Unravel: Textile Art and Political Discourse at the Barbican

Barbican Centre | Billie Zangewa Midnight Aura
Billie Zangewa, Midnight Aura (2012). Source: The Barbican Centre

Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art at the Barbican highlights artists from the 1960s to the present who have explored the transformative role of textiles. The artists pose challenging inquiries about power, questioning who possesses it and how it can be contested and recovered.

Featuring over 100 artworks by 50 international names, exhibition ranges from small-scale handcrafted pieces to large-scale sculptural constructions. These artists, who are drawn to the tactile techniques of embroidery, looming, weaving, embellishing, and braiding, have embraced fabric and threads to convey stories that subvert authority figures, cross lines, and reinterpret their surroundings.

Among the artists highlighted in the exhibition are Magdalena Abakanowicz, Feliciano Centurión, Mercedes Azpilicueta, Louise Bourgeois, Mounira Al Sohl, Cian Dayrit, Tracey Emin, and Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers.

The exhibition’s diverse works are united by the idea that textiles may be used to represent political ideas. The 1960s saw the emergence of fiber art, particularly as a result of feminist artists repurposing “women’s work” for rebellious purposes. Judy Chicago, one of the most well-known painters of that era, worked with needleworkers to produce her series from the 1980s that showed the extremely tangible nature of childbirth.

The exhibition’s six themes—”Subversive Stitch,” “Fabric of Everyday Life,” “Borderlands,” “Bearing Witness,” “Wound and Repair,” and “Ancestral Threads”—unfold across time and space. Collectively, they examine the significance of textiles in creative processes that subvert prevailing accounts, oppose regimes of authority, and embody a lasting spirit of optimism.

Despite being a part of our daily existence, textiles are still one of the media that are studied the least in both art history and contemporary practice. The material background of the medium, which reveals concepts about gender, employment, worth, the environment, ancestry, and periods of tyranny the process of extraction, and commerce, is woven into a single thread.

The exhibition is on display at the Barbican through May 26, 2024.


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