Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Personal Threads: ‘The Imperfect Cloth’ by Priya Ravish Mehra, Guest Post

Rafoogar Bathak,Najibabad

Najibabad, my hometown in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh, has historically served as a hub of the shawl trade in North India for the past 250 years, and has been known as the country’s most important centre for the specialized repair of valuable antique Kashmir kani shawls. At one time a profitable industry in Kashmir, the weaving of these beautiful textiles with their tapestry techniques, complex designs and intricate colour combinations is in sharp decline today.
Rafoogar demonstrating his craft, photo credit Priya Ravish Mehra
My own journey into the world of textiles began in childhood through the sight of kani shawls and other precious fabrics that were often brought to the family home by local rafoogars, expert darners who pass their carefully protected traditional skills from one generation to the next – fathers to sons, elders to youngsters, master artisans to apprentices – within their community. The rafoogars’ relationship with my ancestors had continued unbroken for decades. It was my rare good fortune to be raised by artistic parents – from the late 1930s to mid-1940s my mother and father had been students of Nandlal Bose, Binode Bihari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij,  the  three renowned Santiniketan modernists. I grew up in a house where handicrafts were integral to daily life, and where creativity and aesthetic interests were highly encouraged and appreciated. Kani shawls were prized items in our family collection, and my intimate familiarity with these exquisite objects from the time I was very young proved to be the core catalyst for my interest in the textile traditions of India, and later of the world.
Untiled-Kantha fragments with paper pulp, 14.5 in x 17.5 in -2016
My deep fascination with textiles took concrete form when I abandoned my postgraduate studies in mathematics and joined Santiniketan. Five years (1982-87) as a student in this renowned institution helped me to develop my interest in  textiles as both an area of study and as a personal art practice.
Untitled - Various thread with paper, 12 x 10 inches 2014
Over the years various opportunities to exhibit in solo and group shows in India and other countries came my way, and I received encouraging responses to my work. At present I am documenting the darning tradition in India, specifically the mending of Kashmir kani shawls, perhaps the only significant textile woven using tapestry techniques (with the possible exception of Deccan paithani saris). My research project, Making ‘Invisible’ Visible, is about a living tradition of craftsmanship, continuously upheld in difficult economic conditions by Najibabad’s rafoogars who have carefully protected the pushtaini (hereditary) knowledge required for the conservation of antique kani, keeping their specialized skills within the community and hence ‘invisible’ to outsiders.

