Stitching over history, memory and collective joy – Stephanie Francis-Shanahan’s living sculptures

A blazer and a skirt flutter in the wind at Pett Level beach in Hastings. On it are pictures of a man and a woman, across time, sown into the fabric and glazed with glue. Words travel through the garment in embroidery and the pink tulle skirt reads: my own darling (image right). As an image, it presents a ghostly figure, embodied by the movement in the wind and the stories woven into the textile. 

Stitching over history, memory and collective joy – Stephanie Francis-Shanahan’s living sculptures

LJ Roberts’ Queer Epics

LJ Roberts (b.1980) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and is known for large-scale textile installations, intricate embroideries, artist books, collages and sculpture. Their work investigates the overlaps of queer and trans politics, alternative kinships, narrative, and material deviance. Daniel Fountain speaks to LJ here about the relationships between craft, identity and queer theory, and how this manifests itself in their practice.

LJ Roberts’ Queer Epics

Interview: Ella Dorton on Craft, Community, and Culture

Back in 2013, when it was announced that Hull would be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an Arts Editor at the Times tweeted ‘Hull for UK City of Culture 2017. *blank*’,  adding, by way of an explanation, that they knew ‘nothing about Hull…nothing at all’. This attitude is, of course, typical of London-centric arts media, but it also speaks of a wider cultural contempt for a post-industrial Northern city that has struggled to find a place and an identity in the twenty-first century. Battling deprivation, economic decline and austerity, Hull has suffered from a lack of opportunities, hope, and vision. The City of Culture year gave its reputation a much-needed boost, as well as an injection of cash and a 365-day diverse programme of events that inspired confidence and creativity throughout the city. Yet some local artists criticised the organisers for focussing too much on big budget spectacles that brought in artists from outside the city and not enough on supporting long-established grassroots arts and culture organisations. Although the media might not know it, Hull has long been a creative city with a distinct voice. Poet Philip Larkin, a resident of Hull for thirty years, summed it up as a ‘a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance’.

Hull-based artist Ella Dorton’s fabric portraits creatively capture the unique spirit of the city’s residents, giving a voice to those who have been left behind by society and, indeed, by the City of Culture year. Using recycled textiles and a collage-based technique, Dorton pieces together images of people in their homes, captured as they sit on the sofa discussing their life stories, dreams, and fears. Through the use of discarded textiles and the depiction of marginalised, working-class people, Dorton challenges the conventions of portraiture; her work disrupts the gallery and picks at the boundaries between art and craft, private and public space.  

For her recent exhibition ‘Journey to the Centre of the Couch (Couches & Other Good Ideas)’, she transformed the Humber Street Gallery into a living room: the stitched fabric scenes were hung to form a long circular wall, creating an intimate space which invited the viewer to get close to Dorton’s subjects and their stories. Cushions and lamps enhanced this atmosphere; Dorton wanted visitors to ‘relax, sit down, and feel at home’. Dorton is skilled at connecting domestic scenes to larger narratives of social inequality, late capitalism and ecological crisis. Her subjects voice their own sense of being implicated in challenges faced by the wider world, with one woman, a recovering heroin addict, explaining that ‘I can relate to the destruction of the planet because of my own destruction of my own body’. Many of Dorton’s subjects express ‘[grief] at the state of the planet’, fear, and depression but there is also a clear sense of hope, recovery, and care running throughout the work. 

Building community is at the heart of Dorton’s practice: she is a founder of Ground, an artist-run workshop and community space, and works on a number of community arts initiatives, including Mad Pride (2017), a project that aimed to ‘talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell’ and ‘bring people together so we can help one another better navigate all this madness and build together a more beautiful world’.

I caught up with Ella to find out more about her practice, methods, and motivation…

 Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Ella Dorton, I’m 28, from Hull. I’m a care-worker, and I co-run ‘Ground’- a community arts and activist space in Hull, with a bunch of friends. I am also an artist! 

Tell us a bit about ‘Journey into the Centre of the Couch (Couches and Other Good Ideas)’, your current exhibition at Humber St Gallery – how did it come about? What inspired you to create this show?

