Exhibition Review: Aria – Tomás Saraceno

On hearing the words ‘interactive art exhibition’ it is easy to imagine a proliferation of Instagram-friendly pieces, perfectly pitched for an oft-dismissed millennial audience. There’s nothing wrong with interactive installation. These kinds of shows can get us excited about art, centre installation-based practices, and ask us to think about the dynamic between viewer/artist. Although there is, arguably, a difference between programming Yayoi Kusama and calling an adult ball pit an art installation. Which is all to say that Tomás Saraceno’s (San Miguel de Tucumán, b. 1973) installation work at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi straddles the line between high-concept ideas and Instagram friendly aesthetics. A combination that seeks to introduce the viewer to climate activism whilst serving gorgeously engorged balls, plant-filled terrariums, and aero-dynamic light displays.

There are two stand-out pieces I’d like to focus on in this review, both of which explore the role of the spider’s body in producing material that can be repurposed in art. ‘Sounding the Air’ (2018) and Webs of At‐tent(s)ion’ (2020) make the most of the silky, bodily expulsions they centre. Using sound, light and recording equipment, Saraceno gives new meaning to the cobwebby, the dusty, and the eerie.

Sounding the Air (2018). Image: Artist & Esther Schipper.

‘Sounding the Air’ (2018) is constructed out of spider silk and carbon fibre with a microphone, transducer, speakers, lights, computer and camera all working to capture something magical. This aeolian instrument is played by the wind and, as we sat watching five delicate silken threads move, I realised they were being buoyed by the audience, too. Three children sat next to me, giggling and shifting in their seats. The impact could be felt on the strings in front of us. As a big group left the room, the threads began to slow and the sound produced become more drone-like. It was a ‘collective creation’ (as the wall text put it) and a beautiful recreation of the way in which spiders move, ‘ballooning’ across spaces as they move between locations. A later work ‘Aerographies’ (2020) also relied on this nuanced audience participation. Balloons with pencils attached are left to their own devices, to be tugged and pulled as the air dictates. As I wafted past one of the balloons it skipped across the page, dragging the pencil beneath it. The idea that we are invisibly connected to all aspects of the world was simply, but forcefully, underlined in this final piece in the show.

It was the work that centred the spider and the spider’s body that had the largest impact. Five metal structures holding intricately woven spiders webs, created by different spiders over time to demonstrate different techniques from different species. The art-world-talk title ‘Webs of At‐tent(s)ion’ (2020) was difficult to grasp at first but the structures speak for themselves. Delicate gossamer filaments and threads, lit like movie stars so that each line glistens. They stand in three-dimensional glory as you rotate around each sculpture. The spider’s web is inextricable from the spider’s body as they create a sensorial connection that send and receive vibrations to the eyes, ears and mouth of each spider, as well as providing its home. Each spider is listed as a collaborator on Saraceno’s website reminding us that nature creates art, everyday. In fact, the woven patterns that we mimic in craft and making practices are a homage to the biological patterns we pass by and through.

In dialogue with our last issue on ‘Witch/Craft’, Saraceno has created his own tarot-inspired cards from nature’s motifs. The ‘Arachnomancy Cards‘ (2019) are a meditative divination tool to consult spider/web oracles. Inspired in part by the practice of nggám, or spider divination, in the Mambila tribe of Cameroon and Nigeria, during which questions are posed to spiders, on the ground, who move the cards with their vibrations. Asking nature questions about the future is a powerful way to question human authority in the world.

Throughout Aria, Saraceno seeks to remind us at every point that ‘carbon emissions fill the air, particulate matter floats inside our lungs while electromagnetic radiation envelops the earth’. Our focus in light of the current pandemic and climate change should be collective action and care. For a show concerned with bio-material, bodies and the transaction between dust, air and space it’s perhaps fitting that Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi will remain closed until 3rd April, due to the Italian authorities decree to stop the spread of Covid-19. Much has been made of the global reaction to coronavirus vs. a perceived apathy towards climate change. That we stockpile groceries, cancel flights and curtail our carbon footprint in the face of potential, individual infection lends greater weight to Saraceno’s comment that we should focus ‘less on individuals and more on reciprocal relationships’.

Aria, Tomás Saraceno is at Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 19th July 2020

Words: Jade French

Review: Tools for Life – Johanna Unzueta

‘I grew up working with my hands’, recalls Johanna Unzueta. ‘My mum always said I learned to weave and knit before I learned to read and write. Hands are tools for me and I can’t disconnect that.’

Unzueta’s work is the product of the artist’s lifelong commitment to that connection between the body and processes of making. Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile, lives and works in New York) explores the impact of labour on the human condition. Tools for Life, a new exhibition of her work at Modern Art Oxford, is the result and embodiment of this research.

Suspended from the ceiling of the first gallery is a nine-metre-long interlocking chain, a magnified piece of industrial machinery, recreated in natural felt. Each part is based on the measurements of Unzueta’s body. Surrounding it are sculptures of piping and taps, also in felt, hand-dyed with indigo. In a culture of excess, where human labour and natural resources continue to be exploited to further an unsustainable future, Unzueta encourages us to consider processes of production and the people that participate in them.

Johanna Unzueta, Related to Myself, 2019-20. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.

Calling her art practice her ‘trade’, Unzueta offers her work as a process of manufacturing. She continually re-adapts works, such as Related to Myself which, in a first iteration, she scaled on the measurements of her hands. Curiously and respectfully re-manufacturing, she physically enacts on a small scale the wider-scale labour-reliant processes she is exploring. She says of the often-natural materials she uses: ‘how I manipulate these materials is as important to me as what is being represented. In this sense the notion of labour does not only exist in a social and historical context, it is present in the fabrication of each artwork.’ Her hands the tools of her labour, she ‘crafts’ her own body into each work, an embodiment she suggests occurs in all labour processes. The humanity – the organic integrity of the maker – is absorbed into the product.