The invisble darning
My research is a form of homage to these largely unseen and unacknowledged virtuoso artisans whose collective contribution to the great treasury of Indian cultural forms is missing from India’s textile narrative as well as from the sociological record. Other than the rare passing reference in Mughal manuscripts, quoted by various authors in modern studies of Kashmir shawls, there is no historical documentation of rafoogari as a profession or darners as a community. For me as a researcher, their discursive absence also embeds a symbolic irony, since the goal of repair and hallmark of expert rafoo is to render ‘invisible’ the damage on any kind of fabric.
Untitled- Indigo fabric with paper pulp 11 in x 8
I am not a textile scholar, textile historian or design/art pedagogue. My research is informed by my passion for textiles, my creative work as a textile art practitioner, my intuitive understanding of darning as an art form, my family associations with Najibabad’s rafoogars, and my deep concern for this vulnerable and unsupported community whose survival is under threat in an era of mechanization, as is the case with traditional artisans all over India. In more subjective terms, my research focus on the mending and restoration of degraded cloth acquired great significance for me some years ago when I was diagnosed with advanced cancer. I am still under treatment; and in this context the role of the rafoogar committed to preserving the unique life of a fragile, damaged kani shawl, who undertakes to repair it through difficult, meticulous, unseen, expert darning, has profound emotional resonance for me – as does the action of rafoo, which like all traditional Indian art forms is infused with meditative as well as cathartic and therapeutic potential.
Untitled- Indigo fabric with paper pulp 2, 11 in x 8
The medieval saint-poet Kabir, himself a weaver, frequently uses images from the craft to signify the process of material embodiment as well as of transcendence. The whole universe is stretched out on the cosmic loom fashioned from earth and sky; the sun and moon are simultaneously plied as twin shuttles… what was the warp, what the weft, what thread was used to create the finely woven, spotless sheet woven out of the five elements, the pristine cloth inevitably soiled, stained, defiled by the ignorant humans who wrap themselves in it…? So sings the poet, who concludes that only the Weaver can mesh thread with thread… with a formless shuttle weave a shawl with no edge… Today I am easily able to transpose Kabir’s lyric assertions to my own prolonged experience of an illness that has coerced visible and invisible uncertainties, fluctuations, blemishes and disruptions into the once-reliable order, logic and symmetries of my own somatic ‘warp and weft’. But I have also come to marvel at and respect the perfect design of the priceless perishable ‘sheet’; I have come to understand how the edges of each rip and gash have to be continuously aligned by the ‘darner’, firmly yet delicately pinioned, and then sealed stitch by careful stitch, to prevent further damage and to render the resilient cloth intact and whole. I have been absorbing and integrating those deeper intuitions simultaneously into my artistic life and my daily existence.
Untitled-Jute Fabric fragment with Daphne pulp,14 in x 21 in, 2016 (2)
Rafoogari thus represents an intimate merging of the artistic and personal paths within my life’s journey. My ongoing rafoogari research bestows a sense of coming full circle, a return to my origins which are also the source of my textile art practice that definitively germinated from my childhood love for kani shawls. Earlier, my ‘life’ and my ‘work’ were flowing in parallel, but now they seem to have become one. While my research documents the aesthetic, the technical skills and the sociological truths of the rafoogar community, it also provides me with an invaluable chance to assimilate various aspects of both visible and invisible darning as a powerful metaphor – to understand ‘repair’ as a vital modality of self-knowledge, and to experience the place, significance and act of such ‘darning’ in the fabric of a life, as well as in the life of a fabric. 
Priya Ravish Mehra is a Delhi-based textile artist, weaver, researcher and designer. Graduating from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, she later studied tapestry weaving at West Dean College, Sussex and  at the Royal College of Arts, London under a  Charles Wallace Fellowship.  To study the maintenance and preservation of Indian textiles, especially Kashmir shawls in public and private collections in the US, she also received an Asian Cultural Council Grant  Her battle against cancer has been aided and inspired by her work in rafoogari.

‘Personal Threads’ is an endeavour to read our histories (both political and personal) as the interconnected pieces of a quilt – each one’s individual threads sewn together to form a larger picture. Telling our stories is a means to locate ourselves and who we are within the folds of their narrative. And often, who we are and what we do, emerges from the people, things and places that played some role in our past. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected.


If you’d like to contribute to this project, drop me a line.



