Editorial 7: Crafting the Body

We often automatically refer to an artist’s collection as their ‘body of art’. The physical, bodily processes of crafting go (often literally) hand in hand with artistic creation. These bodily acts can often be therapeutic – we might think of the rhythmic practice of weaving or the soothing feeling of stepping away from screens, quietening our minds as we manually manipulate materials. Craft can impact the body, the physical act of making leaving its mark on the maker, such as the quiet ache of a spine that has been bent over a loom, fingers pricked by needles, skin chapped and cracked from handling clay. This issue feels out the myriad ways in which bodies relate to craft. It reaches into the crevices between creative practice, form and crafting and traces boundaries between interior and exterior. Through exploring a diverse range of embodied craft practices, it considers the corporeal aspects of crafting, of how bodies participate, labour, and speak back in the act of making. 

In a poetic response to artist Alexi Marshall’s ‘The Party’, writer Jess Payn considers how bodies inhabit group spaces and impact on their environments; Bodies sometimes behave differently in crowds, partaking in murmurations of movement, performance, dance, or a jumbled jostle on a busy street – they are repeatedly made and unmade by their environments. Payn’s piece draws out the carnivalesque elements of ‘The Party’, exploring the ways intimacy’s dual promise of intimacy and threat of violence is foregrounded in this scene of communion and cluttered limbs. Making and performing are revealed as inherently embodied, collective acts through which we process the world around us. 

From the way bodies work in social gatherings or intimate encounters, to the ways in which bodies work in capitalist systems – artist Johanna Unzueta states that ‘[h]ands are tools for me’ and her current exhibition, Tools for Life at Modern Art Oxford, unpicks the intrinsic relationship between the body and processes of labour, practice and industry. Cecilia Rosser’s exhibition review reflects on how the industrial is humanised, what craftsmanship means for the individual working body, and how the labour practices craft the labouring body within Unzueta’s body of work. 

Sofia Carreira Wham reviews ‘Threading Forms’, an exhibition curated by Candida Stevens. This exhibition saw live demonstrations of weavers, live machine and hand stitching demonstrations, showing how bodies participate in making, the labour, concentration and rhythm of crafting, stitching and weaving. Whether it’s the politics of labour, or the fundamental human right of freedom of choice over what happens to your body; the body is a political space. Artist Giacinta Frisillo presents ‘the feminine mistake’, reflecting on healthcare and the right to inhabit and have control over one’s own body in a contorted American system that still, forty-seven years after the landmark Roe v. Wade case, is a relentless battle for freedom of choice and power. 

The body is in constant conversation with the world around it. Violetta Liszka works with wire sculptures, photography and poetry to explore the boundaries between human interiority and the exterior forces that shape emotional and bodily experience in her project ‘Je est un autre’. Xuan Ma’s jewellery work also plays with the boundaries of the body, offering playful and intimate glimpses of ‘private views’ of the body. Using geometric shapes and reflective, mirrored surfaces, body parts are shown within the jewellery pieces to highlight these beautiful abstractions. 

Embodied processes of making are at the heart of Enam Gbewonyo’s practice, which opens up a space to both critique racist capitalist discourse and enact processes of healing and renewal. Ahead of Gbewonyo’s performance ‘The Unbinding: a Restorative Act in Two Halves’ – which takes place on 15th April at Two Temple Place as part of the ‘Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles’ exhibition – we take a closer look at the work of this exciting up and coming textile and performance artist. 

Human and non human bodies come together in ethical collective acts of making in the work of Tomas Saraceno, currently on display at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and reviewed for this issue by Jade French; the tiny webbed worlds that are spun by spiders reflect the interconnected natural and man-made structures that our bodies are bound up in, systems and processes that feel increasingly fragile at this moment in time. Saraceno’s work reminds us of not only of our common humanity, but also of our interdependence with the non human and the natural world – as French’s review highlights, ‘the woven patterns that we mimic in craft and making practices are a homage to the biological patterns we pass by and through’. 

We hope you enjoy this collection, reflecting on the physicality of crafting, the work our bodies do, and the power to move and be moved that they hold. 

‘The Party’: A response

A response to ‘Alexi Marshall‘s ‘The Party’ by Jess Payn.

