Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 2)

Earlier I explained that, through Tangled Yarns, Alke Schmidt reminds us of the obscure and murky chain of supply in the textile industry. But it was ever thus; Tangled Yarns explores the (dirty) politics and morality of the textiles industry from the 1700s to the present day. And seemingly, little has changed. Though the chain of supply today may often be a mystery, in her work Stained Alke traces the mid-1800s supply chain from cotton plant to dress. She illustrates how a garment's origins, even then, could leave an invisible smear unbeknownst to the wearer. 


A wealthy woman in an elegant, delicate ball-gown peers through a barrier of columns of an 1840s cotton print which separate her from the women who clothed her. As with many of the works in the exhibition, cloth, stitch and paint weave in and out of each other, and composition says just as much as content.



The women the elegant lady peers at are a plantation slave, a Lancashire mill worker and a cottage industry dressmaker. Each category of exploited worker became the focus of a moral outrage in the 1800s, just as the treatment of Bengali textile workers is now, and rightly so. Even the self-employed dressmaker working from home lived a meagre and often starving existence; there are accounts of cottage industry stitchers losing their eyesight by candlelight in the seminal text The Subversive Stitch.

Alke's dressmaker has dark circles under her eyes and stitches by a guttering candle; perhaps her eyesight, too, will soon falter.


As Alke’s exhibition demonstrates, structural violence towards women permeates and has always permeated the textile industry. In around 1719, this violence become more overt, when, as Alke rather brilliantly puts it, some women became literal "fashion victims". British weavers were feeling increasingly threatened by the popularity of patterned Indian and Indian-imitation cottons. Rather than directing their resentment at the producers of such cottons, wool and worsted weavers took to the streets and began attacking women wearing garments made from the printed cottons. The attacks included ripping and cutting the cloth, setting it on fire, and throwing acid at the women to burn their skin. It quickly became a witch-hunt in which the recipient of the violence was not the clothes but the women wearing them. They were branded Calico Madams, the title of the piece in which Alke brings all these rich and subtle threads of research (or tangled yarns, if you like) together.


As her base Alke has chosen a calico in the style of early 18th century Indian designs. The next layer is a reproduction of an illustration from the period celebrating the passing of the ban on Indian cottons. Finally she has painted the "calico madams" themselves, fighting off their attackers and lying defeated on the floor, where the rump of a woman becomes the site of the cottons being "burnt at the stake", with flames flickering around and leaping up to assault the fleeing women. Of course, the phrase "calico madams" was a way of attacking women for their sexuality, and conflating this sexuality with the way they were dressed. Therefore the flaming pyre appears on one of the most sexualised parts of a woman's anatomy.


Calico Madams is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually rich works in the exhibition. It is multi-layered both literally, with pattern, print and paint interlacing seamlessly in and out of each other, and figuratively, with countless threads of research woven together without over-burdening the whole.



It gives me courage as an artist who sometimes worries that there's "too much going on" in her own work. 

Tangled Yarns is an eminently apt title for this exhibition; it would be impossible to separate out the strands of race and gender, exploitation and violence with which the textiles industry is intertwined, and Alke doesn't attempt to. Instead, she explores how these strands relate to one another, in a triumph of intersectionality.

I have written about a handful of the works in the exhibition, and have spent almost two thousand words doing so. I hope this is some indication of how thought-provoking, conscience-pricking, and technically astute Tangled Yarns is. As a result of visiting the exhibition, I have chosen to make a real commitment to being an ethical fashion consumer. How many exhibitions cause us to transform our lives (and the lives of others) for the better? I would hazard a guess that it's not that many.

Tangled Yarns is exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until the 25th January 2015.

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 1)


The William Morris Gallery is very canny at showing contemporary artists whose output would have been looked upon most favourably by Morris himself. None more so than the latest exhibition by Alke Schmidt, Tangled Yarns. If Morris was alive today I'm sure he would have felt as passionately about Alke's call for social justice through her exposure of the murky world of the textile industry as about her highly skilled handicraft.