Monday, 5 February 2018

Personal Threads: Pink Cashmilon by Suzy Singh, Guest Post

There were no baby showers in those days. Certainly not in the seventies and eighties, in the Phulkari (embroidery technique unique to Punjab) obsessed town of Patiala in Punjab, where I spent most of my summer and winter holidays, basking in my grandparent’s love. But there was a ritual that made the pregnant waiting for the arrival of any baby in the family, deeply symbolic. It was the way my Nani-ma (maternal grandmother) invested endless hours knitting her magic into bewildering patterns, using pastel coloured Cashmilon (acrylic yarn) balls that she transformed into adorable pieces of infant attire. It was this unconditional act of love that made the arrival of every child in the family a great honour.
I was two years old when I first arrived at my grandparent’s house in Punjab. My family had recently met with a car crash and mum was struggling to deal with its aftermath while also attending to two young children. I’m not exactly sure why as the younger of two siblings, I was chosen to be sent away to Nani-ma’s house, but I guess in hindsight, I’m really grateful for it. I lived with my grandparent’s for the next couple of years till I was old enough to start schooling.
Unsettling as that displacement was for the little ‘me’, it gave me the opportunity to forge a deep and meaningful bond with my grandparents. As I observed my Nani-ma go about her daily routine, knitting, cooking and indulging us, I learnt about the incredible power of love and compassion. Back then, I wasn’t aware that the separation from my mother would create an unconscious program of abandonment in me. This limiting program may never have healed, had it not been for Nani-ma’s endless lessons in love.
Nani-ma was always so peaceful
There were times when she would chant hymns from the Rehras Sahib, (the evening prayer of Sikhs), under her breath while she knitted away, and the day turned quietly from daylight to dusk. At other times, she'd regale me with her stories and teachings while her fingers kept busy despite our conversations. Even as we sat immersed in the cinematic drama of movies, in pitch darkness, at dilapidated cinema halls in Sangrur, Rajpura and Patiala, her knitting needles didn’t rest for a moment. They seemed to be racing against time, weaving a legacy for every ‘expected child’ in her family. And thus she  kept on knitting, even as the seasons changed and the generations of her family grew up. In time, her shoulders froze with arthritis, but still her love knew no bounds. All she cared about was that enough sets of sweaters, matching caps and booties had to be made ready in time to welcome the new arrivals. 
Sometimes Nani-ma would stare emptily into the distance ahead, while her hands worked furiously on. I never knew what went on in her mind during those moments. She always seemed to have such a peaceful demeanour.  And yet, there were times when her needles made a peculiar sound, different from the usual clicking, that suggested her peace of mind may have been compromised. Her tranquillity, as I comprehend it now, was a carefully crafted mask which she wore with tremendous dignity and grace. Regardless of whatever anyone said to her, Nani-ma always stayed calm. But if those needles could have spoken, they may have revealed a  deeper truth. As I recollect that peculiarly frantic clicking in my mind now, I sense her inner turmoil and I wonder; did she ever feel as loved, in ways that she loved us all?
I guess you don't ask such questions from a reservoir of love. And so it was that the question never arose between us. But I wish it had. I wish it had tamed my selfishness, made me a tad more empathic to her needs, made me hold her hands in mine and treasure them in a way I always wanted to, but never really did. Alas, why wasn't I more conscious of her suffering? Instead, all I ever did was to greedily ask her for more freshly churned white butter on my paranthas (flatbreads), more Gajar-Shalgam-Gobi ka achaar (vegetable pickle), more Panjiri (traditional Punjabi sweet) that she made especially for the pregnant ladies of the family to nourish the fetus and facilitate an easy delivery for the mother, more haldi ki barfi (Tumeric sweatmeat) that I so relished, and more sweaters every winter. All of which she made exquisitely, with a joyful willingness, like no one ever could.
How I wish I had talked to her knitting needles, when she lay them down after a long day’s work, listening to the stories they had to tell. Surely they must have been privy to the secrets of one who had worked with them so deftly. But wisdom usually arrives late in life, filling one's heart with remorse. All one can do then is to gather those memories woven with love, and hold them close to one’s heart, wishing for another chance to love in a more conscious and wholesome way.  But since I cannot turn the clock back now, the only thing I can hope to do is to become a weaver of love, by training my hands and heart to knit her magic, by pouring my love generously and selflessly into all. That perhaps is the greatest tribute I can pay her, by simply becoming who she was.
I remember so vividly how all the grandchildren fought over who would sleep with Nani-ma during our vacations, or who had received more sweaters from her each winter.  As the styles changed, so did the shapes and designs of her hand-crafted garments. Twin sets, long dresses with belts, half sleeved jackets, caps, scarves, mufflers - anything we children demanded, was magically knit, sometimes even overnight. But it was the warm vests that remained the same through all times. Pure white, sleeveless, round-neck embraces of double-knit compassion, that were designed to keep her beloved family warm, through the coldest winter months.
Long cable dress with belt knit by Grandma in 1978
I often wonder if anyone ever asked my Nani ma if she felt loved. Or was everyone else, like me, simply content with just receiving from her, without ever sparing a thought about her needs? Whether it was the comfort of her cosy lap that we snuggled in, the nourishment of the hot Elaichi (cardamom) milk she prepared for us at bedtime, or the gentle thapki (tender patting) that made us drift into blissful sleep, all of us grandchildren were cherished and indulged beyond imagination.
Nani-ma was like the sun, giving off her warmth, every single day for as long as she lived, yet never asking anyone for anything. Except on those two days, when she must have begged for mercy from God. But her prayers were not answered. Not when she lost her younger son, so unexpectedly to heart failure, while his wife was pregnant with child. Not even when she lost her elder one, to a terrible car accident.
Nani ma

