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Director Bridget Guthrie notes that since 1973 “the Gallery has focused on developing an Australian textile collection that embraces all related art and craft forms … creating an important record of the changing nature and progress of textile practice from a national perspective.” As Barkley notes, “craft’s acceptance within the broader realms of contemporary art mirrors the increasing visibility of all kinds of other voices”.

Long before second-wave feminism saw artists break down boundaries between craft and art in the West, women used mediums accessible to them to explore the personal and political, from protest banners to intimately-scaled embroidery.

Tjunkaya Tapaya from Pukatja (SA) works on Ngayulu Minyma Tjanpinya (I am a Tjanpi Woman) in 2017.

Tjunkaya Tapaya from Pukatja (SA) works on Ngayulu Minyma Tjanpinya (I am a Tjanpi Woman) in 2017.Credit:Tjanpi Desert Weavers/NPY Women’s Council

“Needle and thread in some form was the most commonly available art material for women, but [is] so often dismissed as decorative,” Melbourne artist Stanislava Pinchuk has observed. “It was … a vehicle for women to speak about their lives and record their experiences … in so many cultures,” she has noted, from Japanese World War II propaganda kimonos to political candidates’ faces emblazoned on kangas worn by East African women.

Textiles endure as a popular means of stealth messaging: Craftivism (deploying craft into activism) is the subject of current projects at the National Gallery of Victoria and Shepparton Art Museum.

Louise Meuwissen in blossom shirt created with Glenn Barkley (2018).

Louise Meuwissen in blossom shirt created with Glenn Barkley (2018).Credit:Isabelle Gander

Employing techniques historically associated with ‘women’s work’ allows contemporary artists to examine questions of gendered labour. Bulli-based artist Harriet Body, whose practice is driven by her work as an educator and community worker, believes that “to use [embroidery] in an art practice … puts ideas of care and the home into a place of importance”.

Body recently commenced a residency at Liverpool Hospital’s Palliative Care Ward for Groundwell’s Creative Legacy project. Conversations with patients will lead to works embroidered by the artist in the patients’ handwriting. “It’s a slow and thoughtful process – in contrast to the speed and greed of consumer culture,” Body says. “The use of thread is poetic [and] there is time and body placed into the medium.”

Embracing textiles’ temporality, corporeality and domestic familiarity can be seen in part as a turn away from screens.

“Many young artists these days would say ‘the only legitimate thing I can do is work digitally or post-digitally’,” says curator John Cruthers, “but … other artists are saying ‘no, we want to go back to … activities as elemental as getting your hands in wet clay, or using the sewing needle.'”

Spectrum’s selection of these very different Australian female artists highlights the varied ways contemporary artists incorporate textiles into their practices – continuing and innovating traditional methods, upending assumed histories and realities, and exploring material and conceptual possibilities.


Waradgerie (Wiradjuri) Country, NSW


Works by by Lorraine Connelly-Northey at NAS Gallery, 2018.

Works by by Lorraine Connelly-Northey at NAS Gallery, 2018.Credit:Peter Morgan

Detail of Teelah George's Sky Piece (Berlin, Belfast, Paris, Perth)', 2019-2020.

Detail of Teelah George’s Sky Piece (Berlin, Belfast, Paris, Perth)’, 2019-2020. Credit:Bo Wong

In Connelly-Northey’s hands, brittle rusted metal is deftly manipulated into stunning objects. Fashioned from salvaged materials such as bed springs and corrugated iron, these shapes are recognisable as scaled-up narrbong (fibre) bags and kooliman (coolamon), informed by the artist’s knowledge of traditional weaving techniques of south-east NSW. A combination of deep cultural investigation, extensive sculptural practice, and aesthetic sensitivity makes for resonant works which draw on the intersection of knowledge from Connelly-Northey’s parents. The striking minimalism of these sculptures deliver complex stories: the meeting of worlds, the gathering and distributing of resources, abandonment and waste.