Alexi Marshall, The Party (2017), Linocut print, ink on Japanese paper
Image courtesy of the artist

and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of
strangers my most tender feelings
writhe and
bear the fruit of screaming.
— Frank O’Hara


I enter a room where the walls don’t make sense, and there’s a girl with her head underwater in a bath of limbs and lines. There is no colour in this place and there is no third dimension. Someone is staring and the eye contact is between inquisition and indifference: Who are you?

This is The Party. Close up the spaces between thighs, heads, arms and throats. No one is leaving and the room is squeezed and asquint and only getting more full. Everyone else’s eyes are trying to be immune to one another. They’re unmindful of you: this is the enclosure of intimacy, aware of itself as a scene.

I look for her, and she’s down there. Crying tears of boys and men until these sadnesses puddle on the floor becoming a pool and it could be tears or it could be blood (I killed you; this is killing me) but maybe it’s just spilled wine.

Sat on an absent chair, she is blowing fuming faces to the ceiling and their
shapes stick out, telescopic; a snake unfurls by heads and over thighs and
some malevolent or at least mischievous many masked party-spirit sits,
nibbling its nails.

She is coiled around him, fist in the air. Someone is retreating behind a curtain or perhaps he is looking to enter the fray.

Beneath, she is leaning into her eyes: I want my time with you.

This angling that could become a kiss.

But there’s also the full weight of flush flesh slumping on top of fur, cheeks
puffing and eyelids heavy: now astride a dead-eyed fox. Her scratched nakedness makes her a blank siren in the dark.

Upstairs, she’s taking the charade too seriously: I want to be silly, nearing
Halloweeny. Put on a mask: this is she-devil coquettish. Watching the shower tiles with a focused frown, she’s got stuck-on wings, a bedroom of stars and a grainy dusting of ash. That cherub giggling and everywhere there’s black and white paint.

You always have to have something to do at a party, whether it’s performing or hiding. (I’ll try out my wink.) The final detail is a single hand, coy and destructive, pulling the walls apart.


Jess Payn is a freelance arts journalist based in London. She read English at the University of Cambridge, where she wrote her Master’s thesis on the ‘cuteness’ of Stevie Smith, and now reviews for the Arts Desk. Her writing has been published in Splice Magazine and The i Newspaper. She tweets @jess_payn

Find more of Alexi Marshall’s work over on Instagram

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

“JE EST UN AUTRE” by Violetta Liszka

Inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s famous quote, ‘Je est un autre’, which translates to mean ‘I am another’, Violetta Liszka’s project harnesses wire sculpture, photography and poetry to explore the boundaries between human interiority and the exterior forces that shape emotional and bodily experience.


Stained body. A body that was cut, bruised, complicated.
Fluid and mobile.
Trying to keep head in the air so I could breathe.
Forming itself to the shape of the container that traps it.
I was contained water.
My spirit, like oil cut into water.
Disconnected.
Yearning for connection
And wholeness.


Violetta Liszka was born in Krakow, Poland. Working first as a physiotherapist before embarking on a BA (Hons) and MA in Photography at the University of Brighton, pursuing interests in art and Judaism. Liszka has had art exhibits in London, Brighton, Southhampton, Berlin, Toronto, New York and Krakow, and is currently pursuing an MA in Jewish History and Culture at the University of Southhampton.

Spotlight: Private views & hidden beauty in Xuan Ma’s jewellery

Jewellery touches the body in curiously outward facing but intimate encounters. Xuan Ma offers new perspectives on the ways in which the human body interacts with design and craft. By using mirrored metal surfaces and straight lines that run alongside the curves of the body, abstract parts of the human body are reflected and made visible. The inside of elbows, the upside down refracted gum line shown in the inside of the mouth, the underside of the chin – these ‘private views’ all illuminate the ‘hidden beauty of the body’.

“Private View”- Head
“Private View”- Inside the mouth

For me, jewellery is a creative language to communicate my personal understandings and design ideology to others. After numerous trials and failures in the workshop, I was able to transform all the ideas that seem impossible at first into reality. Thus, I was fascinated by the incredibly enjoyable working process. Another motivation for me is to explore more possibilities in jewellery by applying the newly discovered materials or new effects to my work.