And yet, her face continued to wear a brave mask, but her body began to give way. Her shoulders became frozen with pain and her heart lost its fervour to knit. There were days when I stood outside her bathroom door and heard her suppressed wails as she desperately lifted an arm to put on her shirt or when she tried to placate her grieving heart. But Nani-ma never spoke about her pain, nor did she ever complain. She just went on with life, like drudgery. The only difference was that she prayed more fervently, through the rest of her days, as though begging God to take care of her sons. Or perhaps, requesting Him, to take her away. 
Slowly, the sweaters became fewer and rarer. Life snatched away her two grown sons prematurely, and with it the rhythm of her knitting lost its colour, design and purpose. The new-borns kept arriving and she did knit for them all, even for some of her great grand-children, but her magic had begun to fade. I saw it in her eyes, that dead stony gaze which told the story of her loss and her slackening will to live. Much as I wanted to, I could do nothing to soothe her pain.
Instead, I began knitting sweaters for my loved ones, just like Nani-ma did. I knit for my husband and for my new-borns. They were nothing compared to grandma’s knits, but I felt reassured when my husband repeatedly chose to wear his camel coloured, double knit, cabled sweater, that I made for him. On many a cold winter night, he warmed my heart by casually mentioning that this was indeed the warmest sweater of all.
Ribbed sweater I knit for my husband in 1992
Time passed and the sun rose one morning to announce that Nani-ma had passed on, quietly in her sleep. She left as gently as she had lived, without asking for help or burdening anyone. How I wish I had held my Nani-ma’s hands in reverence, and placed mine on her hurting heart, to comfort it. How I wish, I could somehow have healed the loss of her sons, and disentangled the traumatic knots that silently choked her grieving heart. How I wish, I had held her tightly when she ached for them, like she had held me, when I was fearful and forlorn. How I wish, I could have promised her that she would surely meet her lost sons again, on the other side, in the higher realms. How, oh how I wish, I had woven the same love into her life that she had knit into every child’s life that was ever born to her family.
And because I didn’t do any of those things for her back then, and now I know I never can, surely not on this earthly realm, I give my love to other people, hoping to heal their pain and unshackle their hearts and minds. And I weave this tale with deepest admiration and love, with the pink Cashmilon threads of my heart, to honour her life, to share her legacy with all, and to celebrate the extraordinary woman that my Nani ma was.
Suzy Singh learnt to live life, to sew, stitch, knit, cook, bake and most importantly, to love, from her grandma. After eighteen years in advertising, She relinquished a successful corporate career to pursue her soul’s purpose of healing, loving and giving. She is now a Healer, Spiritual Teacher and Author of the book, ‘7 Karma Codes - Heal the Storm Within’, available online: https://www.amazon.in/7-Karma-Codes-Suzy-Singh/dp/938423821X
Her website is www.suzyheals.com
She can be reached on

‘Personal Threads’ is an endeavour to read our histories (both political and personal) as the interconnected pieces of a quilt – each one’s individual threads sewn together to form a larger picture. Telling our stories is a means to locate ourselves and who we are within the folds of their narrative. And often, who we are and what we do, emerges from the people, things and places that played some role in our past. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected.
If you’d like to contribute to this project, drop me a line.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Personal Threads: Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, by Uma Nair, India, Guest Post

Louise Bourgeois, from her Fabric Book [Image Courtsey MOMA/Uma Nair]

“Clothing is...an exercise of memory...
It makes me explore the past...
how did I feel when I wore that..

