Woman Behind the Threads
April 27, 2017 - June 22, 2017
by Micah Oelze
Miami, April 7, 2017 — In the past decade, galleries nationally (Design without End, The MET, 2008) and locally (Threads of Connection, Steinbaum, 2017) have made it clear that textile work is second to none among the fine arts, and that it can no longer be considered woman’s work. Artists across gender lines have increasingly turned to embroidery, sewing, and weaving for the intricacy they display and emotional response they draw. These interventions are welcome and necessary.
Yet historically, textile production has been quite gendered. In the home and in the mill, women spent entire lives and careers working with fabric. The familiarity with needle and loom brought women to inhabit a series of gendered metaphors related to fabric. Women saw themselves as weavers of the family, creators of social networks, and spinners of yarns. Woman Behind the Threads presents some thirty drawings, installations, textiles, and embroideries from four female artists that have explored these metaphors by stitching them right back into the fabric.
Then, the artists recognize that women have historically employed the canvas to frame particularly feminine political critiques. Textiles, when worn on the body, have allowed such critiques to transgress the boundary of the home, and to enter the public—and even international—political sphere, in cases where women’s claims would otherwise be excluded. The artists here, from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, bring a hemispheric perspective to the gallery, continuing what women in the last half-century have done across the Americas. We see that the key threads of this exposition are indeed those encountered across the Americas. Women in 1970s Chile, for example, sewed arpilleras (appliqués on burlap) depicting those husbands and sons “disappeared” by the military regime during the Dirty War. The arpilleras featured domestic scenes, preserved memory, and transgressed national borders as they were smuggled out of the country to bring international attention to the killings. These very conceptual threads—of family bonds, memory, and political critique—serve as the warp of this show. Running through them, as weft, are inquiries into materiality, frames, and forms. The result, we see, is a dense and colorful tapestry. And in spaces throughout the gallery, the artists have used cutwork, or even unraveled their canvas, in order that we may see the woman behind the threads.
Marina Font (b. 1970, Argentina), in “The Evolution of the Woman Kind,” captures the stages of a woman’s life through the window of intimate garments. Connecting the pictures is a clothesline, a domestic representation of the mother thread of life. From that thread, hang our experiences, especially those in which we were most intimate or vulnerable.
The notion of life as a thread provides helpful context as we engage Font’s other works. In “Fiesta,” we see the threads of new life—which could be children or ideas (what are ideas other than intellectual children?)—pouring forth from the woman’s creative centers: first the female sex, then the heart, finally the head, all contributing to the V-shaped fount. (Marina Font has no problem exploring the fountain for its symbolic meanings alongside enjoying it as an graphic signature of her own name). In “Red Net” and “Red Hair” the mother thread of life is turned a crimson red, which seems an explicit representation of the family bloodline. The bloodline comes from the spinneret wombs of Font’s protaganists, who themselves weave the yarn into complex webs. These remind us of the great artist Louis Bourgeois, the “Spiderwoman,” whose late sculptures presented maternity as a spiderly vocation involving weaving webs of protection and attacking those who would threaten the domestic space.
Font differs from Bourgeois in her presentation of the female body. The women on canvases here are presented in naked monochrome. They are made anonymous by the webs they weave. Most interesting is the posture that these women share. The hands are open, outstretched. If raised a little higher, the outstretched hands would make us think of the form of a cross, and the sanguine threads would invite the viewer to reflect on the sacrifices that characterize motherhood. But Font’s work are anything but a Passion. The fountains of life that exude from these woman highlight the inexhaustible. Each woman’s hands, outstretched with palms face up, portray a commitment to generosity to the next generation.
The metaphor of the mother thread of life runs also throughout the “Intimacy Series” by Aurora Molina (b. 1984, La Havana, Cuba). One of the pieces, “Unraveling,” features a young girl reaching up to kiss her grandmother. The stitchwork furthers the narrative: Molina has used knots and loose stitching all around grandma’s body and blankets, a visual demonstration that that the grandmother’s very life is unraveling. Yet even as the stitches unravel, they extend down and envelope the girl. It is as if the grandchild’s life thread has become inextricably bound up with that of her grandmother.
The same canvas pulls our vision to the right, to the space in which the canvas itself has been unraveled, exposing a second image of the grandmother behind the threads. With all the weft threads left dangling, the viewer is forced to recognize that the canvas itself is a textile. This unraveling of the canvas is significant. Historically, canvas served as the untouchable foundation on which artists constructed life. The twentieth century brought artists that challenged those foundations: Jackson Pollack loosed the canvas from its frame and Lucio Fontana slashed the canvas itself, highlighting the gaping holes behind our metanarratives. But Molina has engaged a more rigorous project. Thread by thread, she has undone the stitching. When she is done, we recognize that the canvas is a textile. Our very foundations have been woven, and there is a woman behind the threads.
Here that woman appears to be Molina’s grandmother, who spent much of her time behind an old Singer sewing machine, making and mending clothes for the family. Molina grew up in a time and place (1990s Cuba) in which clothes were not disposable. Every repair—a patch, a sewn-up tear—became a memory, not only of the incident, but also of the spiderwoman that remedied the gap with her weaving powers. Now we see that the daughter is literally bound up with her grandmother’s thread, since it is now stitched in her very clothes.
