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.
Finding out more about New’s series Aliens of Manila (2014-), a multi-disciplinary work that explores the experience of immigration and cultural displacement through costume, performance and installation.
Continuing Decorating Dissidence’s exploration into the legacy of the Bauhaus weaving workshops, Suzanna Petot got in touch with Erica Warren, Associate Curator in the Department of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, to ask a few questions about her career and her most recent exhibition…
Through the Lancaster Dinner Service, Himid interrogates the city’s involvement in the slave trade, forcing the viewer to confront the dark histories of the British Empire and the ongoing legacies of this violence and oppression.
Nisha Ramayya is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. Her recent book, States of the Body Produced by Love was published by Ignota in 2019. She has kindly allowed Decorating Dissidence to feature a ‘ritual selection’ of her poetry, which resonates with the rituals of craft, creation and this month’s theme of witchery. Jade French speaks to Nisha here about her process of crafting poetics, the ritualistic elements of language, play, and creation.
What do craft and the decorative mean to you?
I’ve never fully shaken off my teenage/emo dreams, and the first thing that springs to mind about ‘craft’ is – embarrassingly – The Craft and all those midnight experiments alone and with friends, candles, dried herbs, and heavy-breathing ghosts. The second thing is craft in the context of poetry and literary tradition, and the ways in which it is turned against poets who emphasise sound and performance (‘not enough refinement’), or who experiment with traditions that do not emerge from Europe (‘not enough relatability’), or who tend towards conceptual and procedural writing practices (‘not enough natural talent’). Will Harris has a great thread on Twitter about this.
How you approach the craft of poetry?
I like thinking about writing poetry as creating and entering into a ritualistic space – an early poem ‘Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics’ outlines different practices, methodologies, and feelings about writing poetry that I still find helpful. There are so many contradictory impulses/drives and so many internalised obstacles/enemies that can prevent you from getting anywhere in writing, and so lots of the process seems to be about ‘writing through’ until you find yourself somewhere else, maybe outside yourself or in a make believe space. Tantra refers to mythical and ritual traditions as well as the act of weaving, which is something I explore – over-indulging in the metaphorical possibilities – in Threads (a creative-critical pamphlet co-authored with Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil)and in States of the Body Produced by Love.
Can you speak to the way ritual informs your work and the ways in which you work with language?
Approaching poetic practices as ritual practices can be really generative and fun. For example, setting up particular rules or rites (such as time of day, or finding your voice via quotations from others, or listening to a piece of music on repeat); meditating on a symbol or image (in my book, it’s yantras/mandalas and goddess iconography all the way); or focussing on something you want to transform (like an emotion or a relationship or a social/political situation). Also, ritual can provide a safe space in which to dwell on, respond to, and even perform violence, fury, revenge. Not that I think those things should be defanged in language according to some distinction between art here and life there, but that poetry can be a place to try on and sharpen those fangs! For example, writing my antinationalist poem that’s really a diatribe against right-wing Hindu ideology and rule really helped me to identify and articulate my feelings and my political position, and then to channel it outside myself into the world.
Tell us a bit more about ‘States of the Body Produced By Love’ and working with Ignota Books…
Ignota first published Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry and have gone on to publish an amazing catalogue, including the Ignota Diary, which is intended as ‘a tool for discovery in the practice of everyday life’. Sarah Shin, one of the editors, has been – quite literally – a dream come true. She has encouraged and supported me and my writing, read my work more closely than anyone and helped me to say what I’m trying to say, organised events and done the sort of promotional work that is anathema to many poets, and helped me to reach so many different people and readers for which I am endlessly grateful. It was important to me to work with a woman of colour (somewhat uncommon in poetry publishing) and with someone who understood and shared my twofold approach to spirituality and politics. I didn’t actually think I’d meet that very person and am so glad that I waited as long as I did to publish my first book – in that way, it’s been pretty romantic!
Could you tell us a bit more about your work in creating a ‘rackety bridge’ between Tantric poetics and black studies?
This bridge – oscillating between safe crossing and descent into the depths, set to the music of Alice Coltrane – is how I am trying to get across the many holes in my research interests and poetic practices; there are many bridges crossing back and forth, like weaving, like suturing wounds. I’m currently thinking about performance as sacrifice, the poetry reading as ritual space and as bloody offering, which will hopefully lead into a research project on Fred Moten’s discussions of blackness and non-performance, the correspondences between legal language and spellcasting, and the fascistic shadowlands of Tantra…
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.
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
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.