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Barbican 'Unravel' Review: 'tells a story of an ancestral tradition rendered insignificant'


Louise Bourgeois with her sculpture, THREE HORIZONTALS, in her home on 20th Street in New York City in 1999. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023, courtesy The Easton Foundation. Photo: Elfie Semotan.

Racialisation, gendering as feminine, marginalisation – all those hegemonic cultural processes have got a long-standing relationship with the practise of weaving. Entangled in the dynamics of late capitalism, this indigenous practice has been appropriated even to the point of ‘justifying’ industrial exploitation of women’s labour across the globe. For instance, Lisa Nakamura, a scholar of gender and women’s studies, tells us how Indian women circuit-makers of a company called Fairchild Semiconductor were rendered to appear as culture workers. Fairchild’s ideologically ambiguous brochures from the late ‘60s celebrated Navajo women as culture workers who successfully produced small and complex electronic circuits due to their high level of weaving experience and skill. In this way, Fairchild managed to portray circuit-making as part of the ‘reproductive’ labour of expressing Navajo culture of weaving, concealing thus the exploitative nature of the job.

As Barbican’s new exhibition reveals, late ‘60s is, concurrently, also the time of an artistic embrace of textiles as a mode of critiquing and pushing up against such regimes of power. Effectively, Unravel challenges us to wonder: what does it mean to think of a needle, a loom, or a garment as a tool of resistance? For instance, the exhibition’s first room, ‘Subversive Stitch’, unpacks the historical fabrication of weaving as ‘women’s work’, utilising various gender and sexual identities of its featured artists to the point of reimagining culturally fixed prejudices against weaving as irrelevant, stale, and oppressive. 

On display in this section, Ghada Amer’s Pink Landscape – RFGA (2007) is one such example of a powerful reclamation of femininity rendered marginal. As a young student in the 1980s, Amer was not allowed to enrol in a painting class at art school because she was a woman. Amer carries this rejection forward and turns it into an astonishing exhibit of craftsmanship and sensuality. Behind dripping ‘threads’ of crimson red acrylic mixed with gel medium (evoking male-dominated current of abstract expressionism as well as an excess of period blood) hides a carefully embroidered abundance of women portrayed as masturbating. Although the figures are not clearly visible upon first sight, this is not a technical imperfection but rather a deliberate assessment on Amer’s part. After all, how often does the female experience blend into a blur - especially in the art world - while the conversations of the contestable ‘provocative genius’ of their male counterparts never seem to fade away? 

Judy Chicago, Birth Tear, 1982. © Judy Chicago. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023, courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. Photo: John Wilson White

Building on Amer’s themes is Judy Chicago’s masterful Birth Tear/Tear (1982), an absolute must see. Embroidered on silk by Jane Gaddie Thompson, this work wields authority capable of establishing a cosmological meaning of womanhood itself. Evoking at once the science fiction of Octavia Butler, bioaesthetics of Isadora Duncan and body horror of Suspiria (more so the 2018 remake), Chicago’s Birth Tear/Tear shocks in its viscerality, as much as it stuns in its display of mastery over craft. Chicago’s piece doesn’t just speak, it shouts, and with its scream a tear is ripped in the previously unchallenged, century-old tapestry of male dominance in the arts. It certainly is a jewel in the crown of this wonderful exhibition.

At large, Unravel deals with the themes of gender, labour, value, ecology, legacy, extraction, and trade through thematic categorisation rather than strict chronological order. While such approach comes with a risk of inconsistency and sensationalism, here it pays off. In turn, Unravel is as academic as it is accessible, and most crucially the sheer beauty of the work on show is inspiring. Resistance, the exhibition tells us, is at anyone’s fingertips. 

The exhibition dips slightly until the final room, ‘Ancestral Threads’, picks it back up again. Concerned with themes of legacy and ancestry, this final section of the exhibition ambitiously studies textiles as archives, a framework that positions them always at the border of mutability and fixedness, globalism and local knowledge. And so, Yee I-Lann’s project TIKAR/MEJA (2018), with weaving by artists such as Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnohung, and more, interjects discussions of settler colonialism both conceptually and formally. Utilising traditional Bornean sitting mats called tikar, I-Lann ‘updates’ them with images of modern Western tables and chairs – an intervention equally colonialist as it is aesthetically Warholian. Constructed out of pandan tree leaves coloured with commercial chemical dye, this work invites us to think about stories of globalism and trade, moving beyond the visual paradigm as it also considers questions of functionality, anthropology, and critical theory.

Elsewhere in the section are sculptures of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose work interrogates Poland’s history as the post-Second World War textile manufacturing hub of Europe. Searching for new ways of expression around censorship imposed on the Polish arts by the Soviet government, Abakanowicz sculptures such as Black Garment (1968) baffle with their otherworldly organicism straight from Ridley Scott’s Alien. It is partially thanks to Barbican’s very architecture that these works carry as much impact as they do. Indeed, the concrete vastness of the lower gallery makes for a good environment in which the past, present and future of weaving entangle in a connective network.

‘Unravel’, too, is the name of a song from Björk’s third studio album Homogenic (1998). On the album’s cover, Björk is seen harnessed by her own ornaments. She is wearing traditional Hopi maiden hairstyle, a brass coil neckpiece worn by the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe, a Japenese geisha kimono, and hyper-long nails – all markers of both femininity and attempts to keep this femininity at bay, here kaleidoscopically gathered to an impossible result. Yet Björk is a warrior – and with the power of love she transcends her socially imposed physical limitations. At its best, Barbican’s Unravel achieves similar results. It tells a story of an ancestral tradition rendered insignificant, only to be reclaimed with twice as much force.

'Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art' is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until 26 May 2024.

Students go for £13.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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