In previous years, I’d been making large fabric portraits of people in my community, as well as fictional dystopian scenes of Hull flooded, an ocean of plastic etc. When Humber street gallery asked me to make some art for a show, I had an idea to combine these two ideas: I wanted to make portraits of people in Hull, and somehow incorporate some fantasy, slipping in bits of our conversations together and ideas they had about the world, in picture or word form. I found my sitters just by asking or being asked, often through Ground and ORTs (a sewing group for vulnerable women). 

I started with a woman called Cassie, who comes to Ground. I went to her house a few times, and we drank tea together, ate a bit, and I drew her and wrote down snippets of conversation we had. Cassie wanted her life describing with 4 animals, which represent different parts in her life: adventuring, her victorious battle with heroin, losing her son. Other people were less pictorial and conversations were directly stitched or painted onto the work.  

Climate change is on my mind, and I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about it through my art for a while. I didn’t expect that it would come out so naturally in many of the conversations I had with people I drew, so the work inevitably became a lot about that, as well as other subjects: motherhood, homelessness, addiction. 

I planned to make 6 of these portraits, and sew them into a circular room that you could relax, sit down and feel at home in [the gallery]. 

 

The use of old bedsheets and scraps of material is so effective, what motivated you to use these textiles? 

The fabric is all used. I like the aesthetic of using worn fabric; when someone gives you a pile of clothes there are loads of colours and patterns in there that I might not have chosen myself, which pushes the work in different directions and gives me a big range to choose from. The worn-out-ness of the fabric matches the worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives. I like to recognise bits in the work….there’s my dad’s shirt, there’s Sally’s scarf, a bit of so-and-so’s sweaty shirt armpit there – and I think other people enjoy this too.

It’s important to me to make art out of scrap instead of buying new stuff. The fabric industry causes something like 10% of all greenhouse gases, the making, washing and disposing of it, as well as loads of other harmful effects on the environment, and the people that make it. 

It also means, of course, that making the art is virtually free (except for glue, thread, and machine upkeep), meaning I can sustain myself on a low wage.

What drew you to the concept of home and the everyday? Do you view the domestic as an inherently political space? 

I like drawing people in their own homes: the home is an extension of someone’s personality, and you can get to know a person through their stuff, their taste in décor, their messiness. In the home, people are in their own habitat, their own territory, and are often more relaxed and up for chatting. They can also seem more vulnerable and exposed, depending on the person and how they feel having someone coming into their space. I make good friends this way. 

I find a lot of beauty in the mundane, and enjoy drawing people doing everyday tasks, eating, cleaning, sleeping – we all do these things (or we should), yet we do them so differently. 

 

I love the way you stitched the voices of the community into the fabric. How important are issues of class and community in your practice?

I was brought up on North Bransholme, which is a council estate in North Hull. It had a bad reputation but it was a great place to grow up, because there was a lot of green space and not many cars. My parents are middle class from the South, and when I was younger I felt embarrassed of that, not wanting to be seen as ‘posh’ (there’s a lot of reverse snobbery going on). I’ve always found class a massively interesting and difficult subject to talk about, I find the diversity in people’s taste and culture in the UK a wonderful and interesting thing. However, I have seen pretty horrendous poverty in Hull, and a whole host of social issues that arise from that poverty and startling inequality. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it through art. The way I’m doing so at the moment is by talking to people and sharing peoples’ stories and ideas about the world. I started by asking my neighbours if I could go round and draw them, as a way of getting to know them and feeling part of a community. People usually seem to quite like being drawn, being seen as ‘art-worthy’ and interesting when often they don’t think they are. It’s exciting to be able to make and show work about these people and their ideas.

Finally, could you describe the work of Ground and what it means to you to be a part of an arts collective & community space? 

I set up Ground with some friends about 4 years ago, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We found out about a building that hadn’t been in use for a good 5 years and needed a lot of attention, and we loved it back to life. Thankfully, a lot of people were up for helping us out, and a pretty solid community around Ground grew. 