Johanna Unzueta, My Tears Started a Rain / The Darkness of the Sea Open My Eyes (detail), 2020. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby 

Johanna Unzueta, Related to Myself, 2019-20. Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.

Taking apart hardware and machinery to study their structures, Unzueta recreates them precisely using organic materials. Hand-cut and hand-sewn by the artist, the felt is sourced from a 200-year-old family company. Unzueta shapes the links and hinges of industrial components with her hands, using pattern-cutting techniques leaned from the women in her family, and the natural dyeing processes of craftspeople in Chile and Guatemala. Her sensitivity to raw materials in the context of examining machinery draws attention to the humanity in the industrial, the products of her hands alluding by extension to the hands of unacknowledged producers generally. Far from simply critiquing mechanisation, Unzueta suggests that people, incorporated into the machinery she recreates, make an active and permanent human mark on the products of their labour. 

Using natural materials and craft techniques, she challenges our expectations of the structure, texture, and weight of mechanical objects. She destabilises distinctions between human and machine, function and aesthetic. Distinctive to Unzueta’s work is her emphasis on the co-existence of function and vitality. The chain, like the once-mobile skeleton of a prehistoric creature, or the pipes which promise the possibility of running water, pulsate with the potential for life. Unzueta’s works are dynamic, emanating the life incorporated into them by the process of their production. Her own vitality is absorbed particularly by her freestanding drawings – a colourful forest of abstract geometries – which constitute the marks made by the movements of her body.

Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby.
Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life, installation view at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Ben Westoby
Johanna Unzueta, April, May 2016 NY, 2016. Courtesy the Artist and Proyectos Ultravioleta. Tate: Purchased using funds provided by the 2018 Frieze Tate Fund supported by Endeavor to benefit the Tate collection 2019

Having danced as a child, Unzueta notes her awareness of the shapes created by her gestures. Without the use of a ruler, she uses embroidery hoops for the composition of her drawings, and her forearms, hands and fingers to measure distances. The drawings’ titles specify the time incorporated in their production. Spending months completing just one drawing, waiting for multiple washes of dye to dry, Unzueta humbly and happily surrenders to the natural pace of her materials. Held between sheets of perspex fixed into bases of recycled wood, her drawings are encountered three-dimensionally. Visitors discover a manufactured object, to be walked around and looked through, the beautiful and intricate product of simple (organic) processes of dyeing, carving, and intuitive drawing. 

Again, the literal incorporation of her body into each work suggests that the embodied experience of any maker, even working on an industrial scale, might also be incorporated into every item that passes through their hands, even for a moment. A Garment for the Day is Unzueta’s tribute to the child labourers, the often unacknowledged shame of low-cost global manufacturing. It is Dedicated to Ellen Hotton and to so many more children in the  world that we will never know their names, where they spent and spend their days in the shadows of a factory, plantation, captivity… desolation.

A series of garments, reminiscent of factory uniforms, hang on a simple clothes-rail. Dutifully in line, they are handmade using up-cycled denim sourced from a factory in Guatemala. Hanging empty – disembodied – they suggest a haunting sense of what is missing. The gallery context challenges us: we are drawn to touch the clothes, we imagine trying them on, but cannot, because of a distinction conveniently created between process and artwork. We have become removed from the human labour required in production, while continuing to rely on it.

Modern Art Oxford staff wearing A Garment for the Day, 2020.
Photo by Helen Messenger.

But through a process of ‘activation’, Unzueta closes this distinction. Designed to fit gallery staff, these garments were worn on opening-night. The warmth and movements of human bodies remain present in the stretched fibres and loosened button-holes of the clothes as they now hang, signalling a process of re-embodiment, perhaps a metaphorical re-humanising of the anonymous workers they represent. The wearers in this process became secondary makers, symbolically marking the works with their own humanity. We are drawn to consider if this kind of ‘activation’ leaves its lasting mark within all that is manufactured, from an ‘artwork’ to a metal tap. Celebrated or criticised, through Unzueta’s work the human experience of labour is acknowledged, and given concrete presence.

Unzueta’s ‘trade’ was revealed in the making of this exhibition. Watching her surrounded by natural materials in this ex-industrial space (the gallery was formerly a brewery), sewing-machine clicking, oil pastels in hand, was to witness artistic production as physical performance. These subtle, often ephemeral works, leave their mark on Modern Art Oxford as they carry the traces of her hands, gestures, physical presence.

Johanna Unzueta at Modern Art Oxford, 2020. Photo by Helen Messenger.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Tools for Life, Johanna Unzueta at Modern Art Oxford is temporarily closed, however you can take a virtual tour of the exhibition here.

Words: Cecilia Rosser

Exhibition Review: Threading Forms, London Art Fair 2020

January 2020 saw the second iteration of the London Art Fair’s Platform series, a dedicated exhibition within the Art Fair that highlights a craft process; following 2019’s spotlight on ceramics, the focus of this year’s Platform series was on textiles. The fact that arguably the most unashamedly commercial facet of the art world – art fairs – are wholeheartedly embracing craft demonstrates that a major shift in the market has already taken place. The archaic, derogatory distinctions between craft and art are falling away, as institutions, collectors and wider audiences begin to recognise the transcendent qualities of these mediums, and the creativity and skill they embody. I was intrigued as to whether the nature of the fair’s spotlighting would be a token gesture, a mere nod to the increasingly trendy textile, or offer an exhibition of real interest and the opportunity for a nuanced debate on the rapidly-changing market.

