As an educator it is always delightful to sit back and absorb the ideas and knowledge of others. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Textile and Place Conference co organised by Manchester School of Art and the Whitworth Gallery. It proved to be two days of textile nourishment spending time with other textile types. The conference set out to explore the meaning of textiles across place, time and culture through academic investigation. In this blog post I want share some of the things I took away with me that might also be relevant to your creative journey.
So many of the papers delivered had women and their experiences at their heart, so much so it felt personal. The keynote speaker Lubaina Himid shared her current work; paintings on fabric that employ the patterns, colours and symbolism of the Kanga. Vibrant cotton fabric squares traditionally worn by East African women that consist of 3 design elements, the pindo (border), the mji (central motif) and a jina (message or name). Lubaina talked about how she is interested in the way these fabrics ‘talk’ to each other when the women cut them up to create outfits. Sometimes using different but purposely chosen fabrics to communicate messages, meanings and even jokes. And when women are together these fabrics create multiple accidental but revealing narratives. Everyone communicates through the clothes they wear both consciously and unconsciously. I wondered how many others in the lecture looked up to see what our outfits said to each other.
For some women working in textiles is the only way they have to express themselves especially in times of great suffering. In Penny Macbeth’s paper, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ she revealed the work of Mary Daisy ‘Day’ Joyce an internee in Stanley Camp, Hong Kong during the second world war. Day’s quilt tells the intimate story of her life in the camp, recording the identities through signatures of fellow inmates.and their tragic stories through symbols and codes. Her aim was to keep her mind and hands busy while documenting her thoughts during the anxiety and boredom of imprisonment.
In Clare Barber’s paper ‘The Train Track and the Basket: The aesthetic dimension of textiles within site-specific practice’, she investigated the transient population of European migrants as they passed through Hull during the period 1836 – 1914 on their way to America. She noted that very often the families carried their possessions in woven baskets and guessed that these objects would revealed much about the bearer as traditions and materials varied across Europe. Once established in their new homes these once ordinary items must have become symbols of the past and an tangible link to a cultural identity. This story is picked up by Sera Waters an Australian who makes textile artworks that use an uncomfortable family history as inspiration. In ‘Unsettling settling: the ghosts within domestic textiles’, Sera took us through a frank investigation into how women in the domestic sphere used home making as a political act of colonisation. That by passing down traditions imported from Europe from mother to daughter, whiteness and privilege squashed and displaced local culture. Recognising her ancestors were a product of their time Sera points out how these women clung onto distant cultures and marked out new territories with quilting, embroidery and other handicrafts.
So often the practice and wearing of textiles is a place for us to express ourselves, it seems it is also a way of self soothing and making sense of the world and our place in it. This was examined in the paper delivered by Katie Smith and Kate Genever called ‘No one’s coming to save you.’ Their predominantly stitched based artworks are co produced with and respond to the experiences of marginalised communities. They made it clear they are not mental health professionals and not there to ‘cure’ anybody but rather provide non threatening creative spaces where stitch can be used as a way of exploring “the tricky stuff”. Further to this the geographer Dr Laura Price investigated the emotional experiences of a community based knitting group, their relationship to the space, materials and each other revealing the way in which creativity connects and binds us to people and place. Her paper ‘Best in Show? Remaking places, environment and atmospheres through knitting,’ examines how the resurgence of knitting and other craft based practices has brought them into public spaces like cafes, pubs, community centres and the streets, urbanising these domestic pass times.
During questioning Lubaina Himid discussed the importance of making space for creativity. It seemed to me that many of the talks revealed the value of giving time and finding a place to make, whether you are an aspiring artist, amateur crafter or overcoming mental trauma. The conference also reinforced in me that we are all capable of creativity. This might be in a time of need as with Day Joyce who once released from imprisonment did not take up creative stitch again or as an ongoing social activity like Laura’s knitting group. That creativity often makes social statements with skills and ideas shared down generations and across networks. It can also be a daily activity that expresses and explores who we are.