Textiles have long been markers of civilisations. Every stitch, motif, even wear and tear, tells stories of the people who made, and wore, them. For long, though, it has been viewed solely as a decorative art, a cottage industry of sorts. Till the past few decades, when artists like Nelly Sethna, Monica Correa and Mrinalini Mukherjee brought it into the realm of contemporary art.
Sethna used kalamkari in her large-scale mobile sculptures, while Correa infused the weaves, created on a vertical loom, with the energy of colour and movement. Mrinalini Mukherjee used dyed and woven hemp to craft sensuous sculptures. Now younger artists are pushing the boundaries of textile art. While some are pursuing mending with single-minded focus, others are questioning colonial histories through garment-making. Yet others are taking inspiration from textiles to interpret them in other mediums.
The act of mending: Bhasha Chakrabarti
The US-based artist has always been interested in the act of mending. Usually associated with clothing or articles of personal use, this form of repair has always largely been non-transactional and delegated to women. She sees it “as a creative gesture, which confronts fragility and impermanence. This could be taken metaphorically as well—extending to mending of relationships and emotions.” By pulling a thread from this literal form of domestic repair to suture frays in the public domain, she attempts to rethink societal wounds, darns and scars as liminal spaces that can transpose us into the future without erasing the past. “But you can never mend anything to its original state. There will always be fissures,” she cautions.
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Chakrabarti works with used clothing—creating paper out of old jeans in Blue Notes, or using old quilts and thread to cover a painted figure till only the limbs are visible in A Study Of Limbs And Lihaaf. Fabric usually clothes the body but by painting bodies in oils—often nude—on textiles, or doing image transfers on fabric, she turns the idea on its head. She plays with the idea of concealing and revealing. “There is an element of surprise when people find an oil painting on fabric. But many seem to forget that painting is traditionally done on a canvas or linen support. I am interested in that point of art history which distanced textile and painting,” says Chakrabarti.
Cloth, then, ends up as both support and subject. Priyanka Raja of the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, which represents the artist, says Chakrabarti has been addressing questions of gender and the gaze on the body, especially the female body, and, therefore, identity. The materials she uses—kantha, jeans, muslin, cotton rag paper—highlight her concerns.
The quilt used in Lihaaf to cover the painted body, for instance, also refers to the quilting tradition in Hawaii—where Chakrabarti grew up. It was used by the American missionaries to “civilise the natives”. “The Hawaiians, however, made it their own. When the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), was imprisoned, she was allowed no other freedom but to quilt. She would embroider in messages for the Hawaiian people. So, what was supposed to be a form of suppression became a way of liberation,” says the artist.
Questioning colonial histories: Bushra Waqas Khan
The sculpted miniature garments—ivory gowns, dresses with European gigot sleeves, a dress with 554 hand-cut roses, with each bud a crystal-studded Swarovski—look straight out of a fairy tale. Viewers sigh at the sight of Medallion, an off-shoulder dress in organza, displayed at the India Art Fair by the Delhi-based Anant Art Gallery. On a video call from Lahore, Pakistan, printmaker and dressmaker Bushra Waqas Khan calls these dresses her “Alice in Wonderland moments”, with each one surprising her too.
Not only are the works exquisite in form, they make a subtle comment on the colonial histories of South Asia. Khan repurposes affidavit stamp papers, proof of ownership, to create these sculptured dresses. “Women earlier had no right to property. Even though we were independent, we were still following laws handed down by the British,” says Khan, who extracts motifs from stamp papers to add details to the garments.
A graduate in fine arts from Lahore, she returned to her home, Multan, teaching at the local art college’s printmaking department, which had closed for want of teachers, for a year before joining a fashion and design institute. It was there that she realised the potential of textiles. “That was in 2007-08. I would make fabric assemblages. I also started exploring the crafts of Multan,” she says. After marriage and a child, she moved to a medium that would allow her to work from a small table at home. She began to print images on heat transfer paper to create garments. “I made a little black dress and hung it on a mannequin. But I couldn’t finish it as I was expecting my second child,” she adds.
As it happened, the dress was seen by a visiting art curator who invited her to participate in an exhibition. Short of time, she decided to create small-scale versions of the dresses. “And it has remained my medium since then,” says Khan, who made her first miniature dress in 2019. Khan loves to manipulate designs to create illusions. The paper, when layered repetitively, becomes so heavy that it takes a form of its own. “Sub Rosa is made with organza and has such stiff lines. The material decides if it is going to be a gown with a trail or a skirt with edges,” she says.
The language of threads: Hansika Sharma
There is something really reflective in Hansika Sharma’s Melancholy, You Stayed Too Long. The movement of gold and silver zari embroidery on indigo-dyed linen almost mimics the rise and fall of emotions. The artist’s tryst with textiles dates to her childhood in Assam and visits to Arunachal Pradesh in the late 1990s. There she saw shawls, dyed in natural colours, being woven. It sparked a fascination with cloth. She began repurposing scraps and loose ends of embroidered threads in her work to create new stories. “Just like we have alphabets and numbers to write a sentence, Hansika forms a language with the threads and the tana-bana of the textiles,” says Tunty Chauhan of Delhi-based Gallery Threshold, which represents the artist. “Just like you highlight an important sentence in an essay, embroidered zaris serve the same purpose in her work. It also helps to break down the monotone and melancholic nature of the deep indigo dye.”
Interpreting textile in oil paintings: Haroun Hayward
The London-based artist, whose mother was a collector of textiles, uses textile motifs as inspiration for acrylic and oil works. The thread-like texture, created by scratching layers of paint, emulates the fibrous quality of textiles. “One of the core tenets of my work is the relationships between pattern and rhythm in the visual from textiles (mostly Indo-Persian and West African ) and pattern and rhythm in electronic music (mostly Chicago Acid House and Detroit Techno) that I also grew up with,” says Hayward, whose work has been brought to the Fair by Mumbai-based Galerie Isa. In a labour-intensive process, he starts with a blank wooden panel coated with three layers of gesso, with sanding done between each layer. As he applies colour, he gouges, carves and scratches a composition on to the panels before the paint dries out.
“The bottom left parts are the traditionally oil-painted sections of the panel, and the bottom right parts of the panel are the ‘ embroidered’ elements. This is delicate and time-consuming work as I am essentially relief-sculpting with paint. When it is all applied and gently pressed down all over, I very gently score the entire surface so it emulates the thread of an embroidery,” he explains. Together, the threads cohere as rhythmical shapes, reflecting his interest in the subtle, repetitive tempos of electronic music subcultures.