The special Platform exhibition, ‘Threading Forms’, and its associated events were curated by Candida Stevens. Stevens’ expertise made for a visually rich and intellectually stimulating programme that appealed not just to a specialist audience. It was clear that broadening understanding and appreciation for contemporary craft was a curatorial priority, as demonstrated by the presence of West Dean Tapestry Studio, who were invited to take up residence throughout the week of the fair. West Dean are one of the only professional tapestry studios in the UK, with an illustrious history of production and artist collaborations, including Howard Hodgkin, Eileen Agar and Tracey Emin. Several weavers from the studio conducted a live demonstration of their practice throughout the fair, working on a large-scale interpretation of a 1983 watercolour by Edward James that is due to be completed in 2021. For many, this was a first, welcome, introduction to the rhythmic, incremental and intensely laborious nature of weaving, in turn animating and demystifying the underlying processes. Alice Kettle, whose works were exhibited in a solo presentation by Candida Stevens’ eponymous gallery, also offered a unique insight into her practice through live machine and hand stitching demonstrations. As touched upon in the panel discussions, craft techniques can be alien and therefore alienating to audiences and collectors, which has played a role in the slow adoption of textiles into the contemporary art mainstream. Demonstrations like these, above all in a non-specialist setting, can play an invaluable part in familiarising people with the foundations that are part of the medium’s fundamental appeal.

West Dean Tapestry Studio

The other invited participants to the exhibition were Arusha Gallery, Oxford Ceramic Gallery, Cavaliero Finn and Atelier Weftfaced. The pieces by the pre-eminent British weaver Peter Collingwood (1922-2008) brought by Oxford Ceramic were a threaded treat, not only for the magic of their delicate abstraction, but because they hung free, unconstricted by glass and frames. How to best present textiles became a topic of contention during the first panel, ‘Collecting Textiles’, chaired by Candida Stevens and featuring Agnieszka Prendota, Creative Director at Arusha Gallery and Juliana Cavaliero, co-founder of Cavaliero Finn. The gallerists who chose to frame woven works as you would a traditional painting or drawing did so as a concession to potential collectors, many of whom remain uneasy about the conservation demands of textiles or unsure about how to display them. A frame places a work firmly within the context of ‘fine art’, acting as an interpretative aid. This can, however, run contrary to an artist’s wishes, and is perhaps an unnatural response to the materiality of weaving and thread’s innate interactivity. If a conclusion was reached, it was that the appreciation and market for textiles are in a state of transition, and such compromises may be inevitable for the time being.

Peter Collingwood, Black & Olive Macrogauze. Courtesy of Oxford Ceramics Gallery

The second discussion considered ‘Contemporary Musings on the History of Textile Art’, again chaired by Candida Stevens with the participation of Alice Kettle, Caron Penney, artist and founder of textile atelier Weftfaced and Lotte Crawford, Assistant Curator of the current UNBOUND exhibition at Two Temple Place. Kettle offered enlightening testimony as to the political soft power of thread, both in terms of the thematic bent of her’s and many other makers’ work, and its inherent potential for universal communication. Kettle herself has a history and ongoing practice of collaboration with women’s weaving groups in Karachi and with refugees, who are credited for their contributions. This issue of authorship was a recurrent theme throughout the debate, with Caron Penney of Atelier Weftfaced bringing her unique perspective as an artist who creates pieces under her own name, and undertakes projects on behalf of other artists. She sees no conflict in this, and contested the narrative that artists commission makers to translate their artworks into textile form with the latter lacking creative control, impetus or recognition. From Penney’s own experience, the weavers often initiate these collaborations, with notable examples including tapestries for Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin, and take pride in realising a work in the embodied style of that artist. In many ways, the mark of the maker is embedded into every stitch of the work, which becomes a site of self-definition and self-expression in dialogue with the complex context and legacies of weaving.

Alice Kettle, Mouti, 2019. Stitch on printed fabric, 39 x 29 cm. Courtesy of Candida Stevens Gallery, © Alice Kettle

Overall, I was delighted to discover an exciting array of artists who are expanding the reaches of modern weaving and exploring the socio-political possibilities of craft. It was a privilege to be privy to such animated debates between makers, curators and sellers who reflected so sharply on the progress we have made, and the mountains left to climb.

Sofia Carreira Wham is a writer and professional archivist. She studied Classics and Archaeological Heritage & Museum Studies at Cambridge University and currently works at White Cube. She is the co-founder of an artist advisory service, Studio Solutions, and collaborates with several charities to promote contemporary art across Africa.

Review: Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities Symposium

The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium, held at the Royal College of Art, was a day brimming with rich discourse on what the focussed study of personal and organised belief systems can provide to the expanding understanding of the literary, arts and social movements of modernity. Despite the seemingly niche nature of the symposium’s guiding theme, the research presented was notably broad, inclusive and varied in content, with subjects ranging from modern yoga practices and retreat movements to esoteric Christianity and chemical enlightenment. 

Appropriately set in London’s illustrious borough of Kensington, where institutions such as the Natural History Museum house some of the most important scientific collections in the world, the Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium presented a strikingly consistent consideration for the place of empiricism in varying spiritual practices. Jules Evans (Queen Mary, University of London) initiated this exploration on the first panel of the morning, presenting on ‘Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the rise of “empirical spirituality.”’ This paper explored the way that developments in the field of psychology were utilised to bridge the gap between science and mysticism. Integrating such theories as Gerald Heard’s five stages of humanity, which predicts the movement from our current humanic individualist state to a more expansive collective consciousness through an advanced form of spirituality and the practice of meditation, as well as Myers psychical psychology of the ‘subliminal self.’ These concepts were used in conjunction with Aldous Huxley’s work on perennial philosophy, all of which hoped to hold experience of a spiritual nature empirically accountable. 