Perth, WA

Painting, embroidery, sculpture

George’s paintings are informed by her background in textiles, and her textiles layer threads like paint. Tonal harmonies are overlaid with topographic lines and lozenge shapes which lead the eye around and out of the work’s boundaries. The artist’s hand is present in the pushed and pulled colour, the innumerable embroidered threads, the fingerprint impressions in the cast bronze accents. While they hang on the wall, George’s embroideries have an “objecthood”, slumping under the weight of fibre. Through the historical format of the embroidery ‘sampler’, George also considers questions of repetition, labour and domestic skills.


Sydney, NSW

Painting, printmaking, textiles, ceramics, sculpture and installation art

Mehwish Iqbal's 'Monster Within' (detail), 2019.

Mehwish Iqbal’s ‘Monster Within’ (detail), 2019.Credit:Mim Stirling

Ali Noble's 'Family Portrait', 2019.

Ali Noble’s ‘Family Portrait’, 2019.Credit:Ali Noble

Flora, fauna, limbs and text intersect and interrupt each other, forming landscapes of the inner world. Layered, beautiful, and complex but also burdened, tangled and tenuous – Iqbal’s embroidered works on paper evoke human identities and the journeys which shape them. Using very thin paper not designed for printmaking, Iqbal builds up layers of imagery, first through multiple printing presses and then with embroidery thread. In pushing these materials to their limits, Iqbal reminds us that human identity is shaped through experiences of upheval, such as migration and womanhood.


Sydney, NSW

Textiles, needlework, sculpture

Scalloped, coiled and teardrop shapes shimmer on a matte background, the kitschy crushed texture of pastel velveteen striking against the luxury of black velvet. In other works, swathes of fabric cascade from the loops of a metal stand, suggesting figures in gowns or capes. Flickering in the light as the viewer moves, Noble’s works explore gendered labour via the tactile intimacy of velveteen, and its unfashionable but tantalising connotations. Made while the artist was jugglingmulti-generational care duties, the use of velveteen in recent works was inspired by velvet gifted to her by her seamstress mother.

'Ecology of Time' (2018) by Louise Meuwissen (detail).

‘Ecology of Time’ (2018) by Louise Meuwissen (detail).Credit:Louise Meuwissen


Melbourne, VIC

Textiles, embroidery, sculpture, installation

Interlinked necklaces loop from rafter to rafter. Diamante-studded tiaras, chandelier earrings and floral hairpieces form elaborate crowns. A floating continent is encrusted with paillettes and beads, graphite and coral-red clusters amongst pearlescent blue. Mushroom-like pleated forms sprout from shibori-dyed fabric. Meuwissen’s training as a painter is clear in her sculptural and wearable works which employ recycled found materials to create compositions in which colour, texture and form are considered to the minutest detail. The hours of painstaking work visible in each piece is a reminder of the uneasy relationship between labour and luxury.


Canberra, ACT

Embroidery, video, painting installation, drawing, zines

Raquel Ormella, 'Wealth for Toil' #2.

Raquel Ormella, ‘Wealth for Toil’ #2.Credit:Milani Gallery, Brisbane

Reflective strips and neon work shirts, remnants of Australian flags, nylon banners: these everyday materials loaded with association have been poked, unpicked, shredded, their edges trailing off. Ormella’s banner works are emblazoned with phrases with just enough ambiguity to speak to the viewer’s own beliefs, such as Golden Promise, Nullius, and Fly In Fly Out. Other, smaller-scale embroidered works explore labour and memory through the repurposing of material, the use of scraps, and an equal focus on both sides of the object.


Sydney, NSW

Video, sculpture, installation

'The Hooved and the Clawed Will Consider Their Violent Bond', 2017 by Katy B Plummer.

‘The Hooved and the Clawed Will Consider Their Violent Bond’, 2017 by Katy B Plummer.Credit:Katy B Plummer

Textiles are celebrated as a theatrical stalwart in Plummer’s works – all drapery, quilting and tassels. The tactile quality of Plummer’s costumes and props expands out of the screen as installations, meeting the audience in the gallery in the form of objects such as rugs made from hand-dyed jute, and props of painted calico. Plummer’s films explore memory, identity and the human condition with pathos and playfulness, using rich colours, excesses of makeup, curious features and bold costumes, and by exploiting and exploding the “feminine” qualities associated with needlework.

'Action for Arachne', a hanging work made from the re-purposed jeans of women artists by Rebecca Shanahan.