                                                -  Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, threads in a spidery format -
her favourite theme, [image sourced from internet]

MOMA will have a select retrospective of Louise Bourgeois opening at the end of this month [September 2017 – January 2018]. Among the many drawings sculptures and prints will be a fabric book created by her, which I saw as an exhibition in Washington DC in 1997.
Why do I a humble critic from India consider it a personal thread ?
The magic power of the Needle - Louise Bourgeois quote 1992, [image sourced from internet]
I read and researched about Bourgeois and realised that she held thread and needles as close to her as confidants. Bourgeois’ connection to fabric goes back to her childhood years when she helped out in her family’s tapestry restoration workshop. As an adult, she long associated the act of sewing with repairing on a symbolic level, as she attempted to fix the damage she caused in personal relationships. She even held a special regard for spools of thread and needles as tools -she considered important instruments in the service of man.
Louise Bourgeois - another fabric creation
 on her best known theme of spiders
[image sourced from internet]

Fabric became her ally-her medium of dreams and fantasies and her narrator-fabric became her sculptural element .In the 1990s, as she began to mine material from clothes accumulated over a lifetime. She hung old dresses, slips, and nightwear in installations, and then manipulated timeworn terry cloth into nearly life-size figures or eerie portrait-like heads.
Louise Bourgeois Pink Days and Blue Days. 1997.
Steel, fabric, bone, mixed media.
 Collection Whitney Museum of American Art
[image sourced from internet]

 In 1999, she hired a seamstress, Mercedes Katz, to help with this work and set her up in a workshop-like area on the lower level of her house, where she also installed two small printing presses. By 2000, Bourgeois had turned to printing on old handkerchiefs, and then other fabrics. She also constructed books of fabric collages.

Louise Bourgeois - Spider [image courtsey MOMA/Uma Nair]
Printing on fabric was a major preoccupation of Bourgeois’s later years and she highly valued her collaboration with Katz and the various printers with whom she worked. The greatest lesson in honesty came from her sharing the truth about her collaborations. The old fabrics  resonated with memories .She made use of technology, and  took advantage of digital possibilities for duplicating aging or fading effects. In contrast to her prints and books on paper, Bourgeois’s fabric works have a tactile presence that gives them a decidedly sculptural dimension. Delicacy of line and an intensity of poise and purpose define her fabric books. Of course her greatest work The Spider 1997  is a sublime collaboration of Steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold and bone .
Louise Bourgeois, Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999,
Steel, 35 ft in height, Tate Modern, London [image sourced from internet]
Her words stand as a symbolism for all ages. “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”
Louise Bourgeois
[image sourced from internet]
‘Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait’ at MOMA, for architectural digest is currently on display  till January 2018. It explores the prints, books, and creative process of the celebrated sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), whose extraordinary creative process is the organizing principle behind the exhibition, highlighting the themes constantly revisited in her art, all of which emerged from emotions she struggled with for a lifetime.Uma Nair has reviewed this exhibition for Architecural Digest.
Uma Nair is art critic of 30 years.  She considers multiple media, including textiles, as one of the greatest testimonies of art that can last a lifetime. In an India that has been invaded by western wear she still wears saris that go back 30 to 40 years. She writes as critic for Architectural Digest, The Hindu and Millennium Post, other than her own blog PlUMAge on Times of India.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Personal Threads: Structure Me Not by Maggie Baxter, Australia, Guest Post