Directly following Evans and corroborating this exploration was Alana Harris (King’s College, London), who presented research on Letitia Fairfield and ‘Rational Religion’, a study of a female experience of the physical – metaphysical interface particularly through interest in politics and public health. Harris provided further examples of a modernist intent on complicating the divide between materialist science and religious or personal spirituality. 

A third paper in this trend of investigation of the interaction between modernist scientific movements and spiritual studies was from Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster) on C. K. Ogden’s co-authored pragmatist approach to linguistics The Meaning of Meaning and the way in which he comes to collaborate with James Joyce despite their differing considerations of ‘word magic.’ Leigh contributed a semantic study of the balance and tensions between theories of purely referential meaning and the magic potential of linguistic devices, further unravelling the moments in modernity where occultism comes up against methods of material science. 

Other examples of research of this specific nature revealed themselves throughout the day from a variety of subjects across the four panels. Aren Roukema (Birkbeck) spoke on the relationship between Christianity and occultism and the nature of heresy in modernism. Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) presented on enchanted ancient and modern objects through the pacifist social group, Kibbo Kift, who assimilated new works in biology to support their beliefs in material and cosmic energies. Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths) spoke on what modern studies of and on psychedelic substances can elucidate about the expansion of consciousness that mystic thought so often necessitates and the way these studies can provide further insight into the relationship between empiricism and mysticism, culture and counterculture.   

Even those whose research was farther removed from empirical consideration, particularly those papers which shifted the focus from Western-centric modernists to Eastern modern spiritual activity, for example Suzanne Newcombe’s (Open University) presentation of yoga in the early 20th century and Jamie Callison’s (Nord University) paper on modern retreat movements, still maintained concerns of an empiricist nature in their periphery. Newcombe touched on the role that yoga played in movements of mental and physical health culture while Callison proposed spiritual retreat as an embrace, rather than an escape, of modernity through the modernist tendency of ‘self-critique.’ One might get the impression that new work in modernist studies is embracing the often seemingly contradictory nature of modernity, both in ways that emphasise these contradictions and attempt to reconcile them. 

That the intersection between the empiricist component of modernism and alternative systems of belief emerged as a central theme of the day might be indicative of one of the defining tensions of modernism: Eastern and Western aesthetic, social and spiritual practice and the ambition to justify such practices in locations of prevailing scientism. 

The increasing useful quotation of Tim Armstrong was referenced at this symposium, where he asserts that modernism is ‘both a rejection of the past and a fetishisation of certain earlier periods; both a primitivism and a defence of civilisation against the barbarians; both enthusiasm for the technological and fear of it; both a celebration of impersonal making and a stress on subjectivity.’ The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium facilitated what felt like an important discourse, one that continues the exploration of intellectual and ideological tensions within modernist studies. 

by Aoiffe Walsh


Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 5.

Exhibition Review: re: birth by Spilt Milk

Spilt Milk is a Scottish social enterprise whose main goal is to promote mother artists and give them more opportunities. Anyone who identifies as a mother can become a member, and all members can exhibit in their members’ show. This year’s theme “re: birth” has inspired the artists to submit a variety of works, ranging through an incredible array of media and subject matters. It invited many interpretations, with works addressing questions on pregnancy, breastfeeding, one’s relationship with a child, or one’s identity (or loss of identity) as a mother. Themes of domesticity underlie this exhibition, highlighting the complex ways that motherhood and domestic spaces go hand in hand in our collective imaginary.

‘We Used to Be So Much Closer’, Laura Ajayi

In the first corner of the exhibition, Suzanne Little’s Discharged (2019), with its crochet-ed stains on white cotton knickers, tells the story of a difficult pregnancy; Kasey Jones’ round belly contrasts with her pyramidal cage in Patriarch Confinement: The Business of Birth (2015), condemning the unnatural, sometimes damaging ways modern medicine manages childbirth; The Birth (1997) by Josie McCoy is a blunt depiction of a wrinkled child’s head coming out of a vagina. In the middle of these visceral considerations of childbirth lays Laura Ajayi’s intriguing sculpture We Used to Be So Much Closer (2017), a cord she weaved with lint she collected for eighteen months from her family’s dryer. Meaning is created and nuanced in the interaction of all these different creations treating different facets of such a complex topic as motherhood. Surrounded by these images of pregnancy, Ajayi’s soft sculpture invites questions about labour (birth) as well as domestic labour, and the sometimes-difficult negotiations a parent and a child must make around their relationship as it develops.

‘Unfold’, Charlene Scott

It is worth listing all the “ingredients” that make up Charlene Scott’s Unfold (2019): household paint, ink, graphite, milk, natural dyes and inks – made from cabbage, avocado, rowan tree bark, charcoal & sandstone – on satin, calico and canvas. Elements from one of Scott’s former projects were cut and stitched together to create this new piece. The textiles were transformed through various colouring processes involving everyday food scraps, household paints, and inks the artist created from charcoal and local sandstone. Given the nature of the dyes, the colours and patterns will inevitably keep changing through time. The artist says she likes the idea of the piece evolving beyond her. It is easy to draw parallels with the domestic work involved in raising a child who will also evolve beyond the parent’s control.

