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‘Unravel The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art’

  • Art
  • Barbican Centre, Barbican
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Solange Pessoa, Hammock (part of 4 Hammocks), 1999-2003, courtesy of Rubell Museum, Miami and Washington DC, photo: Chi Lam
Solange Pessoa, Hammock (part of 4 Hammocks), 1999-2003, courtesy of Rubell Museum, Miami and Washington DC, photo: Chi Lam

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

When is a sweater not a sweater? When it’s a tool of active resistance and revolution, according to the Barbican, because its new show is all about textiles and fabric, and how artists have used them to fight against injustice. 

Fabric as a medium has been relegated to mere ‘craft’ throughout much of history, the idea of elevating it to high art kicks back against convention and patriarchy. So you could argue – and boy, do they – that just using textiles in your art is a political act. But it’s not always a particularly convincing argument. 

There’s plenty of good stuff here. Tracey Emin’s throw covered in phrases from her 13-year-old self is shocking, overwrought and painful. Quilts from the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective in Alabama by Loretta Pettway are gorgeous containers of history, fabric as narrative tradition handed down from generation to generation. Faith Ringgold uses quilts to tell modern stories of everyday African American life. Harmony Hammond’s canvas is draped in blood-drenched bandages. Teresa Margolles’ patchwork tapestries – one bearing the blood of a woman assassinated in Panama, the other laid on the ground where Eric Garner was shot in New York in 2014 – are viscerally powerful testimonies to death. There’s violence, pain and suffering, but survival, beauty and history too.

Viscerally powerful testimonies to death

Downstairs, Solange Pessoa’s blobby sack-forms stretch across a wall, all earthy and bodily, and a vast Magdalena Abakanowicz woollen construction haunts the space, but isn’t as well displayed as any of her work in last year’s Tate show. 

A lot of the art here is less good though, and there’s a lot of visual repetition. But the issue is that by insisting so vociferously and relentlessly that all these works serve to ‘undermine power’, ‘subvert power’, ‘speak back to power’ or act as ‘vehicles for embodied liberation’ (are those ULEZ compliant?), the curators have merely drawn attention to how overblown those sorts of sentiments can sound. You think the despots, dictators or political wrongdoers of the world feel subverted, undermined or resisted by a piece of needlepoint or a ball of wool? 

The show insists that art’s purpose is to be a tool of revolution, to overthrow governments. And sometimes it is, sure, but a huge amount of the work here just doesn’t work towards those ends. Saying that the art of Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks or Lenore Tawney all serves the same purpose as Teresa Margolles or Faith Ringgold just shows you don’t know what that purpose is.

You don't come away from this thinking about the power or beauty of textiles. Instead, and not for the first time, you leave with the feeling that the Barbican thinks viewers are more interested in curation than art. Despite the brilliance of some of the work, the show itself just doesn’t knit together. 

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


Barbican Centre
Beech Street
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