Maggie aged 7years,
wearing handknit
done by her mother
and or aunts
Quilting. Now there is a word that terrifies me, one I want to run away from. It is loaded like a gun to shoot me away from all pretensions of being a ‘serious’ artist into the murky lower depths of the craft circle with all its connotations of women’s work and the amateur.

slippage 2 - detail, Resist block printing
over dyed with organic natural dye on hand woven cotton
When Gopika suggested the concept of a narrative quilt, I thought ‘fabulous, great idea’ but quickly chickened out of the quilt and headed straight to the narrative. In a backward glance this meandering memoir, piecing together this and that, will investigate a little of why that is.
Cover of the book ’The Quilts of Gee’s Bend’
I am a fraud, that much you should know. Like all good feminist artists who work with textiles I have read The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker, so I know that in Western countries, embroidery and all things stitched lost status from the middle ages when men and women worked together in guild workshops, until they were fully deemed women’s work in the 18th century. This fall from grace has never been restored. I have tut-tutted, shaken my head at this and probably had a little rant or two.
Quilt - detail  from the book, Irene Williams, c 1975
I check out art books all the time for inspiration. One I turn to, at least as much as if not more than any about painting or sculpture, is The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. If those quilts were painted they would be regarded as masterpieces of modernist abstraction - “geometric permutations of pure colour and form-bars and bands of colour offered up in bold confidence, intricate triangles playing visual eye games” . That they were born out of the repression of slavery using whatever their authors could lay their hands on makes their brilliance shine all the more. There is an unconscious immediacy about this work, and although the result is quite different the same can be said of traditional kantha quilts where soft, worn, aged saris are recycled into a new incarnation, the composition entirely at the behest of the maker.