Xuan Ma
“Private View”-Elbow
“Private View” – Armpit

My collection of jewellery uses reflective surfaces to see and rediscover our bodies emphasising a new, meaningful way to appreciate and understand ourselves. I realise in our everyday life, reflective, shiny surfaces are everywhere and the notion of reflection and positive self-reflection is complex and is too often experienced in a comparative, judgemental way – a selfie is not in fact for oneself even if taking one is a private act. Our obsession with self-image and comparisons with others is everywhere. I realised the strongest reason why we take photos is not just about memories, it is about getting familiar to ourselves—to record and see different views of ourselves.

Xuan Ma
“Private View”-Teeth

To create a more meaningful way of looking, I started to develop serendipitous ways to appreciate the uniqueness of our bodies, especially by highlighting the parts that we can’t directly observe ourselves which in my opinion can be found a true sense of self-beauty. Using my metalwork skills, I have made wearable personal mirrors, which help capture these hidden beauty spots, momentarily or just long enough to instil in us a positive act of self-appreciation rather than of judging oneself.

Xuan Ma

“Private View”-Private View

Each piece of my collection reveals a part of the body you can’t see yourself such as the inside of the mouth, the teeth, the armpit, bottom, top of the head, elbow, chin and the private parts. I have designed the pieces so that when they are not being worn or used, they can be placed on a table or hung on a wall, as you would with an ordinary mirror. This collection allowed me to rediscover how beautiful the unseen body can be and how a mirrored jewellery object can be empowering. 

Xuan Ma
“Private View” -Chin

All images by Xuan Ma.

‘Private View’ was nominated for The MullenLowe NOVA Awards and has won the prize of Autor Magazine 2019.

Follow: @x.mahin_jewellery

Nude Me: Enam Gbewonyo

Enam Gbewonyo, Christies Lates Nude Me Part II performance 1, © SMD Photography.jpg

Artist, curator and founder of the Black British Female Artist Collective, Enam Gbewonyo is an exciting talent in fibre art; working at the boundaries between craft and fine art, her multimedia practice weaves new narratives of identity and belonging that counter stereotypes of race and gender. Having previously worked as a knitwear designer in New York, Enam has a clear understanding of how closely textiles are entwined with our daily lives and the power they exert over our sense of self. We first met Enam when she delivered a paper on ‘Yarn, Power and Patriarchy: An Exercise in Unravelling the Seams of Oppression’ at our November 2018 symposium Modernism: Making, Place, and Protest. Enam’s panel, which also included ICON editor Priya Khanchandani and curator Claire Mead, was a highlight of the day, but her talk particularly stood out: not only for the fascinating ways in which she connected traditional Ghanaian weaving practices with her own process of making, but also for how she passionately and persuasively articulated her belief in craft’s power to undo systems of patriarchy. It is no surprise that, since then, Enam’s work has begun to attract serious attention: in 2019, she has performed at the Henry Moore Institute, the Venice Biennale, and at Christie’s, London, joined MTArt Agency, and exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum and New Ashgate Gallery (amongst others).

Enam Gbewonyo, Venice Nude Me Performance 11 © Michal Murawski

Nude Me/Under the Skin: the Awakening of Black Women’s Visibility One Pantyhose at a Time, performed at the Venice Biennial and Christie’s in 2019, is a powerful piece of performance art that mixes ballet and textiles to uncover and unravel the binds that have constricted black female subjectivity. Gbewonyo uses tights to tell stories of identity, alienation, and becoming, connecting with the experiences of her mother, an NHS nurse forced to wear thick tights that clashed with her natural skin tone. Her art highlights the way that tights have functioned as a protective material for white Western women, whilst reinforcing a sense of marginalisation for women of colour; incorporating seedy advertising images, she also shows how they have been used to objectify the female body. Nude Me/Under the Skin enacts a rejection of hosiery’s suffocating hold, as Gbewonyo unbinds the tights that tie her body and transfers them to a mirror frame: the artist emerges through the mirror, uncompromising and emboldened.

Last Autumn, Gbewonyo’s work was on show as part of Gossamer, an exhibition at Margate’s Carl Freedman gallery that brought together 22 artists working with the medium of tights and stockings. Sitting alongside some of 20th century art’s biggest names, including Man Ray, Louise Bourgeois, and Sarah Lucas, Gbewonyo’s work stood out as a strikingly fresh use of nylons as an artistic medium. The tangled tights stretched out across gilt frames raise questions about the intersection of fine art and craft, as well as the politics of display, objectification, and subjugation of bodies in racist and sexist modern cultural narratives.