Mya Cluff explores what it feels like to occupy a body as a mother with Offering in White (2019). The uneven ceramic shows a body covered in stretch marks, surrounded by what looks like a white blanket. The series of photographs Ritual (2019) by Alexandra Knox also explores themes of the mother’s body as food, but in a very different manner. Whereas Knox’s piece is sexual, provocative and humorous, Cluff just confronts you, softly, with the fact that a mother makes a gift of her body and this will leave marks on her body forever. Similarly, Jill Skulina’s ceramic And Repeat (2018) shows a woman lying on her back, a tired look on her face, surrounded by breastmilk pumps. Skulina tells the story of how her baby was taken to the N.I.C.U and a nurse told her that her breastmilk would give her daughter better chances of survival. She had to pump regularly everyday for weeks, and this story is represented in the vessel. The many meanings of the word vessel make ceramics a perfect medium to discuss the role of a mother’s body as food. The way the mother is presented, with a stylised nimbus around her head, is reminiscent of the imagery of saints. The shape of the bowl vaguely resembles the shape of a baby’s body, but also calls to mind a baptismal font. The tedious, almost mundane task of pumping milk is elevated to a spiritual, sacred status. 

[From left to right] Toni Pepe, ‘Via Lactea’; Victoria Smits, ‘A Doll’s House: Nora’s Acumen’; Jill Skulina, ‘And Repeat’; Imogen di Sapia, ‘Chromosome 17’

What unites most of these pieces beyond the theme is the importance of the medium, the materials, in conveying affects and meanings. There is a physicality to them. We can sense the body involved in domestic labour or taking care of a child; it is palpable in the artwork. The last two pieces I want to discuss best embody this. Imogen di Sapia weaved Chromosome 17 (2019) as a reflection on her craft in relation to her matrilineal heritage. She discovered that her grandmothers were weavers as well and it posed questions about heritage, even when one is not aware of it. Drawing from both tradition and technology, she weaved her DNA into this tapestry; each line contains information about her and her ancestry. Di Sapia encourages the public to touch and smell her pieces, get physical with them. Finally, the piece that dominated the exhibition room was Interruptions, an installation by Mother Art: Revisited. Two texts intercut one another: a stern voice recites a manifesto, demanding good living conditions for all, while another says “it could have been my brother/cousin/neighbour/etc.” Footage from a laundrette is projected onto a wall; between the projector and the wall is a laundry line. On the line hangs an accumulation of textiles, textures, colours and messages: the manifesto’s text on a tablecloth, a jacket saying “Mexico”, a kitchen apron with paint stains, a baby blanket with crosses stitched on it, a child’s political questions on handkerchiefs.  This overwhelming set-up forces the spectator to analyse each detail in isolation in order to reconstruct meaning. The ensemble gives the impression of mothers organising politically as they perform domestic tasks. A home is a complicated, messy, layered place. Interruptions shows us how politics affect our domestic lives, and vice versa. This sentence has become a cliché but still holds truth: the personal is political.

Mother Art: Revisited – Interruptions

Find out more about Spilt Milk here.

Words by Alessandra Leruste

Navigating Cultural Liminality: Private Rooms by Ghada Amer

Image result for ghada amer private room

Offering a critique of imperialist thought, Edward Said’s Orientalism created a paradigmatic shift in understanding the relationship between Western (Occidental) and non-Western (Oriental) cultures. Yet Orientalism still pervades mainstream representations of non-Western cultures, which oscillate between intense fetishization and demonization, often in almost the same breath. See for example Dalia Dawood’s description of the Aladdin remake, released this year, as ‘yet another example of Hollywood constantly misrepresenting the Middle East either as a barbaric place of war and terror or exoticised as one full of allure and belly dancers.’[1] Self-Orientalism, then, is when the East or non-Western individuals represent themselves through the eyes of the West, reflecting the unequal cultural relationship. Cross-cultural representation is therefore fraught with difficulties, and culturally liminal artists are often tasked – willingly or unwillingly – with negotiating these difficulties.

Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but moved to France at a young age where she was then educated, she now lives and works in New York City. This background places Amer firmly within the precarious culturally liminal zone. In Private Rooms (1998), Amer negotiates the danger of eliciting the Western desire for the culturally Other whilst simultaneously employing explicitly cultural material for Western art consumption. The piece explores the themes of culture and sexuality, both sites of intense Orientalist interest, further complicating Amer’s negotiation task in avoiding the pitfall of self-Orientalising.

Private Rooms is emblematic of Amer’s oeuvre in its use of embroidery, calligraphy and allusion to the female body. These material and visual techniques all speak in some way to Amer’s thematic concerns surrounding sexuality and culture; a sculpture comprised of fifteen suspended satin garment bags, dyed with rich saturated tones of blue, pink, green, orange and grey whose shape mimic the body of a woman in chador. The satin of the garment bags shimmer responsively to the light and are offset by the clinical white gallery walls. These material characteristics lend the piece a voluptuous beauty and life-like presence within the gallery space. On closer inspection, one will find embroidered across the satin garment bags all of the sentences that speak about women in the Qur’an, translated into French.


By using the medium of embroidery Amer participates in the tradition of feminist embroidery art which aims to elevate the medium of needlework, a medium which has been historically feminised and thus not considered a ‘high art’ form. Rozsika Parker aptly describes how embroidery ‘has provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness.’[2]  We can see clearly how this consideration might be applied to the female body and sexuality, a site of both power and oppression. Thus, by applying embroidery directly onto the chador-like figures, Amer brings this allegorical comparison into sharp relief.  However, Amer complicates the Western focus of the feminist embroidery tradition. Whilst Amer’s use of embroidery has been discussed in reference to English sewing practices, we should note the historical Orientalist interest in oriental carpets that it also connotes. This complicates Amer’s allusions through embroidery because they come to represent not only the relegation of female arts, but also the Orientalist fascination with Eastern craft products, an interest which was served and perpetuated by an unequal system of cultural and economic imperialist relations.[3] Rather than reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them, Private Rooms through its use of embroidery unites diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures. Rather than using Eastern cultural imagery/material to cultivate an Orientalist sense of ‘authenticity’ or intrigue for Western art consumption, she situates her materials within a universal framework.


