Knotted thread as blood, lace as genitalia: Inside India’s newest art revolution
Cheeky cross-stitch and pop-feminist embroidery are trending. Is it time for fabric-based works to be taken as seriously as oil on canvas?art and culture Updated: Sep 03, 2017 12:09 IST
Last year, when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a ‘Nasty Woman’ at a US presidential debate, he probably didn’t expect that sewing needles would be raised in protest.
The term ended up on posters, T-shirts and, surprisingly, in embroidery hoops. Women cross-stitched the phrase on subversively decorative wall hangings. On Instagram, décor sites, and craft platforms such as Etsy, feminist embroidery is now a distinct category.
Pastel cross-stitch works declare ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution’. Satin-stitched, stretch-marked breasts and menstrual blood highlight body-positivity.
In India, contemporary artists have been using thread and fabric in dramatic, inventive ways. Embroidered storyboards tell tales of Partition; lace turns into genitalia; stitches become a metaphor for memory; needlework incorporates multiple histories.
And yet, many artists lament that the medium remains dismissed as a domestic craft rather than art in its own right.
“It is a struggle to be taken seriously,” says artist Smriti Dixit. She started working with fabric and thread in the mid-1990s and recalls taking her work to a respected gallery. “They said the work was beautiful but not saleable,” she says. “I got boxed into the crafts category. I’m still an affordable artist. But I don’t want to be! Why should my works be seen as anything less because of the medium?”
STITCH BY STITCH
On Instagram, Lipika Bhargava (an intern with artist Mithu Sen) is using the embroidery hoop as a lens through which to view memories and dissect them.
Graphite illustrations of human bodies are partially embroidered in skeins that often flow past the hoop. That the bodies are often nude or undressed addresses her “mini chapters of revolt” against social ideals of beauty. “What to wear! What to do! How to live!”
Her choice of medium stems from growing up with a mother who sewed clothes for her children and used needlework for her Bachelor’s degree in Design. “It makes me angry when people dismiss embroidery as a ‘hobby’ or as women’s work,” Bhargava says.
US-based artist Swati Khurana, on the other hand, brings in not only her past, but also that of her grandmothers. The Bridal Trousseau drawings feature Khurana as a bride and are embroidered separately by both relatives (the nani in Pune, the dadi in New York) with minimal direction from Khurana. The elders communicated on fabric, via stitches. Khurana was the final embroiderer on each piece.
“I loved how differently they worked, and then how their styles influenced each other,” Khurana says.
She recalls how hard it was to talk about her work as separate from sculpture or painting. “The art world is so segregated, not just by gender and national origin, but also by false distinctions between design, craft, folk and fine art,” she says.
Among those hoping to break the mould is Sarah Naqvi, textile artist and student of the National Institute of Design. She describes her work as “heavily inclined towards women’s empowerment, sexuality, and understanding the future that is at stake in trivialising these matters”.
She’s sewn pink-peach strips of gauzy material to resemble clitorises, created French knots to mimic public hair and used sequins and bright red threads to fill in the bloody crotch of a piece of woman’s underwear.
“With every stitch I make, I hope that it challenges common misconceptions about embroidery and needlework and shows how much strength and voice every piece can carry.”
THE FABRIC OF MEMORY
At Mumbai’s Godrej India Culture Lab last month, at an event marking 70 years since Partition, Nina Sabnani used embroidery to talk of loss and displacement. Split Ends used applique from Kutch and Sindh to storyboard a tale of her father, Mukand, and his friend Riaz.
Embroidered scenes showed the boys as friends through early childhood, until India’s split in 1947. An embroidered ship reaching Bombay is the last chapter of the tale, the abrupt end of a friendship.
Sabnani also turned the embroidered works into an animated short film. “The perception is that women did this when they had free time, but it is sensorial and tactile where animation is flat, heterogeneous, decontextualised,” she says. “The stitches give it an imperfect human preciousness.”
Sumakshi Singh’s recent show, Leaving the Terrestrial: Its own Kind of Archive, on the other hand, turns memory into feather-light floating skeletons of flowers, leaves and seeds (above). Singh started off hoping to reconnect with her late mother, an embroiderer and gardener, through her letters. She’d embroider over the words, to “fix” the emotions in them, then remove the paper until she was left with delicate, lacelike work. “The fact that it was craft, and women’s labour was, in fact, its strength,” she says.
Smriti Dixit, who still creates fabric works, says getting recognition is hard because textile history goes back many thousands of years – it’s too familiar to be viewed differently. “Rigid materials get more respect; flexible material gets pushed around,” she says.
Dixit showed her works at the Artisans’ gallery in Mumbai in 2015, and gallery owner Radhi Parekh echoes her struggle with changing the perception of fabric works.
But curator Rajeev Sethi says it’s not the material or the skill that determines the value of a work, but “what you do with the tool you pick up”. “You can’t reduce it to a piece to be framed or shadow-boxed.” He acknowledges that a bias exists against what has traditionally been seen as a craft, particularly given India’s ancient crafts traditions. “It’s time we called that bluff,” he says.
STILL SHE PERSISTED
For its practitioners, embroidery offers a way to communicate like no other. “Cloth and stitches allows for three dimensions,” Dixit says. “You get actual depth, unlike the illusion you must create with canvas. A thread can become a cloth of any size, and it ages like the body does.”
Bhargava and Naqvi have found tremendous acceptance of their work on social media. Many of their responders don’t visit art galleries often, if at all.
- Azerbaijanian artist Faig Ahmad’s four works at the 2015 India Art Fair (see image above) reinvented Middle Eastern carpets, making them seem like they were melting or dissolving, an invitation to change viewer notions of tradition.
- Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, created in the 1970s, is a gigantic work that includes a ceremonial table representing 39 important female historical figures.
- Ghada Amer’s works include depictions of women, often appropriated from soft-porn magazines, carefully stitched and sewn onto canvas. Extra thread is left to hang like drips and splashes of paint.
- Ruby Chisty, who divides her time between Pakistan and the US, sews recycled clothes and castoffs into layers of fabric that stack up into towering architectural forms. One work, The Present is a Ruin without the People, represents spaces abandoned in war.
Khurana believes that more galleries would show embroideries if they felt they could sell as paintings do. “That requires a lot of education for collectors, especially if they are in a culture where embroidery is ubiquitous. I have observed the struggle both in India and the US over how to see embroideries in the context of contemporary fine art.”
In the UK, actor Judi Dench, has been embroidering swear words on cushions to kill time between takes on set. Jamie Chalmers, 42, tattooed and bald, has styled himself as Mr X Stitch, gaining social media followers and celebrity status for his hip works and workshops.
Icelandic artist Hildur Bjarnadottir has found rare recognition for turning her nation’s knitting, embroidering and crocheting traditions into fine art. She’s set human skulls against gigantic doilies contrasting the domestic with the macho. The artist has been exhibited and sold around the world.
Khurana, however, decided not to sell any of her works from Bridal Trousseau “When I thought about the level of precision, detail, work, and love that goes into artworks, especially by my grandmothers, whose remaining time is precious, I realised they were priceless,” she says.