Fibre and textile have found a voice in the local art environment thanks to festivals and initiatives such as the Ramsay Art Prize, SALA, FRAN Fest and TARNANTHI.
Fibre, in its natural and processed form, has been with us since time immemorial. Indigenous Australians’ intimate relationship with land manifests the way natural fibres are integrated into everyday life with baskets, nets, mats and other utilitarian objects and artworks. Our colonial and migrant forebears brought with them textiles in the form of household goods and clothes. In both cases, fibre and textiles were used to create a sense of home and place.
India Flint’s SALA exhibition Disquiet and Shirley Macnamara’s TARNANTHI exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia perfectly illustrate the fragile relationship we have with the earth and our quest to create a home, albeit temporary.
Fibre and textiles are most often associated with women’s work. Women sew, stitch, weave, knit and embroider. Women create and take care of homes and families. The irony of using these ephemeral materials to create a sense of permanence cannot be overlooked. Women’s work doesn’t last. Fabric deteriorates, fibre withers, legacies are lost and women’s work becomes invisible.
Sera Waters’ exhibition Domestic Art illustrated these concepts on a deeply personal level as she explored the role of women in the home, relationships and society and the cultural construction of gender roles. Artist Makeda Duong used the traditionally female craft-forms of knitting and embroidery to explore the feminine burden of labour, both craftwise and emotional, in contemporary domestic relationships in her FRAN Fest exhibition at Artroom 5.
Sera Waters, Colonial Beacons (2017)
Contemporary artist Sarah Contos’s winning Ramsay Art Prize entry, The Long Kiss Goodbye, cemented the use of textiles as a legitimate medium in contemporary fine art. The Long Kiss Goodbye plays with concepts such as identity, femininity, history, popular culture and eroticism.
Textiles define belonging. It carries, wraps and protects. Migrants bound for Australia, whether immigrants or refugees, came with cloth. It is mobile, easy to transport, protective and a symbol of heritage. Artists such as Haneen Martin (with her SALA exhibition Here and Now) and Ziyagul Yahya (part of the FRAN Fest group exhibition Fly Away) use textiles to connect with their past, give a voice to their foreign-ness and isolation, and to find solace and protection in their new home, Australia.
TARNANTHI contained a rich and varied range of fibre- and textile-related work. From ancient traditions to contemporary interpretations of heritage and culture, we saw fibre and textile work by the Yolngu women and Bula’bula Arts of Arnhem Land, the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists from Alice Springs, as well as Tallara Gray, Lisa Waup and Shirley Macnamara. TARNANTHI celebrates heritage in a new narrative by expressing an enduring culture in an ephemeral medium.
And now we’ve come full circle. Whether our heritage was Indigenous, colonial or migratory, it was crafted with labour and love in fibre and textiles. As Adelaide’s art festivals have proven thus far in 2017, so will our future be.
Header image: Sarah Contos, Australia, born 1978, Sarah Contos Presents: The Long Kiss Goodbye, 2016, screen-print on linen, canvas and lamé, digital printed fabrics
and various found fabrics, PVC, poly-fil, glass, ceramic and plastic beads, thread, artists’ gloves, 610 x 330 x 25 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley 9
Gallery, Sydney and STATION Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Jessica Maurer