It’s situated on Beverley road, which is the main street into and through Hull, a street drinking hot-spot. Ground is opposite a methadone dispensary unit and a giant mattress shop, and next door to a Kurdish shisha bar. It’s an unusual place to have a gallery but we like that as we get a lot of different people through the door.

Ground is a space for art and activism, we run workshops, gigs, exhibitions, talks, and have studios upstairs. I love being part of an arts collective but it’s been hard work, it’s emotionally demanding and the organisational and admin stuff can be heavy at times. The best thing about it is teasing art out of people who think they can’t draw or make things, and collaborating together – the walls and ceilings are jam packed with peoples’ art and words. 


Interview by Lottie Whalen

Interview: Women Architects with Sharon Haward

Eileen Gray
Living room in 31027, Cap Martin, Roquebrune, 1926-1929

Could you give us a little insight into the ‘Homework’ project – who are you and what do you do?

Homework is a research project that I am undertaking with independent curator Clare Sheppeard . Our aim is to twofold, firstly to highlight some of the less visible women artists, designers and architects working in the Modernist style eg Eileen Gray, Lilly Reich, and Charlotte Perriand, and secondly, to work with artists who have been inspired or informed by the ideas and work of these women. Our ultimate aim is to commission new work that highlights how artists respond to architecture as a social space, a place for daydreaming, and as a subjective and creative space.

We are interested in exploring an alternative view to Modernism’s, and specifically to Le Corbusier’s, concept of architecture as a “machine for living”, instead offering a more personal take of the role of architecture and reflecting on Eileen Gray’s notion of architecture as a “protective shell against the world”.

History suggests that the great male heroes of International Style and the Bauhaus had little time for women yet a few voices supported the emergence of women who excelled and were innovators in the field of architecture and design. These women have not always received the credit they deserve and are less prominently featured in histories or exhibitions about this period

Exterior of Eileen Gray’s home. Photograph by Sharon Haward.

Why do you think it is important to tell new stories about women designers? 

There have been exhibitions that highlight the work of Gray (Pompidou, Paris 2013) Reich (MOMA New York, 1996) but women’s stories are still relatively underplayed compared to their male contemporaries and colleagues such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The contributions these women made say something more complex and goes beyond the mere fact of their gender; they offer a whole way of thinking – about scale and the use of materials and functionality. The idea of having built-in furniture, for example, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s was novel, was developed in part by Le Corbusier at the Villa Savoye which has built-in wardrobes, shelves and tables. Yet at E1027 Eileen Gray took this idea in a different more multi-functional direction, making built-in cupboards that are also part of the wall, and a three quarter room height rounded partition wall that is divided horizontally at eye level into white and blue sections, this partition is simultaneously the entrance to the room and forms part of the hallway. Her furniture is light, portable, adjustable and was designed to be moved according to need. She offered the inhabitant autonomy over the placement of furniture. Her famous adjustable table, designed for her sister who liked to eat breakfast in bed, was made of tubular steel and plexiglass, which seems unremarkable today, but if we consider the weight, solidity and volume of nineteenth century furniture, this use of lightweight materials was particularly innovative. It is interesting to note that Aram uses heavier chrome and glass in his reproductions of the adjustable table making it more solid and therefore more worthy of serious investment by his clientele! 

The point here, I think, lies in the historical roles assigned to many men and women until the post war period. It’s also important to recognise that these houses and buildings were designed by and for wealthy people, people who were educated, informed and fully immersed in the modernist project of forging a new rational world. Making progress in a world of increasing industrialization, mass production, evolving new technologies and materials, they were interested in creating better more rational, transparent housing and by extension a more utopian society. But these men (and few women) were often out in the world and absorbing all it had to offer, and many women were not, their social role and function being tied to the home. When some of these women got the opportunity to gain an education and work, they already had first hand experience of being in the home and an understanding of how a house ‘worked’ even though it is unlikely that they were involved in anything that we might call housework. Even so, their attitude to and understanding of interior space, furniture and the functioning of a house/home would have been very different to that of men.

Could you unpack your inspiration for ‘Homework’ a little – what does Eileen Grey’s idea that architecture is a ‘protective shell against the world’ mean for you as an artist/curator?