Alke plays up this dichotomy between Morris the socialist and Morris the designer in her exhibition. One of the first works which the audience is confronted with as they ascend the stairs to the main exhibition space is entitled Morris's Dilemma. "Confronted" is perhaps an apt word; rising like steam from the two arms of a mill engine, Morris's Honeysuckle and Tulip pattern, repeated on a grand scale, weaves like a mirage in and out of the engine painted over it. I'm not sure whether the work should be classified as a painting or as a collaboration with a bygone craftsman. It could easily be an assault on the senses, but Alke blends pattern and painting so seamlessly, confronting Morris's romantic longing for a pre-industrial, hand-crafted age with the means of production that made his career possible.






One cylinder of the mill engine is entitled "CAPITAL"; the other, "LABOUR". On Alke's blog we learn that this is not her own invention intended to "illustrate the complex and conflicted relationship between Morris the entrepreneur-designer and Morris the socialist", but an unbelievably fortuitous discovery on her part; such an Orwellian mill engine may genuinely have existed. At the very least, it did as a Victorian illustration.

The composition and colouring of Alke's piece is redolent of both right and left wing propaganda for me, but particularly trade union, socialist, and suffrage banners.



In the very last piece completed for Tangled Yarns, Alke pays direct homage to these suffrage banners, appliquéing an early 20th century patchwork (which would have been a "contemporary" of the Suffragettes) with the Suffragette rallying cry and banner proclamation Deeds Not Words.

Though the work harks back to the 1900s and the suffrage movement, and is in part a collaboration with a needlewoman of the past, it feels decidedly modern. It could be the jumble of colours, which are warm, inviting, even cosy; in marked contrast to the rest of the exhibition there is a sense of the handcrafted here that is perhaps not entirely polished; this is highlighted by the unfinished, raw edges of the patchwork. Alke posits on her blog that the woman who created the patchwork may have been a professional machinist making this piece at home for personal pleasure; she was certainly a skilled stitcher. 



Alke's choice to leave the patchwork unfinished signifies the never-ending nature of "women's work", and lends the piece a vulnerable air. The domestic furnishing and dressmaking cottons used for the lettering, the shirting stripes of the patchwork, show that craft is for everyone, and can be (and certainly was in the past) a part of everyday life. Just as Morris would have wanted. 

The phrase which keeps repeating in my head as I look at this work is the old rallying cry of Second-wave feminism, "The Personal Is Political". Its execution puts me in mind of Craftivism, as does its simple, yet impactful and perennial message. It has readopted the Suffragette call to arms, but divorced it from its austerity. As with the campaigns of the Craftivist Collective, "unlike some of the more traditional, extrovert forms of activism", Deeds Not Words is quietly beautiful. 

Alke created her text from fabrics used in the other works in the exhibition - thereby tying up the loose ends of her Tangled Yarns. A fitting conclusion to Alke's exhibition, calling us to bring about real change in the textile industry, whilst honouring the women who intersect with it.

A group of women whose lives were utterly transformed - for worse - by the textile industry were the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Disaster makes it sound like an accident; textiles workers in the Rana Plaza building were literally told "If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work". 

The building collapse is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern human history, leaving behind countless unanswered questions. Due to failures at every level, from highstreet brands whose clothes were manufactured in the building neglecting to take responsibility towards their workers, to local government turning a blind eye to the lack of planning permission, to managers at one of the factories in the building threatening to withhold a month's pay if workers refused to come to work following structural cracks appearing, 1138 (and counting) people have died. The majority of these workers were women, and a number of their children were also killed in the collapse.

Just writing these words makes me angry. It is incredible, therefore, that Alke has created such touching, peaceful, and appropriate memorials to these women in her exhibition, restoring them the dignity that they were so brutally robbed of.




In each of her two works commemorating the workers who were killed, she uses 1138 pearlescent-tipped sewing pins - one for each victim who died. Alke therefore honours the work that they did as seamstresses, though it was not respected during their lifetimes.