'Slippage 1',
2.5 x 1 m, Direct block printing
 using organic natural dye on
hand woven cotton
But in the West, notwithstanding the small number of professional quilt artists who bravely set out to extend the parameters of the medium, most of my sisters in stitch spend hours and months patiently and carefully making quilts of pre-determined patterns from cheap cotton often pre-sorted into colour or themes (Christmas, landscape, Australiana etc etc). Yes, yes, I know it isn’t my business to comment, or wonder why, let alone pass judgement, especially if it gives them pleasure, but still I find it slightly depressing - like paint by numbers or embroidery kits. It seems that if the work is born of necessity and has to be the composition of the person doing it, there is a spirit so lacking in that which is pre-determined by others.
'Whole' - Maggie Baxter, Knitted
I can’t quite cross the line. See above, I have not called myself a textile artist but an artist who works with textiles. What a nit-pick! If I had stuck to my original intentions of sculpture, performance art and photography instead of being drawn by an irresistible, irrevocable, invisible karmic thread to Indian textiles, I wouldn’t have this dilemma. I am sure my friends in India, surrounded as they are by the ongoing splendour of their simultaneously ancient and modern - woven, printed, stitched and embroidered material culture, are just thinking ‘Whatever, but really, what is your problem?’
Teenage rebellion
'Slippage 2', 2.5 x 1m.
Detail, Resist block printing
 over dyed with
organic natural dye
on hand woven cotton
There was no quilting in our family or much sewing of any kind. I do have a small number of tray and tablecloths that my mother embroidered early in her marriage, but she didn’t maintain the enthusiasm. It was knitting that was the centre of our craft world. The hand knitted sweater and cardigan was epidemic in 1950’s and 1960’s England – the time and place of my childhood and adolescence. Someone could write a thesis on mid-20th century hand knitting just by going through our family photo albums. My mother and all my aunts knitted non-stop and with great skill. They could do complex cabling and multi-coloured patterns without even looking at the needles, watch television while they counted rows and stitches. Who, WHO, WHO would want to spend their life sitting at home knitting when there was a big wide world out there to explore my sixteen-year-old self, asked no one in particular - not ME I ungratefully muttered while putting in an order for whatever caught my fashion fancy on the knitting books that regularly arrived by post. And anyway, why bother to learn when someone else could already do it – and here I must digress for one moment to apologise to my mother on behalf of my teenage self.
Four elderly Scottish Aunts wearing hand knit sweaters and cardigans, cira 1960's
But did they all do it just for the love of knitting? To begin with, probably not but later probably yes.  I can only speculate because, taking it for granted, I never asked the question. They were very good at it, took pride in their skill but in the child rearing decades of post-World War II England it was an economic necessity. It was much cheaper to buy wool on the skein and knit than to buy a completed sweater. This hasn’t been the case for a long time and except for occasional brief revivals as ‘the new meditation’, hand knitting is well and truly in decline superseded by the ongoing barrage of quickly disposable machine made.
Sweater my mother, Phyl Baxter, knitted for me circa 1980
And when they weren’t knitting my female elders were neatly, carefully darning socks and old hand made sweaters. The throw-away society was on the horizon but in the mean time it was mend and make do. Not quite rafoogari but neat and functional nonetheless.
Sweater my mother, Phyl Baxter, knitted for me circa 1980, detail view
Then there was school – not that sewing or domestic science were major subjects, more a quick overview and then an option.  Retrospective note to long since deceased teachers (just in case you reincarnate into the same profession): if you want to engage the imagination of teenage girls do not start sewing lessons with three different ways to patch sheets. What you will end up is grubby bits of lacklustre tat that look like a dog chewed them. I am sure I am not alone from that class in saying I have never patched a sheet since.
'Uncurled 1',
Resist block printing overdid with organic natural dye
 on hand woven cotton. Pakko hand embroidery
I went to art school almost a decade later, chronologically somewhere between Punk and when the amputated asymmetry of Rei Kawakubo’s anti-aesthetic hit the catwalks of Paris and thereafter the world. Oh rip, tear and deconstruction, we were made for each other. I thought my lack of craft skills base had found its true calling without realising until I tried it just how skilful the apparent nihilist approach to cloth really was.
'Whole' - Maggie Baxter, Knitted
But disconcertingly I reverted to my origins. I knitted. First big soft sculptures Claes Oldenburg style before moving on to knitting plastic tubes, strips of fake fur, and even garden mesh. Then just as suddenly as the knitting fervour came upon me it went back into hibernation emerging once more in the 21st century as irregular lace-like textures achieved by dropping stitches, knitting into two or three stitches at a time and then randomly increasing them. Abstract knitting. I’m all over the place, just where I like to be.
'Drip', Maggie Baxter, Knitted
If I were going to consolidate the primary statement of my artwork – it would be line. My drawings (and therefore block printing, and use of stitch) are linear, calligraphic, scribbled. And strangely knitting is linear: It is the act of making a more solid cloth or garment by wrapping and knotting very long threads of fibre over two sticks. In my knitting, the thread never becomes solid, it loops and drapes into random circuitous lines. Some of these I have drawn again and turned into blocks ready for more randomness in the way they are placed on cloth.
'Drip', Maggie Baxter, Knitted, a detailed view
So, maybe there is another problem with quilting for me? It isn’t random. It is all about structure and building blocks. That is not say there can’t be randomness in the choice of colour or the way the blocks are built up, but still there does have to be some kind of geometry, forethought or plan in the layout. In quilting serendipity is pre-ordained no matter the oxymoron of that statement.
'Drift', Maggie Baxter, Knitted
I am having a personal, quiet little rebellion against structure. No more of in my life thank-you very much, I already have way too much. City Australia, which is here most of us live, is not the wild frontier of our myths and legends but an over regulated nanny state where we can’t even bicycle on a footpath to the local shop without a crash helmet. My working life coordinating public art in new buildings and public open spaces is a barrage of deadlines, timetables, minutes and reports even before we can get to the literal building blocks of the architecture into which the art is assimilating. So outside of that, in my own artwork allow me to indulge in the free form, be unprepared, totally intuitive, and let it roll out how it chooses to. I am just not sure I can do that with quilting.
'Drift', Maggie Baxter, Knitted

Maggie Baxter is an Australian artist, writer, curator, and public art coordinator.

1. Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London, The Women’s Press. First published 1984, reprinted 1996.
2. William Arnett (Editor), The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  John Bearldsley, Shelly Zegart, and Maude Southwell Wahlman (contributing editors), published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, Georgia in assoc. with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002.
3. Ibid. P.14

‘Personal Threads’ is about creating a narrative quilt, in an endeavour to read our histories as not something unconnected with each other or the past, which is personal and political, but to read our histories as the interconnected pieces of a quilt, assembled like bricolage. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected. While the past has tremendous bearing,  the intention isn't to harp on it as a wail or dissent or blame, but to narrate this as a means to locate ourselves and who we are within its folds.
If you’d like to contribute to this project, drop me a line.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Marks of Living Continue to Fascinate

I've been sorting through the stones and shells that I've collected - putting them together, mostly, according to their size. With the shells, the categories increase as there are broken bits, there are odds bits like oyster shells which seem like coagulated masses. I'm utterly enamoured of these 'darker' forms of the sea,  hoping to make them into pendants bringing out their salient features with silver filigree. Adding to my growing collection are also those shells which aren't quite shards but almost whole shells with the odd hole in them. I prize these the most from the current standpoint of wanting to sew/crotchet them onto fabric.

As I touch and feel each one and put them into their designate packets or transparent plastic containers, I marvel at the dents and marks, cracks and shards and pause to see just how perfect they seem with however their adventures through life has marked or shattered them. I can envision using all of them in some way. Nothing seems irrelevant. 

I'm often asked by people on the beach what I'm collecting. I say "anything I can find." The most usual response from them is "for an aquarium?" and I remain silent, wondering how could I ever explain that what I'm picking them up for,  is anything but the obvious aquarium. But yes, as a repository of life, mimicking the ocean of existence, I suppose it could be an aquarium of sorts. 

With the stones, no matter how small or large, the stoic acceptance of the weight they carry, becomes something to contemplate with regard to the weightiness of being that we, as humans, also carry.  Weathered by the tide, the wind and whatever other elemental experiences they may have passed through.  Do we manage this kind of acceptance? I cannot help but speculate, how on earth can one to muster such stoicism in the face of travails that have challenged and destroyed illusions of self? 
Then come the delicate, delightfully coloured and intricately patterned shells that appeal to the designer and pattern-maker in me. They are mostly separated parts of whole shells - the two almost identical faces that partner to create life, as they swim, tightly hugging each other, through the waves. The few little ones that I've found still intact, I've ventured to crack-open to discover that they're infertile - too young to have nurtured life. But, while all this charms, what I touch and feel and hold most carefully and thoughtfully, as each passes through my fingers, are the fragments that often don't even resemble shells. If I hadn't picked them off the sand I'd be hard-pressed to believe they were indeed shells. Despite being torn asunder thus, I've seen how they hold their ground - digging whatever is left of them into the sand, often more effectively than the stones. These fragments of broken rock pieces, that also people the beaches, are often well rounded but, mostly because of this, they inevitably tumble down, pulled back by the current, into the ocean, probably to be weathered even more. 

And it's the itsiest stones that I just love to collect. Occasionally if a friend comes along, and infected by my ardent fancy of all the rubble on the shore, starts picking up stuff for me. They exclaim "how can you even hold them, they're so small!" But, it's this smallness which I find evocative of diminishing egos that thrills me to hold - to catch their tiny, almost elusive forms, between my, comparatively giant-sized, index finger and thumb. They're adorable and sit together easily, no matter where I put them. They have an ease of belonging that's enviable. But, the process of getting there hurts like hell, doesn't it?