In the same series, we see “Bedtime Stories,” in which the canvas is covered in a pink fabric with small flowers. The embroidery takes place on top of this, on a handkerchief left behind by Molina’s grandmother. In the embroidered scene, grandma is lying in bed, with the little girl is reading aloud the story of Sleeping Beauty. The grandmother listens intently to a story that she recognizes is no longer a fairytale; she knows she will soon leave this world by falling into eternal slumber. Molina, instead of finishing the work, has decided to leaves the needle in the kerchief. In the needle we sense the proximity of death’s prick, but we are equally reminded that this work is still being woven. The needle is an invitation to the young girl to pick up where her grandmother left off, and to continue to sew the family’s tapestry, weaving new generations and new memories.
Patricia Schnall Gutierrez (b. Buffalo, New York, USA) presents works from her “Trobairitz” collection, a series of portraits created with charcoal and embroidery on canvas. The drawings pay homage to a group of female poets in twelfth-century Southern France. Gutierrez conducted research in the region and learned of the cohort when she stumbed upon uncatalogued documents in the back of an archive. She was surprised when she read the songs of the poets, which contained contained thinly-veiled criticisms of husbands and, on occasion, even declarations of love for other women. The poets later came under attack by the local church, and their work was relegated to the unwritten pages of history.
While the portraits themselves give these women clear historical and artistic recognition, the choice of materials creates a debate about the nature of historical memory. The bold charcoal eyes insist on being remembered, while the blank paper background suggests that they women have already been forgotten. Charcoal itself is easily smeared away, reminding the viewer of the fragility of immortality. And paper, so easily burned up, cannot be any more eternal. But then again, charcoal has already been burned, and it was the very burning that gave it its artistic potency. It seems that only in the gestalt of the charcoal with the paper can we understand how history endures, that is, the legacy with which the poets entrust us: to convey with supple verse the intransigence of our demand to be seen.
Such a message seems to resonate with the final material of the series: embroidery. The pieces attached to the heads of the poets are called Richelieu, in honor of the French Cardinal who made the decorative cutwork ubiquitous in his seventeeth-century quest to turn France into a cultural capital. Gutierrez, in crowning these French women with Richelieu embroidery, may be pointing to these poets as the forebears of the French cultural tradition grown under the cardinal and culminating in the patronage of Sun King Louis XIV. No history textbook, yet, has dared to give an anonymous group of twelfth-century women the credit lavished upon these latter male patrons of the arts. But this is precisely the problem that the artists here are addressing in their turn to fabric. This is because once viewers affirm textiles are fine art, they are ready to recognize that the world owes so much of its cultural patrimony to the women that have served as unknown makers.
The artists here have tried to lead us to conclusion through the very materiality of the embroidery. Richelieu is cutwork, which means that the fabric is sewed up around a series of cuts. The result is a veil with so many holes that it calls attention to the face behind it. Every artist in this exposition uses cutwork for this reason, beckoning us to focus on the faces and forms of women who have too often been hidden in history.
Karla Caprali (b. 1971, Belem, Brazil) presents work that explores family and memory with stitching and embroidery techniques that resonate with the rest of the collection presented here. She then furthers the artistic conversation with an attention towards icons and original framing. These are evident in the politically-charged “The Fucked Up Deal,” a series of embroidered canvases framed inside wire coat hangers. In the central work of the series, “Fucked Up Deal #3,” a young lady lies in sleep, just after a snake's bite. Stitched inside the hanger is a feminist pennant offered as a response to an earlier flag that long has waved over this country.
In 1775, American patriots interested in separation from Britain created the Gadsden flag, featuring a rattlesnake shouting “Don't Tread on Me.” Since then, the snake has often served as a symbol of the United States government. Caprali here is first reminding viewers of an historical point: the snake used its newfound liberty to tread over women. It rattled at any woman daring to venture out of the cult of domesticity, and lashed out at those demanding political inclusion. The bites continue in the present, notes Caprali, as the Trump administration flies its Gadsden against anyone that believes a healthcare system should include sexual and reproductive health. Slashing funds and institutions that support reproductive health leads to the kinds of dark outcomes suggested by Caprali’s wire frames. Every year across the world, seventy-thousand women die from back alley abortions, many of these induced by wire hanger. Most of the these occur in developed countries including the US. As we walk away, the wire frames hang heavy on the clothesline of our nation’s mother thread of life, which bends with the weight. Gadsen’s snake distances himself from the atrocity with which he is complicit, with only a smirk and a smug air of moral superiority. But not all is lost. Caprali’s protagonist may only be sleeping, prepared to offer a new prophecy to the Genesis snake: “I shall rise again, and crush thy head with my heels.”
Political protest takes on added significance when done on textile, especially today as political movements become increasingly organized on the grassroots level and through social media. This is precisely the gendered metaphors bound up with cloth serve also a guide for realizing equality. In order to achieve a democracy that extends full citizenship and social recognition to women and minorities, we must have tightly-stitched networks committed to strengthening the social fabric.
Within the walls of this gallery, we are invited to see through the gaps in the cloth, to look at the women behind the threads. But when we leave, we must recognize that weaving is the responsibility of men and women alike. This is because every human life is interconnected. It is only by protecting our neighbor’s thread that we prevents our own threads from being the next to unravel..
Deacon, Deborah and Paula E. Calvin. War Imagery in Women's Textiles: An International Study of Weaving, Knitting, Sewing, Quilting, Rug Making and Other Fabric Arts. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2014.
Faris, Jaimey Hamilton. Uncommon Goods. Bristol: Intellect, 2014.
World Health Organization. “Unsafe Abortion: The Preventable Pandemic,” The Lancet Sexual and Reproductive Health Series, October 2006.
Micah Oelze, PhD, is an intellectual historian and cultural critic committed to using education and the arts to raise up scholars and strengthen local communities. By day, he teaches at Miami’s Florida International University. At night, he writes art criticism and history