1138 and Counting presents the pins on a scroll of cotton and muslin, grouped together like a tally. The pure yet warm off-white is peaceful and spiritual, and together with the ethereal muslin is reminiscent of ghosts and angels.


Memorial presents us with a shroud-like length of cotton (the fabric which ties the entire exhibition together) on which pins delineate the shape of a woman's body. Although the pins pierce the fabric, the body appears to be resting on it; this calls to mind the stories of volunteer rescuers bringing victims out of the wreckage of Rana Plaza on bolts of fabric.



Alke has incorporated the survivors' testimony into both pieces:

They would not pay us if we didn't work that day.

One supervisor forced us to go inside.

We tried to get out but they wouldn't let us.

Our managers said, 'We will all die some day'.

If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work.

My hand got stuck when the roof came down. So I tried to cut off my hand but I couldn't.

I was buried alive. I never thought I'd see sunlight again.

I can't work anymore. I can't support my family, can't afford my treatment.

They didn't even pay my kids' due salaries. They said there is no salary for the dead.



Alke's neighbours transcribed this testimony from videos published by Labour Behind the Label into Bengali script, a further example of her collaborative process. Alke transferred the script on to the cotton of the works. In 1138 and Counting, the script rises from behind a haze of muslin, reminding us, like Morris's Dilemma, that the chain of supply in the textile industry is obscure and murky.

Book Marks

A wealth of wit, literary references and life's big themes are on show in the current exhibition at E17 Art House. Those literary references are particularly apt as the exhibition is entitled Book Marks, and is part of Walthamstow's inaugural literary festival, Words Over Waltham Forest.

Paens to literature, reading and writing in the exhibition include quick-witted visual puns (an orange with a piece of clockwork inserted where its stem should be), conceptual riffs on the sanctity of literature (a Bible which warns that God is watching you via a security camera in the front cover, another with legislature scrawled over chapter and verse), and the more straightforward, though no less charming (sculptures and photographs of readers enjoying a quiet moment with a good book).

From the moment of glancing at the title of How To Deal With Problematic Neighbours, the reader's mind is set racing guessing what the solution may be. Its contents are almost predictable, though still tickle the funny bone; a pistol conveniently concealed inside for dispatching with annoying acquaintances.




J. Thomas's artist's book was one of a number of offerings lining what I affectionately refer to as 'Conceptual Corner' in the exhibition, and is the next door neighbour of my contribution. Big Teeth, the artist's book which consumed me for around a month and a half, is a hand sewn exploration of the women's language of cloth in fairytales, and of what happens after happily ever after.




To the right hand side of Big Teeth was another artist's book, this time for sale in an edition. Subtitles (of Life and Death) by David Barette also happened to be my favourite piece in the show.

It's a simple idea; collate quotations on life and death in the form of screenshots and subtitles from a variety of classic films. But it works. 


The screenshots take the form of postcards that one could "cut (or rather, pull) out and keep", or keep as a complete work of art. Perhaps it appeals particularly to me as part of an image, iconography, pop culture obsessed generation; the Tumblr generation, if you will. It's certainly very accessible and instantly gratifying.




Between the Lines by Wendy McMillan, UK Law transcribed over Biblical Text

1984 by Francis Long



Insect Travellers Author/artist unknown. This artist's book disperses advice and adages alongside scientific illustrations of insects.



Bible Cam - God is watching YOU by Pure Evil


Genre - Mystery by Hannah Battershell. What tales could this abandoned typewriter tell?

A Soul of a New Machine by Jonathan Thomas
The artist E. J. England uses  book covers as their canvases; of course, one would need to read the words enclosed within to know whether these paintings are illustrative, or what is suggested to the artist by the books' titles.

The Stars Look Down by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book.

The Lion by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book


Of Love and Other Demons by Divya Venkatesh
I've been in a number of exhibitions with soft sculpture and embroidery artist Harriet Hammel, but the attention to detail and accuracy of her illustrative comic book embroideries exhibited at Book Marks never fails to astonish me.