Through use of the embroidered word, Amer makes reference to the calligraphic tradition which is so central to Islamic art. However, Amer interferes with the visual language of Islamic calligraphic traditions through her use of heavy-handed stitching, inclusion of loose dangling threads and use of capitalised roman script.[4]  This unorthodox use of the calligraphic medium reveals the possibility of operating within the aesthetic boundaries of a culture whilst inflecting it with a unique sense of identity. Another dimension is added to the calligraphic element of the work by the fact it represents words from the Qur’an: due to the special reverence for the Qur’an in Islam as being both miraculous and inimitable, this could be considered inherently subversive. However, within the Islamic tradition, once the Qur’anic word is translated it no longer possesses the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original. Amer therefore simultaneously demonstrates cultural respect, or desire to avoid offence, by not using the original holy Arabic, whilst gently challenging the tradition by asserting her right to use and reflect upon the text (and to assert a specifically gendered reflection through the inclusion only of verses which refer to women). Thus, Amer demonstrates the ability to be simultaneously respectful and critical of a culture through her ambivalent use of the Qur’anic word. Furthermore, the use of translation foregrounds an important thematic concern: that of the inevitable translation effect in encounters between different languages, and more broadly, between different cultures.

Female Dress and The Female Form

Whilst not being a figurative piece Private Rooms is saturated with allusions to female dress and the female form. As Fereshteh Daftari perceptively observes, the loose threads in her embroidered works evoke ‘the reverse side of a highly finished sartorial item.’[5] As previously mentioned, the suspended figures evoke an image of chador clad Muslim women and the use of clothing bags as the primary material only serves to make this link more lucid. A multiplicity of meanings are latent within the sartorial body imagery of Private Rooms. The female form is symbolised as hanging lifelessly, as closed within a metaphorical chador, evoking a claustrophobia that is enhanced by the use of bags which create a symbolic double enclosure. This claustrophobic imagery is then further enclosed with textual embroidery. We must peel back many layers to reveal the physical body which lies beneath. In this way, Amer successfully reflects the layers of coded social meaning, as well as physical layers, which wrap the female body. This is particularly pertinent within the framework of the Western fascination for Islamic veiling practices, as well as revivalist Islamic movements’ emphasis on the same. Amer demonstrates how women are encased within sartorial expectations, as well as the weight of tradition. The Western art spectator adds a final layer of ideologically coded wrapping as they view the piece.

Even in her use of Oriental cultural material then, in this instance cultural sartorial material, Amer is able to avoid over-simplification by consciously questioning the layers of meaning which are piled onto the female form. Furthermore, she brings the Western art consumer into the process of meaning-making, encouraging them to question their complicity in the process of ideological entrapment of women in general, and Muslim women in particular. Additionally, the sensual beauty of the fabric and colours used in the piece act to offset the dark and heavy image associated with Islamic restrictions of dress and thus undermine Orientalist perceptions of the traditional Islamic woman.

Through her use of embroidery, calligraphy and imagery of the sartorial female form, in Private Rooms Amer presents a nuanced and sensitive vision of cultural difference. She avoids reasserting tropes from the ‘Occidental script’ and thus reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them. Instead she unites diverse experiences of oppression across cultures and undermines Occidental notions of Islamic womanhood in various ways such as through presenting diverse Qur’anic views on the subject. Furthermore, she universalises her materials, as can be seen in the use of embroidery, or shows the potential to adapt cultural material, as can be seen in her subversion of the Islamic medium of calligraphy. Importantly, she demonstrates consciousness of the Western consumer of her work, and consciously creates room for this viewing dynamic within the piece and in doing so takes control of this viewing dynamic: the very antithesis of self-Orientalising. The piece thus utilises Amer’s status as a liminal artist between cultures to bridge the cultural dichotomy between Us and Them rather than reinforce it.

Words by Alis Shea

[1] Dalia Dawood, ‘The new Aladdin film is shot in Surrey, but that’s the least of its problems’, Gal-dem (28 May 2019) http://gal-dem.com/the-new-aladdin-film-is-just-as-orientalist-as-the-last/ [accessed 24th October 2019].

[2] Laura Auricchio, ‘Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures’, Art Journal (2001), p. 27. 

[3] Brian Spooner, ‘Weavers and dealers: authenticity of an oriental carpet,’ in The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appaduri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224.

[4] Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2003), p. 177. 

[5] Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, p. 177. 

Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too?

Forty years ago, Judy Chicago’s ode to women The Dinner Party served to counter the patriarchal erasure of women’s achievements throughout history, monumentalising both the 39 women in ‘attendance’ and the traditionally female and domestic labour of crafts such as needlework and ceramics. Now considered a canonical piece of feminist artwork, Chicago’s work is not impervious to critique. Perhaps the most damning point of contention – and one that highlights the weaknesses of second-wave feminism – is the table’s unmistakable absence of black women and women of colour. A former school assembly hall in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West neighbourhood is the unlikely but apt setting for a welcome rejoinder to this omission. De Appel’s newly renovated and unusual gallery space is the current host of an ongoing community art project by Dutch visual artist, cultural activist and womanist of Surinamese heritage, Patricia Kaersenhout – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?