I have been intrigued by the work of Gray for many years and have recently begun to re-visit her work. What interested me about her furniture and architecture is the way it  was designed for ‘use’ and comfort, and that it was created in response to different physical and psychological needs. Gray’s house in South of France E1027, designed for her mentor  (and some believe lover) Jean Badovici, is designed to make optimum use of the site, the view, the air flow and the passage of the sun so that maximum functionality and comfort is achieved. E1027 embodies a sense of the Luxe, Calme et Volupté made famous in Baudelaire’s poem Invitation to Voyage, the title of which she had stenciled onto the walls of the living room, emphasising her idea of the home as a place of refuge or sanctuary. It is a place to daydream of travel, to sunbathe, a place to disappear into literature and to socialise. There are two extraordinary, articulated shelves that pivot out from the wall and are designed to hold a book in an upright position and that adjust to the position of the reader as he/she reclines in the drift of an off-shore breeze. More functional activities are tucked away, for example there are two kitchens, an outdoor one which is public and for entertaining, and a hidden interior one. 

I am, however, conflicted in my desire to traipse, wide-eyed around these early 20th century ‘follies’.  I spent many years working at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which is a public modernist building by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff. This people’s palace, now contains exhibition spaces for contemporary art, a theatre, a cafe and roof terrace. Its position and orientation towards the sea, its use of good quality materials and perhaps more importantly its scale, makes it an agreeable place to visit. It feels open and calm, it feels hopeful. This building works as a public space, it feels alive and accessible but it hasn’t always been easy to keep it so. 

I am drawn to the idea of architecture as a utopian and progressive development  believing that everyone should have a well designed home that is functional, comfortable, protective and of course affordable. Many people however would be reluctant to live in a modernist  house, though the legacy of built-in furniture and lack of ornamentation is quite standard now. In Oslo I visited the Villa Stenersen, a functionalist villa left by its owner to the nation, but no-one to wanted to live in this glassy, functional, sun lit  house overlooking the Oslofjord , Norwegians preferring something a little more gemütlich .  Houses such as E1027, The Villa Savoye (Outside Paris) Villa Stenersen (Oslo) Villa Sommerfeld (Rotterdam) etc.  appeal to me in a sculptural way, suggesting order and calm. The spaces are both intimate and expansive, the inside and outside blur and blend. They feel like an antidote to a complicated and messy world and temptingly offer the idea of a place where order can be restored, even if only temporarily. Although they embody an optimistic and ordered world and point to a future that never arrives, they never took off because they are un-homely and they are expensive to build on a large scale. They often lack space for individual expression and messy family life, what they offer is a less-is-more totalitarianism.

Homework, as well as suggesting work to be done at home, something that is a bit of a chore, also suggests that the act of making of a home through work – it is more than just architecture, its also about who and what happens within, it is a social space that is a stage for activity, ritual and emotion.

How did you select the films chosen for the De La Warr programme? 

We had been in contact with Rosie Cooper, the curator at the De La Warr Pavilion about the potential for developing aspects of Homework with her. Although we didn’t get funding for the broader project she continued to be really supportive and offered us an opportunity to run one of the screenings at the DLWP to tie in with the Still I Rise exhibition (https://www.dlwp.com/exhibition/still-i-rise/) . We compiled a selection of short films that combined our interest in bodies, architecture and space and the themes of the exhibition which explored the history of resistance and alternative forms of living from the perspective of gender. We wanted to show a range of short films from the last fifty years and included those by well known artists and film-makers like Maya Deren, Chantal Akerman, Ursula Mayer, Liane Brandon and Rosalind Nashibishi and less well known ones like Alex Martinis Roe, Tanya Syed, Amina Ahmed and Sharon Haward. 

La Chambre by Chantal Akerman

How do these films capture different aspects of the domestic? 

The films express many different ways women use and inhabit architectural and domestic space. Each film offers a different viewpoint about the relationship, physical, psychological and imaginary, between the female body and architectural and domestic space.  The films relate these experiences of space in different ways, for example in La Chambre by Akerman shows us a solitary figure just being in a room as the camera pans through 360 degrees, in Nashashibi’s film Vivian’s Garden two women, mother and daughter are seen trapped in their house and garden in Guatemala. Brandon’s Anything You Want To Be uses a bathroom mirror as the focus of a young girl’s confessional confusion about her assigned place in the world and Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon shows a woman moving around her house and hovering between real and dream worlds. 