Beano Embroidery by Harriet Hammel

Dandy Embroidery Fragment by Harriet Hammel
Another favourite piece was Jonathan O'Dea's book-sculpture Burning Back the Layers. Created as a tangible embodiment of the artist's struggles with reading as a dyslexic, the work also reminds the viewer that books come from trees; it reminds us of the lengthy process the materials have undergone in order for a book, perfect and complete, to be placed in our hands. The longer I spent with this piece, the more of its layers I unpeeled; a very appropriately titled work.

Burning Back the Layers by Jonathan O'Dea

Reading by Esther Neslen
This exhibition is rich and beautifully curated, many of the pieces situated in such a way that they have a profound dialogue with one another. I am sure book based art is a genre I will return to time and time again over the course of my career; books are my first love, after all (and what better first love to have?) As one of the art works in the exhibition mused, in the immortal words of Morrissey: "There's more to life than books you know, but not much more." Quite.

Art in Awesomestow: The Summer Show at Penny Fielding


I promised my Tumblr followers a post on my latest exhibition, at Penny Fielding's, quite a few days ago, and so here, finally, is a photograph of Pip and I being smug in our sunglasses in the gallery garden.

And I did have at least one thing to be (slightly) smug about; one of my embroideries was displayed slap bang in the centre of the window! My Melancholyflowers were placed directly beneath a rather charming little crown, which I take as a sign of good fortune.




My other embroidery was ever so slightly more out of the way, but still very visible; over a doorway leading to an interesting little nook of the gallery/shop. I'm afraid these are the best photographs I could take of it; it seemed very far up from the point of view of my (brand spanking new, it's very exciting) smartphone!



Here's a better, close up photograph of the piece, entitled Plathitude:


Mine weren't the only textile pieces in the exhibition, or the only familiar ones; this exquisite machine embroidered quilt by Gilli Haqqani previously featured (alongside some of my work) at the Soft group show at The Mill last year.



This colourful illustration put me in mind of Grayson Perry's playful illustrative style. The gaudy yet down at heel carnival scene is quintessentially British.


This photograph doesn't do it justice, but this thought provoking painting by socially conscious artist Alke Schmidt. At first glance it seems obvious that the machinists are working in an Asian clothes sweatshops. But with closer inspection, more layers to the painting are discovered. The painting is overlaid with a textiles pattern, which I read in two ways; it is a traditional Asian design, or a cheap and cheerful design for the mass market. It seems to have seeped into the women's skin; they are unable to escape their cultural heritage, which now includes manufacturing cheap high street clothing for Westerners. Their face masks could be to protect them from their unhygienic working environment; it also reminds me of the hysteria, which seemed particularly concentrated in the East, following the outbreak of SARs and then bird flu, and the wearing of such masks, which I remember was common amongst Asian tourists at the time. Finally, the black mass of cloth waiting to be sewn to the right of the machinists is redolent of the drudgery of working in such a sweatshop, and the murky business practises of the multinational companies overseeing such work.


This whimsical piece put me in mind of sideshows at the carnival or circus; surely that cat shouldn't have wings?! The rough but realistic charcoal strokes give the drawing a naturalistic, endearing quality.


Similarly endearing was this piece; I couldn't decide if it was in pastels or some kind of print, but I do know that I love a good cup of tea, especially when it's served so beautifully!


I feel cruel for writing this, but this dreamlike piece by Two For Joy is very reminiscent of Rob Ryan's work. He certainly seems to have cornered the market in whimsical papercuts! This piece definitely has a charm all of its own, however; the detail on the wings/feathers is particularly gorgeous.



I assume this dramatic print is a linocut, a medium I am hoping to experiment with soon. If it is, it's certainly s masterful one; just look at the detail in that spider's abdomen.


This print of identical twins reminded me of a painting my best friend won a national art prize for when we were twelve, and it's just as sweet!


I love dioramas, but unfortunately couldn't get a better picture of this dinky little one inside an old lamp; it, too, was very sweet.


Much as I love Awesomestow, there are days when it seems a bit grey and gritty even for me! So this bright and cheerful treatment of the borough definitely put a smile on my face.