‘Action for Arachne’, a hanging work made from the re-purposed jeans of women artists by Rebecca Shanahan.Credit:Rebecca Shanahan


Sydney, NSW

Textiles, performance, photography, video

Shanahan has sat with visitors to her exhibition, talking with them and sewing labels onto the outside of their clothes just as many mothers have sewn name labels onto the inside of their children’s clothes. Except, these labels read IT WILL NEVER TRICKLE DOWN, in reference to the neoliberal concept of trickle-down economics. Shanahan’s practice interrogates the place of women, and of art, within the framework of labour and capitalism. Where does women’s labour, such as sewing, sit in relation to the ‘white cube’ of the gallery? Shanahan’s works confront didacticism and commerce with notions of exchange and intimacy.


Melbourne, VIC

Film, performance, painting, collage, installation

Sally Smart, 'The Violet Ballet', 2019.

Sally Smart, ‘The Violet Ballet’, 2019.Credit:Sam Roberts

Collage, cutting and fabric recall and harness the power of choreography and theatre in Smart’s works. Whether they take the form of an installation, a collage or a costume, Smart’s images travel across history, bringing life to gestures past. Fabric marks and asserts space – dividing a room, forming a backdrop, clothing performers. The legacies of art history – Surrealism, Dada, the Ballet Russes – provide a sense of aesthetic familiarity, while women’s bodies and histories take centre stage. Textiles in Smart’s works are simultaneously strong and pliable – holding ideas and allowing for movement.


Tweed Heads, NSW

Sculpture, installation, performance

Artist Hiromi Tango pictured with her sculptures: 'Kimono's Will (Mother)', right and left,' Kimono's Will (Daughter)', both 2019.

Artist Hiromi Tango pictured with her sculptures: ‘Kimono’s Will (Mother)’, right and left,’ Kimono’s Will (Daughter)’, both 2019.Credit:Greg Piper

Fibre’s potential to be ethereally fine or densely woven allows artists to use it to gently caress or firmly envelop the viewer, evoking a sense of intimacy. Within their wild and woolly forms, Tango’s works contain a meditative side. The artist’s sculptures and environments are often riotously colourful, but their mass also enable an absorption of noise. Tango’s performative installations are made up of objects and materials of significance, either to the artist or those who have donated them. Using metaphors from nature to represent scientific concepts, Tango collaborates with health and science researchers to create immersive, interactive environments which forge connections between scientific concepts and individual experiences.



Weaving, sculpture

Judith Yinyika Chambers from Warakurna (WA) work 'The Big Green Tractor' (2014).

Judith Yinyika Chambers from Warakurna (WA) work ‘The Big Green Tractor’ (2014).Credit:Karina Menkhorst

Continuing a legacy of cultural practice passed through generations, while innovating individually and collectively, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers are a group of over 400 artists from 26 remote communities across the remote Central and Western deserts, making sculptural and functional fibre art with native grasses. A social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, Tjanpi (meaning grass in Pitjantjatjara language) regularly collaborate with other artists and organisations including theatres and animators. Tjanpi artists worked with artist Fiona Hall on the work Tjukurpa Kumpilitja (Hidden Stories), Kuka Irititja which was exhibited as part of Hall’s exhibition Wrong Way Time at the 2015 Venice Biennale.


Perth, WA

Installation, performance

Installation by Katie West at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2019.

Installation by Katie West at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2019.

The items in West’s installations are placed with quiet intent. Drapes hang softly but deliberately, objects and books await their next set of hands, and cushions invite the visitor to take a seat. In an ongoing practice that underpins West’s work, the textiles are dyed using natural materials collected from the local environment, using seasonally-guided processes which are documented for future use. A Yindjibarndi woman, West investigates ways to practice custodianship of land when it is still subject to colonisation, and has explored meditation as a method of decolonising the self. Harnessing all the senses through her installations, West draws the viewer’s attention towards their environment.

Open House: 3rd Tamworth Textile Triennial is showing at the Australian Design Centre in Darlinghurst until July 29

Craftivism: Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms is showing at the Shepparton Art Museum until October 31

The Power of Women’s Work: Craftivism by Sigourney Jacks is online for the National Gallery of Victoria.

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