Vivian’s Garden by Rosalind Nashashibi

Your own work looks at the intersections between performance, assemblage and spaces – how do you approach some of the site-specific work you have done?

In my practice the site is of great importance as it has potential to be both object and subject, it often leads me on a journey to both insight and understanding of the function and history of a space, but it can also lead me on a creative and more playful journey that revolves around finding ways to interrupt, subvert and/or experiment with the space and the narrative of the site.  

My approach is to gather impressions, stories and physical sensations and transform them into something that is new but has its roots in the genius loci. I use photography, sometime video and sound and occasionally text as a way of documenting the space, or getting a sense of place and use them to inform, provoke or inspire a response of riposte. The aim is to create something that offers a new perspective, that interrupts the existing spirit of place but is also something that is rooted in the site. There is a moment when all these strands come together and an intuitive response begins to rise up, when the use of the research, materials and images combine to make a non-verbal manifestation. 

The performance work I do with RUNWAY with artist Roz Cran, is more of a social response to architecture and the landscape, offering up moments of resistance, taking time to stand and stare. We have developed a process of walking for 4-8 miles and inviting people to join us, we walk and talk, meet new and old friends and then stop periodically to stand still for 5 -10 minutes. This moment of stillness is recorded through photography and participants can gain access to the photos via facebook or email. We also regularly raise money for Women’s Refuge by doing this. 

Anything You Want To Be by Liane Brandon

Do you think there’s anything inherently political about interacting with domestic spaces?

This is a good question. I am interested in architecture and how we react and respond to it in and how we think about it. Historically there has been a narrative that promotes the notion that men are architects, concerned with the exterior form and function of a building and women decorate the interior, and that these activities are antagonistic and mutually exclusive, though the distinctions between these approaches are perhaps now less entrenched. 

I became much more aware of the sensory and haptic qualities of buildings after reading Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Eyes of the Skin, and became more interested in the idea of making work that posed questions about the sensory, bodily and psychological power of buildings as well as their functionality. Much of today’s architecture appeals much more to the eye than to the other senses, and pays less attention to how it feels and works for those using it. Yet my first response to architecture, buildings, spaces and sites tends to be ‘how does it feel?’. The initial impression, the light, the clarity of space, the ease of movement, the atmosphere, the use of materials – all these things press on the body and the eye and leave a trace. 

In terms of the broader political implications of architectural design decisions, the disastrous choice of cladding on Grenfell Tower for example, tells us more about the relative values held by those in power and how money is often the only criteria in play. The view of Grenfell Tower from the safe, nice, well designed homes of the wealthy elite who inhabit the borough was considered more important than ensuring those who lived in it were living in safe, nice, well designed and fully functional flats. So the functionality of architecture and how efficiently it works seems to be of much less importance than how it looks and perhaps more noticeably what it signifies ? 

Going back to the 1930’s, the critic, art historian and architectural writer Adolpe Behne’s said that ….only where comfort ends, does humanity begin (Van Herck, 2005, p.123)  further research showed that the modernists were striving for a rational architecture, one of transparency and functionalism – their ideology and consequent designs were a glass framed tirade against bourgeois materialism, convention and, according to Behne the  ‘saugemütlich’ (really cosy). This sense of a moral imperative behind their thinking again seems to leave women very much out of the picture. Their architecture had no place for the messy and complicated needs of the family as an active organism, preferring to create building with a kind of visual clarity and openness. They were often keen to promote the idea of communal living, seeing the family as a typical bourgeois construct, yet the austerity of some their buildings suggest more spartan and monastic tendencies.

What’s your favourite material to work with, and why?

At the moment I am interested in the contrast between rigid structures and fluid forms which at a very simple level explore the tensions between perception of male and female treatment of space and form. The materials used are either sought because they fit a particular form or theme, or they might be found materials that almost direct me towards a certain outcome.  The work investigates ideas and sensations of the body in space, of a body moving though the world in relation to other things like materials, spaces, gender, scale. 