Using the visual language of Chicago’s Dinner Party as a point of departure, Kaersenhout invites 39 black women and women of colour across 2000 years of history to take a seat at the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too? table. Akin to Chicago’s piece, the room features a triangular table consisting of glassware and table runners embroidered with glass beading that details both the names of these women and their estimable attributes such as intelligence and steadfastness. Overlooking the table, located on a stage at the back of the hall, are a number of copies of the accompanying exhibition publication which consists of short biographies of each of these woman – some of whom their histories have never been shared with a general public – researched through a multitude of sources including printed references, vernacular history websites and conversations. The Ghanaian adinkra symbols that Kaersenhout allocates to each woman in the publication (and gives reference to in the attributes stitched in the table runners) also ceremoniously adorn the hall’s lofty windows. 

There was a palpable energy in the room at the opening of the exhibition earlier this month, with an attendance to rival an opening of any of the larger institutions in Amsterdam. Kaersenhout made reference to the notion of a ‘communal body’ during her opening speech; as an ongoing and dynamic piece, the various guises through which these communal bodies manifest themselves are manifold. True to Kaersenhout’s social practice, numerous collective actions have taken place in order to contribute to this piece in the run up to the exhibition; this includes community workshops with skilled crafts-women in Dakar, a group of female artists, refugees and victims of domestic violence in Amsterdam Nieuw-West and as part of a ‘stitch-in’ event at De Appel with special guest Emory Douglas – former Minister for Culture of the Black Panther Party. Using this physical object as the platform through which to name and honour this communal body of ‘heroines of resistance’, the swell of lively discussion that permeated the hall took on the form of a shared ceremony by a communal body to keep their histories alive. 

The latest element to join this ever-evolving project is the glassware that sits upon the table and is, for me, the most arresting visual element of the installation. The mesmerising eating and drinking vessels are inspired by pre-Christian ceramics from West and Central Africa and South America and shaped in a way that encourages communal activity; conjoined handles bring multiple mugs together; ends of bowls are pinched for consumption at both sides and wide platters are scattered across the table. Reimagining colonial and patriarchal conceptions of not just who sits at the table but also the relationship between the individual and the collective at this table, Kaersenhout uses hospitality as both an aesthetic and political tool in this ‘table of disruption.’

Revisiting De Appel on a quiet afternoon where I am the only person in the space provides a different experience of the work. Devoid of the buzz of people and fully able to appreciate the table and its surroundings, it is hard to imagine this monumental piece located elsewhere; as Kaersenhout expressed at the opening, the expansive hall provides a setting that can do justice to both the physicality of the piece and the emotional weight of its subject matter. During this quieter and more introspective visit, I was able to relish in the light filtering through the semi-opaque glassware and sit down to read through all of the accompanying biographies (I highly encourage you to consult the online version of the publication here). From Queen Amanirenas, ruler of modern-day Sudan from 40 to 10BC, to 20th century transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, each page reveals the compelling and largely unknown stories of these women who challenge both the colonial narrative and canon of art history.

The tunics that are decorated with these names and stories are somewhat lost in this exhibition context, suspended from a triangular bamboo lattice slightly too high above the stage to be comfortably engaged with. However, I am reassured to find out that they will be coming to life during a Hāka performance – a ceremonial Māori dance by men in honour of women – at the exhibition’s closing event in December. As a social monument, the strength of this piece really lies in the collective actions through which it is activated prior to, throughout the duration of and after the exhibition rather than the physical object itself. The Hāka performance will be preceded by a number of historic encounters that will bring together writers, artists and scholar-activists whose work connects profoundly to the lives of the women honoured. 

As is evidenced by Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, the process of acknowledging and voicing forgotten (or erased) histories of the oppressed in order to engender a form of dignity is at the core of Kaersenhout’s artistic practice. As an audience member, particularly myself as a white woman, it is a privilege to have had Kaersenhout take on the labour of narrating these women’s histories for us through this exhibition. And so, it is now our turn to take on a share of the work by treating this encounter (with exhibition or online publication) with further dignity and by disseminating these histories into the present and into the future. 

Patricia Kaersenhout’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too is running at De Appel until 1st December 2019.

Words by Nicole Horgan

Nicole Horgan is a researcher currently based in the Netherlands, having completed a Masters in Arts & Society at Utrecht University.

Review: Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950

In 2015, the novelist Kamila Shamsie issued a provocative call to arms to publishers: let’s make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women. What would happen, Shamsie asked, if publishers refused to publish any books by men during the centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018? In the end, only one publisher took up her challenge: the indie publisher And Other Stories, who published books exclusively by women in 2018.

Shamsie might be heartened, however, to see that things are changing, albeit slowly, in both the literary and art worlds. This autumn sees the launch of a new series of books by women about women artists from Eiderdown Press. In London, Soho’s The Second Shelf bookshop has now joined Persephone Books in showcasing books by women: The Second Shelf sells rare and modern first editions by women; Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction by (mostly) women writers. Last month, Baltimore Museum of Art announced 2020 Vision, a year of exhibitions and events dedicated to the ‘presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists’.

In all of these examples, I’m struck not by what’s lost or left out, but what’s gained. Far from being restrictive, the emphasis on work by women or non-binary artists and writers represents an exciting opportunity to discover new voices.

