights work from the Women’s Art Collection and beyond, by artists who use appliqué, knitting, quilting, rug-hooking, collage and fabric painting to discuss gender, race, and class. But what does it mean to use textiles to explore society? In Fray: Art and Textile Politics, Julia Bryan-Wilson talks about how textiles make politics ‘material’  and that is precisely what this show captures – the material is often the message.
The show opens with Miriam Schapiro’s Madness of Love (1987), a highly decorative work that plays with fabric. The piece showcases Schapiro’s femmage technique in which she used sewing, collage, and appliqué to create unique works that celebrate the work of women artists and makers across time. A commitment to decadent decoration runs through much of Schapiro’s work, revelling in kitsch and craft. Entering the exhibition corridor, this piece glitters as the gold foil catches the light. It is a piece that fully performs its maximalist aesthetic.
An oppositional minimalism is found in the Gee’s Bend double-knit quilt. Big Wheel (1986), made by Stella Mae Pettway of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, takes a geometric design and colour palette of pink, cream and blue as a starting point. On closer inspection, the pink emits a neon quality that signals its 80’s credentials. The Gee’s Bend quilting techniques have been passed through generations of women living in this rural community, where the residents can trace their ancestry back to black people who were enslaved by the Pettway Plantation. The flash of neon takes on a historic context, too, as a signal that the making techniques have been a deep-rooted and communal activity: colours and materials may change but the stitches stay the same. As one Gee’s Bend quilter, Loretta P. Bennett, puts it: “I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together”. In the context of the exhibition, the quilt highlights how women have made, through necessity, across time to tell their own stories both individual and collective.
Bryan-Wilson asks: ‘What does it mean to imagine the sewing needle as a dangerous tool and to envision female collective textile making as a process that might upend conventions, threaten state structures, or wreak political havoc?’ . This question is answered by two pieces by two different collectives – Tejedoras de Mampuján’s Mujer pariendo en el árbol (Woman Giving Birth in the Tree) (2008) and Colectivo Memorarte’s ¿Dónde están? (Where Are They?) (2018). In the former, appliquéd sewn and embroidered fabric scenes come together to depict homes being burnt during the Colombian Armed Conflict. Tejedoras de Mampuján (Mampuján Sewing Group) visited families in the Sucre region of Colombia and listened to their experiences of the armed conflict. Tejedoras de Mampuján collaborated with women in the community to create this piece. This powerful work uses craft to amplify lived experiences of violence and create space for healing through storytelling and collective making.
Feminist art collective, Colectivo Memorarte, similarly use craft to highlight untold stories. Their collective banner ¿Dónde están? (Where Are They?) depicts hands reaching up to hold and touch the silhouettes of people who went missing during the Chilean dictatorship, which ruled from 1973-1990. The group’s piece is a riff on an arpillera, a traditional textile art in Chile that is commonly used in activist movements. On display, the banner is muddied and folded with curled edges and frayed threads, evidence of its time spent in the streets on protest marches. The banner’s wear is unapologetically visible; the collective intended the work to be displayed in this way to ensure that it’s practical and political use is clear. In conversation with Colectivo Memorarte’s protest banner along the wall is Francisca Aninat’s more abstract Arpillera 3 (2008). Constructed from shredded used fabric and newspaper clippings from a market in Santiago, Chile, this abstract work subverts the traditional arpillera, recycling materials to draw attention to its form and the wider social history of textiles.
Aninat’s work aesthetically and conceptually speaks to Enam Gbewonyo’s What Lies Beneath – Empire’s Dark History Revealed (2021), from which the exhibition draws its title. Similarly made with an abstracted impulse, it is only by engaging with the work’s materials that a personal and political story is discovered. Gbewonyo’s pieces asks us to look – hard – at the woven structure where slowly we began to realise it is constructed from recycled synthetic nylon tights. Snags and holes in the fabric precariously reveal ‘what lies beneath’. Gbewonyo uses tights to tell stories of identity, alienation, and becoming, connecting with the experiences of her mother who was an NHS nurse forced to wear thick tights that clashed with her skin tone. Gbewonyo’s art highlights the way that tights have functioned as a protective material for white women, whilst reinforcing a sense of marginalisation for women of colour. The technique is also a reflection of her visit to a small weaving community in her ancestral home of Eweland, Ghana. In threading each of these stories together, Gbewonyo aims to create a space of healing and reflection in a piece that takes time to unfold its meaning.
