Three pieces of art on view in a gallery
Installation view, ‘The New Bend,’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

Three Textile Exhibitions Prove Fabric Is an Enduring Medium For Storytelling

Joana Vasconcelos at MassArt Art Museum, Legacy Russell’s The New Bend at Hauser & Wirth, and Stitched at Paula Cooper Gallery examine the ways in which textile artists weave their stories today.

Pen and paper aren’t the only tools that have written American history. From legacies passed down orally to songs that carried otherwise bygone stories, American folk arts have reveled in unwritten yet unforgotten histories. Textiles have been among these critical forms of storytelling, particularly against the realities and experiences that the canon of art history has often excluded. Many artists—especially women of color—have turned to thread and needle to “write” what they saw and experienced. Three recent exhibitions trace these legacies and the hands that shape them.

textile art with a woman's face
Qualeasha Wood Ctrl+Alt+Del, 2021 Courtesy the artist and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick
An image of a massive textile installation with a person standing under it in a white walled gallery
Joana Vasconcelos. Valkyrie Mumbet at MassArt Art Museum. Photo by Will Howcroft. Courtesy MassArt

Joana Vasconcelos: Valkyrie Mumbet at MassArt Art Museum, Boston, MA

After MassArt Art Museum’s (MAAM) gut renovation of its 15,000-square-foot venue located on the campus of Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the museum director Lisa Tung knew their inaugural exhibition had to emphasize the Boston-based firm Design Lab Architects’ transformation of their soaring ceiling. “We needed an artwork suspended off of the floor, which we could not exhibit before,” Tung tells Metropolis. The Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’s 2,205-pound mixed media textile sculpture, Valkyrie Mumbet, fit the bill while simultaneously absorbing the visitors in textiles’ powerful storytelling abilities.

The inflated tentacular sculpture is dressed in yarn, lace, velvet, pompoms, buttons, glitter, beads, sequins, and most importantly, capulana, an African fabric that is common in Portugal through its multi-decade colonization of Mozambique. The towering 48-by-48-by-37-foot sculpture hovers above the floor at different heights, and embraces the viewers with its twenty-two arms, or “elements,” as the artist calls them.

The visual and atmospheric joy—which is supplemented by Portuguese music permeating the gallery—is also a monument to  Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, the first enslaved woman who was emancipated under the Massachusetts Constitution’s Bill of Rights in 1781. Freeman’s lawsuit led to the abolition of slavery in the state two years later. The exhibition is an iteration of Vasconcelos’s fabric-based Valkyrie installations, which each honor a local female figure. 

In each iteration, fabrics directly or metaphorically illustrate the subject’s story, and in this case, the artist uses gold beads that reference a necklace Freeman dons in her portrait at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Tung highlights textiles as a critical part of MAAM’s programming and says, “Personal and collective stories, but especially of women’s, are woven in fabric and handicrafts.”

An image of an exhibition and art hanging in a white walled gallery
Installation view, “The New Bend,” Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

The New Bend, Hauser & Wirth, New York, NY

In New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, blue-chip galleries have long favored hyper-masculine Modernist abstraction over the diverse handiwork of women and BIPOC craftspeople. But in recent years, that norm has begun to shift. The Swiss mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth’s radiant group exhibition The New Bend pays homage to the influential quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a small African-American Hamlet alongside the Alabama River. The vibrant and abstract patchwork of Gee’s Bend was pieced and sewn by groups of Black women throughout the early 20th Century, all while Abstract Expressionism was taking the New York art circuit by storm. Gee’s Bend quilters’ impact on American art and folklore endured throughout the 20th century, and they received national recognition in 2002 when the Whitney Museum opened an extensive survey, titled The Quilts at Gee’s Bend.  

The New Bend, organized by Legacy Russell—the executive director and chief curator at the avant-garde art center The Kitchen—explores the movement’s legacy and influence through the work of twelve contemporary artists. The exhibition highlights that textile art has and still is largely led by queer-identifying artists and people of color who continue to subvert mediums that have historically faced public and institutional oversight. Besides tying the relationship between textile practice and art history’s so-called highbrow movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, the work on view evokes a shared consideration of authorship and humility, while unpacking the “raced, classed, and gendered traditions of quilting.” Take, for example, Tuesday Smillie’s Sequin Light (Orange, with Kjerstin Rossi) (2021), from her Banners series in which she creates banners that speak for trans visibility in textile. Diedrick Brackens’s black and blue cotton and acrylic yarn, survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life (2021) is a performative, even subliminal approach from a weaver and poet. In nocturnal blue and black colors, the artist attributes energy to a body, woven both as trapped in and empowered by a radiant geometric form.

Dozens of durags painted with acrylic in Anthony Akinbola’s Jubilee (2021) opens a painterly door into quilting; Erin N. Mack’s corner installation, Forward walking boy on the edge where the sand meets the shore (from DES HOMMES ET DES DIEUX) (2018) show fabrics’ subtle intervention in the space, rendered in the airiness of silk organza, tulle, and cotton.   

textile art installation
ERIC N. MACK Landlord, 2021 umbrella, wood flagpoles, metal brackets, fabric collage, thread. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

Stitched, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY

A similar radiancy lives in Sanford Biggers’s mixed textile and acrylic star-shaped painting, Burst (2021), at Paula Cooper Gallery’s group exhibition Stitched, which featured a host of artists who expanded the act of stitching to include unconventional materials such cassette tapes, glass, record covers, or orange peels.

The show’s titular piece by Veronica Ryan (1994-95) is a three-by-three composition of paper and gauze physically united by the thread and the emotional commitment of sewing. The British artist’s gentle stitching in the show also includes Sewing Seeds 2 (2019), made out of woven fabric, mango seeds, and plastic, as well as an untitled woven cotton net filled with seed pods from 2020. Traumatic experiences of displacement, adjustment, and alienation are common issues Ryan handles with the simplicity of everyday objects—that range from avocado trays to seeds—and the care of handcraft. 

The show’s romantic approach to the act of stitching as a hopeful attempt to mend and heal was evident in Zoe Leonard’s tender sculpture, Two Oranges (1992), a duo of dried orange peels sewn to reunite the otherwise disparate bits of the dead fruit. Leonard’s surgical aesthetic is a reaction to the devastation caused by the AIDS crisis and the lack of bias stigma around the pandemic. Whether utilitarian or meditative, the labor in the act of sewing was also celebrated in Lucky DeBellevue’s wall-hanging piece Gives (2009), which includes bright-colored chenille stems in an energetic arrangement.

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