23 April 2017

Political quilts

A recent theme on the Contemporary Quilt group's discussion list has been political quilts - those dealing with current affairs and with injustices and conflicts in today's world. Never mind that the UK is now - again, so soon - in the run-up to yet another election, which puts my head in the sand as I retreat to a media-free zone. 

My own work is very unlikely to include any political theme - it's process and materials that interest me: stitching as drawing, the cloth-ness of fabric, that sort of up-in-the-air thing. But I feel strongly that textile artists and contemporary quilters  need to be aware not just of the different varieties of quilts being made, but of what's going on in the world.

So I've noted the names mentioned in the CQ discussion - Peter Kennard, Hew Locke -
"For those in peril on the sea" (via)
Hans Haacke, John Keane, George Grosz, Sigmar Polke, Banksy, Yinka Shonibare - some I know a bit about already, others I've looked up and will watch out for. 

Maggie Hambling may have done work about Syria and climate change [though an environmental message in the Wall of Water series was not a conscious plan]; Gerhard Richter (those Baader-Meinhof paintings come to mind), Anselm Kiefer (German history) - but what about Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, what political themes have they used [flags? the commentary inherent in appropriated images?]; and there are many African & East European artists who are prepared to challenge the status quo.

When it comes to textiles, very few will tackle such issues, said one contributor, but among them are Cas Holmes [connection with nature; sustainable practice], Sandra Meech [arctic meltdown]
"The last silence" (via)
Helen Conway [street art as fractured communication], Leah Higgins [ruins], Rozanne Hawksley [isolation; war; misuse of power], Sara Impey [lettering that comments on social issues] -
"Tickbox Culture" (via)

Christine Chester made a piece about the Bosnian War, and a large memory loss series. Irene MacWilliam has made "year quilts" tracking current events, and other work including "Common Loss" - one red square for each person killed in the Troubles -
Her work is part of the Conflict Textiles collection, as is work by Eileen Harrison -
"Her pillow, the earth" (via)

"Politics is about so much I am wondering how it is possible to actually avoid being political" said another contributor to the discussion.

So ... if I did a textile work on a political theme, it might be about climate change, or biodiversity, or disappearing languages, or illiteracy, or food waste, or over-use of antibiotics, or the disappearance of art/design from school curriculums.

Or the NHS - its death by a thousand cuts. Ditto for libraries. 

Suddenly there seems a lot to do ...

Maybe the common core is the idea of things disappearing through neglect, a neglect that comes from taking them for granted. Perhaps this arises to some extent from a feeling a personal powerlessness.

Address it through art, yes ... but then my "favourite" question arises: Why a quilt? Why cloth, why stitch; why this medium. Would another medium be more appropriate, more telling, more impactful (or quicker, or easier... or reach a wider audience)?


An interesting article, from a non-quilter's perspective, is here. The writer says that a quilt is a good medium for the topic of migration - "for what else is a traditional quilt but the fragments of previous lives, worn out and no longer sustainable, now reassembled and stitched together to create a new whole for a new life? "


Olga Norris said...

My first thoughts are prompted by your question 'Why a quilt?', which should equal Why a painting?, Why a sculpture? Why a film? Why an installation? Why a tapestry? etc. Good artists - well, any artist really - makes their work manifest in whatever way suits them best - surely? Perhaps the question we should ask is 'Is the work good/effective? rather than whether one medium is more appropriate than another.

I'm with the person who said that everything is political. An artist makes work from what moves them to say something. Often there is nothing distinctive that can be expressed in one 'shouty' work, but a body of work can build up to a more subtle opinion of the world. I've always believed that it's how we live that matters, and not what we shout now and again.

It's an interesting debate, and I too will be looking up the folks you mentioned whose work I do not know.

Margaret Cooter said...

Olga, my "why a quilt" question was badly phrased. "Which topics would be most effective communicated via a quilt" or "how can the qualities of textiles, fabric, thread enhance the communication of the topic" more accurately represent what I was trying to say.

One response to the original question was "because it's What I Do". Fair enough, and how wonderful to have found one's medium. I am questioning myself, in a time when I'm not sure of my direction and might want to switch to another type of art-making.

Whatever the medium, your question "is the work effective" is the criterion.

Another thing I've realised since writing is that political work doesn't have to be overtly, "shoutingly", protesting. That unconscious bond, the spectre of the "We Don't Want It" placard, has pushed me away from the political arena. Where does pure negativity get us?

As "homework" I'll go through some of the quilt-show catalogues on hand - Quilt National, the CQ challenge exhibitions, QuiltArt - and range the quilts on the political spectrum, from "beauty and skill only" at one end to ... what would score as 100% political? perhaps I'll find out ... at the other. Or it at least choose the "most political" and "least political". Not sure if this is a viable exercise, let's see what happens!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thank you for asking those questions at the end. They are often in the forefront of my mind as I think on a subject or try some surface design technique. Why am I doing this in fabric? It's what I know, is usually the answer, but it may not be the best vehicle. I may need to expand, not the fabric surrounding me. My concerns that overlap political ones might best be expressed another way.

The Idaho Beauty said...

I have to add that while cleaning out cd's the other day, I ran across one that had pdf catalogs of a couple of "ancient" exhibits. Margaret, you might remember Thelma Smith's curated exhibit from 2006, "Changing the World One Thread at a Time." I'd forgotten all about it but thought how timely what with the recent push back against those putting together and making quilts for the Resistance Exhibit. I think the main complaint is that quilts aren't supposed to be political or make a statement. Anyway, interesting flipping through it and I always wonder when looking at these old exhibit catalogs, how many of the artists are still actively working and exhibiting. Some still are, others I'd have to check. But no surprise I suppose, the themes are familiar ones ten years later: school violence, environmental issues like coal vs wind power, women's issues, justice, war and peace. We make so little progress it seems. Many could have been made today.

Thelma's curatorial statement fits nicely with the questions you've raised here: "I am a working artist and an independent curator. I can only speak of my philosophy of selection. A work must stop me in my tracks. It must make me think. It must raise questions. Societal commentary is sorely needed; art gracefully fills that need. I need not agree with an idea for it to be useful to my mind". Brilliant!