Collision (2022) by Nengi Omuku might seem to bring us into a more representational space, with an oil painting of two figures but again, close inspection of the material reveals the message. Painting onto sanyan fabric, Omuku explores the historic links of this traditional Nigerian fabric. Delicately made (traditionally, it is woven threads of silk made by wild moths) this material was often worn by wealthy families before colonisation. The supposed luxury of the fabric is destabilised by the two figures who are entwined together on a fiery background. The dreamlike quality of this piece hints at internal trauma and turmoil.
Placed at the end of the show, Anya Paintsil’s Blodeuwedd (2022) is a joyous explosion of tufted wool, alpaca and mohair, synthetic hair and human hair. Paintsil explores her Welsh and Ghanian heritage. Here, like with the Gee’s Bend quilts, technique tells us more. In an interview for Ed Cross Fine Art, Paintsil shared how rug hooking was passed down through each generation in her family for 100 years; her mum’s family are Angley farmers. The use of Afro hair styling also speaks to skills that the artist notes ‘require a lot of intricacy, learning and refining’ but that are often undervalued. In the exhibition, what might look soft in texture is undergirded by a fierce commitment to analysing textile and personal history, combining them together to celebrate the decorative as a subversive tool. Another seemingly playful piece Turbans (2012) by Permindar Kaur uses stuffed toys, though a sense of menace floats out. The sharp, metal beaks might scratch. Leaning into textiles’ sculptural potential, these pieces begged to be plucked from the wall, so that the contrasts of hard and soft materials can be felt through our fingertips.
If there is an outlier to the show it is Nicola L.’s Nous Voulons Voir (We Want to See), (1974-78). Displayed separately to the main corridor across from the entrance to the Murray Edwards College Library, you might blink and miss this unusual and disconcerting piece, made by applying ink on cotton. The text reads ‘we want to see’ mimicking the style of a political banner. Ghostly figures protrude out of the cloth with small holes for eyes and a rounded mouth, as if collectively calling out this chant. In its slightly hidden spot, perhaps the work reminds us that we still need to seek out textile or fibre arts beyond the exhibition – there is more to see.
One of the main successes of the exhibition is that these textiles don’t feel cramped or hemmed in. Many remain unframed, attached to the wall so that the natural flow and line of the fabric can be seen. You can move your head behind some of the pieces, to see the messy underside of making. There is room to get close enough to see each stitch, each fraying edge to revel in the intimacy and power of these pieces, and to reflect on how the material is the message.
This small, intimate yet ambitious exhibition attempts to highlight the undeniable connections between women, politics and textile practices. Though not a new topic, the curators offer a unique array of works made by artists across generations, backgrounds, and geographic locations for viewers to see for themselves the how the history of textiles, women’s work, and society are intrinsically interwoven.
What Lies Beneath: Women, Politics and Textiles is on view at Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University until 28 August 2022.
 Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2017), p.7
 Ibid, p.1
 Miriam Schapiro, “Notes from a Conversation on Art, Feminism, and Work,” in Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work, ed. Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels (New York: Pantheon, 1977), 296.
Review by: Jade French and Suzanna Petot
Jade Elizabeth French is a writer, researcher and curatorial programmer based in Manchester. She recently completed her PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, exploring the poetics of ageing in avant-garde texts.
Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer based in London. She holds an MA in Curating the Art Museum from The Courtauld Institute of Art and has worked at institutions in the U.S, Italy and UK such as Gallerie delle Prigioni, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate Modern, M.I.T List Center for Visual Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her research interests include the history of curating, retrospective exhibitions with living artists, craft and community arts-based practices.