This sense of excitement and discovery permeated the recent exhibition Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn. Designed as a ‘corrective to the exclusion of women from the “master” narratives of art’, Llewellyn assembled an extraordinary cross-section of women’s artistic output during the first half of the twentieth century, from painting to collage to woodcuts to sculpture.[1]

Installation view of Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950, Leeds University Library Blog

In an art world often dominated by modernism, it was refreshing to see a wide variety of styles on display, with realist works placed alongside experiments in abstraction, Surrealism and Vorticism. Even as someone who works on this period, many of the names were new to me. What a delight to discover Marion Adnams, the ‘leading Surrealist in Derby’ and Joyce Bidder and Daisy Borne, two sculptors who shared a studio for over fifty years.[2]

Two paintings which particularly spoke to me were Anna Zinkeisen’s All the Colours of the Rainbow (1942) and Winifred Knights’s Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake (1924-30).

Anna Zinkeisen (1901–1976), 
All the Colours of the Rainbow, 1942, 
oil en grisaille
Collection of Rose Grimond / © The Artist’s Estate

Winifred Knights (1899–1947), 
Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake, 1924-30
oil on canvas
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

Both paintings are characterised by an extraordinary stillness, one that vacillates between a calm serenity and a creeping sense of eeriness. There is something so strange about the contradiction between Zinkeisen’s title and her monochrome palette; looking at Edge of Abruzzi, I was left unsettled by the flat, unruffled water. These are works which ask or invite questions. They encourage dialogue. They draw you in.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Knights’s son John Monnington writes poignantly about being ‘totally ignorant’ of his mother’s ‘true abilities’ when he was growing up.[3] These commentaries, written by academics, artists, writers and family members to accompany each artwork, constitute perhaps the most inventive part of the exhibition. The commentaries are variously enlightening, mysterious and intimate. I loved Griff Rhys Jones on what entrances him about Edith Grace Wheatley’s The China Cupboard (1910), and Frances Fyfield on her encounter with Amy Glady Donovan’s Self-portrait (1926), a work she rechristens as ‘Girl with Buttons’.[4] This mix of biography, autobiography and criticism is innovative and inspiring. It’s a useful reminder to those in academia that human and emotional responses to artworks are as valid as the intellectual or critical.

Useful, too, are the artist biographies, collected and collated by Llewellyn and Alanna Jones. These are a veritable gold mine for future research projects: could anything be more tempting to a researcher than the phrase ‘little is known about…’? Alongside Llewellyn’s introductory catalogue essay, these biographies give a sense of the professionalisation of women artists during this period, and the career opportunities available to them. Some of my favourite works at the exhibition were designs for murals, such as Barbara Jones’s The Resort (1950), Doris Zinkeisen’s [‘Work’] Artist’s record of mural designed for the Arts and Crafts exhibition (1916) and Margaret L. Duncan’s Reigate and its Environments (late 1930s).

Barbara Jones (1912–1978), 
The Resort,1950
tempera on panel
Private Collection / © Tony Raymond

Margaret L. Duncan (1906–1979), 
Reigate and its Environments, c. 1920, 
egg and size tempera on fine cotton, mounted on wood panels
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching women muralists from the first half of the twentieth century, including Dorothy Annan, Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, Mary Adshead, Nan West, Evelyn Dunbar and Olga Lehmann. I’ve yet to establish what drew so many women to the mural form, but I’m beginning to piece together networks of women muralists, especially those working in art education. Before visiting the exhibition, I spent the morning in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections reading Athene, the journal of the Society for Education in Art. In it, I’d come across a 1942 article by Peggy Angus on her use of murals with children evacuated from Streatham High School to Chichester. Angus describes working with students, teachers and fellow artists to produce a series of four murals depicting local scenes, designed to instil a sense of civic awareness and appreciation for the new landscape in which they found themselves.[5]

‘Finishing touches to the painting of Dell Quay, on the West Wall’, in Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work’, in Athene, 2.1 (June 1942), Brotherton Collection. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library. 

Angus’s account hints at hidden or forgotten matrilineal exchanges of knowledge, in which women artists taught the next generation of women artists in primary and secondary schools. This exchange is something which still continues today: just this year, the University of Leeds partnered with artists and the Hyde Park community to produce a new series of murals, five out of six of which were designed by women. Workshops were held at Brudenell Primary School, in which children created artwork inspired by their experiences of Hyde Park; in turn, this artwork inspired Emma Hardaker’s and Fem Sorcell’s murals.

A greater awareness of women’s historical involvement in the mural form would no doubt inspire future projects like the Hyde Park or Streatham High School murals. By introducing viewers to the range and diversity of women’s artistic expression in modern Britain, Fifty Works creates a space for new conversations, research projects and exhibitions. I only hope that other galleries will follow suit.

Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, appeared at The Ambulatory at The Mercer’s Company, London, 3 December 2018 – 23 March 2019 and the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, 9 April – 27 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue, including a commentary on each work, is out now. Images courtesy of Liss Llewellyn and University of Leeds.

Dr Emma West is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She is currently writing her first book, Art for the People: Democracy and the Arts in Modern Britain


[1] Sacha Llewellyn, ‘Introduction’, in Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, ed. by Sacha Llewellyn (London: Liss Llewellyn, 2018), pp. 10-11 (p. 10).

[2] Minoo Dinshaw, ‘Marion Adnams’, in Fifty Works, p. 55; Ayla Lepine, ‘Daisy Borne’, in Fifty Works, p. 67.

[3] John Monnington, ‘Winifred Knights’, in Fifty Works, p. 121.

[4] Griff Rhys Jones, ‘Edith Grace Wheatley’, in Fifty Works, p. 145; Frances Fyfield, ‘Amy Gladys Donovan’, in Fifty Works, p. 89.

[5] Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work: Streatham High School, Looking at Chichester’, Athene, 2.1 (June 1942): 17-19.