Enam Gbewonyo, Christies Lates Nude Me Part II performance 4, © SMD Photography lowres.jpeg

On 15th April 2020, Gbewonyo will perform a new work –  ‘The Unbinding: A Restorative Act in Two Halves’ – as part of Two Temple Place’s current exhibition Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles. Created in response to Alice Kettle’s ‘Three Caryatids’, Gbewonyo’s performance promises to be ‘both an ode to and healing restoration of the female form’s fluidity, power and softness’. We guarantee you won’t want to miss it – register for a free ticket here!

Find out more about Enam Gbewonyo over on her website

‘The Feminine Mistake’ by Giacinta Frisillo

giacinta frisillo
the feminine mistake.
Mixed Media on Canvas Board
61cm x 46cm
2017

In the United States’ poor excuse for a health care system, a ‘pre-existing condition‘ is a medical condition that began before a person’s health coverage went into effect. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, was passed into law in 2014, insurance companies were often legally allowed to deny coverage to those with a pre- existing condition – that is to say, those who most needed health insurance in order to afford treatment and prescriptions. As the conservative branch of our government regularly works to break down the tenets of the ACA, the fate of those who most need treatment remains to be seen. 

Amongst those most in need of affordable, reliable, and accessible healthcare are women. The list of women’s reproductive health concerns, as published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is lengthy, but many are preventable, treatable, or curable, when healthcare is provided. Clinics, such as the contentious Planned Parenthood, have been able to offer no- and low-cost treatment, care, and counselling to patients. However, as they also provide family planning services and abortion, they are under attack by (mostly) white, cis, male conservative lawmakers who are working diligently to retract its federal funding and close facilities. In 2019, nearly 50 years after President Nixon signed Title X into law, guaranteeing affordable birth control and reproductive health care to women with low income and stating that ‘no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition,’ we are still fighting to retain these rights. Forty-seven years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision to nationally legalize abortion, that right is in danger of being reneged. In 26 states – to put this in perspective, more than half of the US – women who choose abortion are currently required to undergo ultrasounds and, in 3, are obligated, rather horrifically, to listen to the foetal heartbeat while looking at the image on screen. 

As our right to sane, affordable, and comprehensive healthcare, or lack thereof, seems to be the zeitgeist of all times in the US, feminist artists have long dealt with the subject. Most notably for me, the artist collective Sister Serpents comes to mind, having been birthed as a direct response to the 1989 United States Supreme Court decision allowing for states to withhold public funds to run facilities and hire employees to perform, assist with, or counsel women on abortions. But, as the 1980s now seem ancient history, it’s shocking that art on this subject is anything more than a dated remembrance of the dark ages. Instead, it’s revitalized in all forms. Margaret Atwood has released The Testaments, the sequel to her dystopian and frighteningly possible story, The Handmaid’s Tale this year because, as she put it, ‘for a while we thought we were moving away from [the book]. And then we turned around and started going back toward it’. 

Since the Trump administration took office, I think women have felt the need to band together in protest for protection and support. I have come across many feminist communal arts projects and collectives doing just that. The Exquisite Uterus Project is a notable and ongoing example. The art piece is meant to ‘articulate [the] outrage at recent increased restrictions to women’s full access to good sexual and reproductive health care and growing limitations on our ability to determine our own reproductive choices’. Participants in the project are ‘urged to have fun with it but to consider how our ability to take control of our own personal uterus (and health care decisions) is a very serious and, now, political issue.’ 

While I find Fourth Wave Feminist activism, community, and art exciting, and contextualize much of my own art practice within it, I wish I didn’t find it necessary. As Catherine Morris, curator at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum said about an exhibition called A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism held shortly after the first – and most hopefully only – Trump election, ‘[w]e might have been thinking more about a celebration, and now we have a sense of urgency’. Sadly, and ironically, as this cause is already tired and storied, there is a sense of urgency to do something, to make art, to be heard and listened to. But haven’t we already tried this? Frankly, I’m tired of waging the same war so many generations before me have already fought. Why must I earn the freedom of choice and rights to the body I inhabit when the male gender is granted these rights at birth? Why do those, who are already imbued with rights to their own bodies, want rights to mine, as well? 

As a woman, I am a pre-existing condition. Only I am not covered under the caveat in the ACA currently protecting those in need. And so, the fight continues. 


Words: giacinta frisillo www.giacintafrisillo.com 

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.