I currently use materials like wood, silk, velvet, paint, which overlap and jostle with each other, outside surfaces folding into inner ones. Different materials are used to describe both the act of construction and the resulting image/object. Recent developments have centred on using fabric to explore the relationship between the fold and form, the result being objects where folds stiffen and sag, where folds envelop and carry some psychological weight. The use of materials, space and orientation is shaped to disrupt the moment of recognition. The key here is to find ways of blurring the gap between architecture and the domestic by inserting something that disrupts both.

By exploring the hierarchy of sculptural materials and sometimes inserting the unexpected into the common place and I aim to create a sensory experience that supplements the visual, where the tactile and phenomenological qualities of the work can appeal to and incorporate the viewers sensibility.


Interview by Jade French

Sharon Haward is a visual artist based in Hastings. Haward’s practice hinges on a response to site and place. She has worked with artists and curators from Europe and UK making interventions and assemblages in galleries and abandoned, empty and public spaces in UK, Belgium, France, Norway and Bulgaria. Find her on Instagram, Axis and at her website.

Interview: Curator Marit Paasche on Scandinavian textile artist Hannah Ryggen

Hannah Ryggen, 1958. Photograph: Klaus Forbregd/NTNU University Library

The Swedish-born Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) was responsible for some of the most daring, radical textile art created in the twentieth century. Ryggen’s life and work were strikingly atypical: a self-taught weaver and committed communist living on a remote, self-sufficient farm in Norway, Ryggen rejected the art market in order to create public art that critiqued the patriarchal, capitalist world order. Her tapestries offer radical responses to the trauma and chaos of modernity, whilst also exploring new ways of living in, and with, the world. Ryggen allows the brutality of the twentieth century to burst through her tapestries’ angular patterns and flat colour fields, raising questions about the politics of modernism and the purpose of art in a troubled world.

Many of Ryggen’s tapestries represents the destruction wrought by fascism and war, but her materials and methods offer the hope of renewal and reconstruction. She dyed wool shorn from local sheep and, by creating every dye by hand, using flora and fauna gathered from around her home, Ryggen quite literally wove the Norwegian landscape into her tapestries. Her commitment to organic methods was such that she would even invite her houseguests to pee in a bucket, as one of her favourite colours, ‘pot blue’, was made using fermented urine! Her work anticipates eco-feminist arguments that urge us to, in Lori Gruen’s words, ‘revalue nature’ and deconstruct the hierarchical dualisms between nature and culture, men and women, human and non-human. Ryggen’s legacy is a modern, feminist art that eschews patriarchal capitalist structures and the masculine, destructive violence of fascism and chemical warfare; instead, she offers us a (much needed) alternative vision of life and creativity. 

As the curator of several exhibitions of Ryggen’s work and author of artist biography Hannah Ryggen: Threads of Defiance, which will be published by Thames and Hudson and University of Chicago Press next month, curator Marit Paasche is responsible for much of the revival of interest in Ryggen. I caught up with Marit to discuss Ryggen’s art, politics, and connection to the Norwegian landscape…

How did you first encounter Ryggen and what drew you to her work?

I grew up in Trondheim, a city in the middle of Norway which also possesses the biggest collection of Hannah Ryggen’s works ( at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum). So, I saw her works there for the first time when I was around twelve. Many years later, in 2009, I was reminded of her tapestries by some students and a colleague of mine at the Art Academy in Oslo, and I went to see them again. This time, Ryggen’s tapestries nearly knocked the wind out of me. It was obvious that her work was distinctive, by both national and international standards and they had this rare quality of being both personal and political, in a very explicit, yet original way.  

Seven years later, I published, Hannah Ryggen. En fri, as it is titled in Norwegian (published as Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance in English in September). During this same period I also curated several exhibitions in which her work was represented alongside both contemporary and older art. These exhibitions, and the attention they received, proved to me that Ryggen’s art is relevant to our time and to contemporary art. But why have her works begun to breathe again? To answer this question, I believe it is important to understand the circumstances in which her art was made. That is why I set out to uncover and write about the origination of Ryggen’s artworks– how they related to their own age, to lived life and to the ideas and trends of their era. For Hannah Ryggen, life, art, work and politics were one, and her sensitivity to connections between people, places, politics and social conditions are manifested in her weaving and in the vast body of written material she left behind. 