The exhibition is on until August the 25th. I urge you to get down there if you can. As well as all the wonderful art, there's plenty of beautiful homeware and jewellery on sale, and you're bound to bump into some interesting local characters!




The Girly Gang

The other night, while idly surfing Tumblr (yes, I have one of those now too... my social networking problem really is blossoming), I had the most wonderful surprise; I came across a young artist who has utterly inspired me.

Clitoris Patch on Flickr.



Hannah Hill is a seventeen year old textile artist and illustrator from North London. Most of her artwork deals with feminism and female experiences.

Unsure

There's often a wonderfully biting sense of humour to her work, but it's also shot through with a tender, naive vulnerability.

Textiles Worshipping Cult on Flickr.
(I reeeeally want this one on a t-shirt)





Hannah's style reminds me of another, older favourite: Scarlett Barry.

Scarlett seems to have dropped off the (online) radar for the moment  (and I do miss seeing her breathtaking work), but she was a major inspiration for me, particularly when I first turned my hand to cross stitching.



I was particularly drawn to Scarlett's immediate, honest, and simple style.

This is reflected in her drawn work, with its clean yet overlapping lines, often in brown gel pen:


She also cannily uses found objects in her work, in a way which seems almost natural:

Did I mention that she's also gorgeous and a brilliant writer? You can check out Scarlett's highly original art here.
Another fem(me)ale artist whose work I first came across on the online community Livejournal is Jenee Larson.

Jennee's work perfectly straddles (ooh-er) the line between twee and erotic art. And if you don't believe that's possible, check out her Flickr photostream.

Personally I prefer her earlier work to her current haunting (or haunted?) portraits of saucer-eyed femmes fatales, but she is certainly a dab hand with glitter! 

baby moon by meme

Jenee's work is whimsical and strange, as proved by her series of weeping and love-making unicorn-people(not both at the same time, hopefully!)

artosity:

I can dig it

hey i drew this! too bad it didn’t have a credit :(

Around the same time I discovered the work of Scarlett and Jenee, I was sucked into the whimsical world of Joanna "Bunny Mitford". Joanna is another artist of this generation who has completely dropped off the face of the internet, but she always was a mysterious girl, and I imagine this was a carefully concerted part of her charm. The small glimpses of her life that she gave us led me to believe she was as magical as the girls in the children's stories which she used in her art.




Her photography and sense of light was warm as twilight.

Just like Scarlett Barry, Joanna's writing was captivating, perhaps even more so.

She loved the arts, music, paints, nature. Hans Christian Anderson, Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky. They were her favourites. She loved Tchaikovsky because he made his sadness into warmth, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Symphony No.6. She loved Vincent because she felt his loneliness in his paintings. But she couldn’t look at his sunflowers for too long, the yellows stung her eyes. Feeling too much Feeling is too much sometimes. She told me how she thought it was weird you know, that all these people who created such beautiful things were so sad. How sometimes the sadness was so strong that they ended their own lives. Their last work of art.
She said she thought that most geniuses were lonely. I said I thought everyone was lonely. That even the Moon is lonely, and that’s why it pulls on the tides.

I miss her, much like you might miss a friend you've lost contact with over the years. Which is strange, because I never really knew her. 

The final member of "the girly gang" is a bit of a departure from the others.

Chelsea Dirck, at the tender age of 22 or 23, is a veteran of the American punk scene. Her zines, scribblings, type-writings,textile art, and illustrations are a  visual diary of a life lived state-hopping, missing friends and loved ones, listening to music, and having her heart broken.







I've bought quite a bit of Chelsea's work and I urge you to do the same. She's a lovely person and very generous; you may find a little  extra gift or hand-written note in your package.

Why have I introduced all these ladies to you? Because I hope their art will inspire you the way it inspired (and continues to inspire me). All of these artists are young women at the start of their careers, but I believe that each of them is truly "one to watch".

I see these women as my contemporaries, and would be honoured if even one of them felt the same for me.