Ryggen was such an unusual and unconventional figure, in terms of her life and her art. How do you think she understood her place in both the art world and the wider socio-political world?

This is a very interesting subject because she clearly understood herself as a citizen of the world, even if she lived on this remote coastal area in the middle of Norway, and she also had this enormous confidence in art; with art she was capable of saying anything. Her way of relating to art felt very liberating for me. She also strongly believed in the impact of raising one’s voice and when you think of it; politics is always focused on the future, where its consequences lay. When she made her tapestries in protest against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935); of Hitler’s increasingly inhumane way of governing (1936) or the role of USA in the Vietnam war (1966), it was as a statement to the future. Hannah Ryggen’s artistic legacy reminds us that art is a part of public life and inextricably bound to politics. 

6 October 1942/ 6. Oktober 1942 (detail; 1943), Hannah Ryggen. Photo: Anders S. Solberg/Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum. © Hannah Ryggen / DACS 2017. Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag.

Why was the Norwegian landscape so important to Ryggen?

Norway doesn’t have a long tradition of painting, but it does have a very long tradition of weaving. When Hannah Ryggen arrived in Norway in 1924, she had already decided to quit painting and start weaving instead. It took her a decade to master the medium, and when I say master, I mean composition (often with respect to an outsized scale), carding, spinning, weaving techniques and, not least, making dyes from plants. It is also worth mentioning that she didn’t use any sketches or cartoons, but wove guided solely by an “inner image” ––she treated the warp like a canvas.  

Extracting colors from the natural terrain that surrounded her and controlling the sophisticated chemical processes that rendered the colors stable over time was the result of laborious experimentation, and after a while Ryggen came to know the land by heart and also how to extract colors from it. So although we rarely find the Norwegian landscape depicted, it is present in the very material; the linen, the wool and the great variation of natural dyes. Once she had this knowledge at her fingertips, she felt free to express herself.   

You could say Hannah Ryggen brought all of her painter’s knowledge and political fervor to bear in her weaving, but also a pictorial language partly derived from folk art.Also, the other (male) artists of the 1930s and 1940s acknowledged her talent and treated her as an equal. This made it possible for her to establish herself as one of the most renowned artists of her time in Scandinavia. 

Ryggen’s communist beliefs and self-sufficient lifestyle are so interesting in the context of the crises we face today – the climate catastrophe, rising fascism, and a widening gap between the super-wealthy and the poor. What can her work teach a contemporary audience? 

Throughout her career as an artist, Hannah Ryggen actively used her works as statements to society. She never considered the task of responding to events occurring around her to be anyone else’s obligation; she shouldered this responsibility herself. She took stock of her own life, and questioned generally held views about the role of women in society, poverty, economic injustice and inequality, and international conflicts caused by the rise Fascism in Europe.

Together with Will Bradley, I curated an exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo in 2011, with six of Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Cahun and other more contemporary artists like Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Ruth Ewan. On the 22 July, just a few weeks after the show closed, the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, detonated a car bomb just in front of the Highrise building in the governmental quarter, killing eight people. He then drove to the island of Utøya, about an hour outside of Oslo, where, dressed as a policeman, he shot and killed sixty-nine people at the summer camp of the Labour Party’s youth organization, most of them teenagers. This was a traumatizing shock to all Norwegians. We were suddenly reminded of the consequences of normalizing racist thoughts and ideas in public. 

One of Hannah Ryggen’s most iconic works, We are Living on a Star (1958), hung in the main entrance hall the of the Highrise, close to the blast. But the tapestry withstood the explosion because it is so pliant and relatively light, it only received a gash in the lower right corner, which conservators have now repaired. That this tapestry, which so powerfully proclaims faith in love as a personal and political force, should be struck in the first major attack on Norwegian society since the Second World War is now manifested by a trace, a visible scar in the bottom right corner. The scar is a reminder that no political struggle is ever concluded; they must be fought again and again.

Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), 1958, textiles, 4 × 3 m,  Courtesy: Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim, Norway

There is a huge revival in women artists, and, particularly, textile art, at the moment – as well as Ryggen, I’m thinking of recent exhibitions of artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Anni Albers, Frida Kahlo, and Faith Ringgold – why do you think this is and how do we stop it being simply a passing trend?

I think it is quite interesting to see that we have had a period of revitalized interest in ‘female’ artists.  Embracing the idea of the under-recognized female artist has become a popular international trend in recent years and I support this work because it is a correction of an extremely male-dominated account of modernism. I think we have just reached a period in history where it is no longer possible to ignore the work of so many extremely talented female artists. 

When I was working on Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance I came across a poem by the Irish poet Eavan Boland called ‘A Woman Painted on a Leaf’. It describes her longing for poems that have no beautiful young women in them. She writes: ‘I want a poem I can grow old in / I want a poem I can die in.’ Those lines hit me, and I think Hannah Ryggen’s work triggered in me a similar longing—for a different kind of art history. The sum of my research and work in diverse areas of contemporary art has taught me that there is so much great art that does not fit into an art history dominated by canons. So, to paraphrase Boland: I was longing for an art history I could live in: an art history with enough space to contain life and all the hard work, strange experiments and coincidences we know are the basis of all art. 

As to how we prevent the newly found interest in female artist from being merely a trend, I would respond: By looking closely at what public and private institutions acquire, and how female artists are represented in the collections. If they are not well represented, then it is our responsibility to make it heard, again and again. My other concern is how we write art history. This is of course closely connected to collections and to exhibition-practice, but we need to make art and art history an important issue for all citizens, not just leave it to the marginal field of academics. We need to find new ways of writing art history. This is what I have tried to do in Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance.

Ryggen doesn’t easily fit the ‘marginalised woman artist’ narrative, and, in her lifetime, she was reluctant to engage with the art market. In your opinion, how do we respect and do justice to the legacy of this sort of artist (I’m particularly thinking of the commercialisation and fetishisation of Kahlo, also a communist artist)?

No, the ‘marginalised woman artist narrative’ cannot be applied to Hannah Ryggen, and it is interesting to note how, in lifting female artists out of obscurity and focusing attention on their greatness, we almost automatically assume that these women – be it Carol Rama or Hilma af Klint – were marginalized or overlooked in their own time. In many ways, “forgotten” has come to mean “marginalized”. Initially, I made the same assumption myself about Hannah Ryggen. But when I sat down and went through the archival material, I was proven wrong. As opposed to many of her female artist-colleagues, Ryggen was proclaimed a genius by a number of art critics—mostly male—in the 1930s; she exhibited on a regular basis internationally, and her success was indisputable. 

Another very important aspect of her oeuvre was, as you mention, her reluctance to engage with the art market. When she first came toØrlandet, Hannah Ryggen made and sold craft items as a source of income, but she stopped doing so around 1933. Meanwhile, the large-scale weavings were extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and her art was for a long time an economic drain on the family. During the 14 years from 1926 to 1940 Ryggen earned merely 3000 Norwegian crowns from her tapestries, just a little more than the annual average salary. And yet, despite extremely difficult means, Ryggen never compromised: not only did she give up making and selling crafts, she also more or less refused to sell her monumental weavings to private buyers. She wanted her works to be public statements, and for that reason felt that they should be publicly owned and hang where all citizens had access to them. And because of this, most of her major works are in public collections in Norway and Sweden today, which makes the art works available on a completely different level than works owned by private collectors.  

When you try to make an artist known there is always an element of commercializing involved and it is difficult to balance the need for attention and the message presented. I have tried to make visible all the myth-making related to Hannah Ryggen ––she was responsible for some of it herself too–– and also to avoid all kinds of exotification, simplifications and attempts at heroic storytelling. 

Hannah Ryggen: Woven Manifestos is at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt from 26 September – 12 January 2020.

Interview by Lottie Whalen