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Is Textile Art, the new Art-Art?

If you ever doubted the influence of celebrity culture than the photo on Facebook of Jonathan Garnham’s beaming face next to American Hip Hop star Usher at the Frieze New York Art Fair proved its dominance. Garnham, owner of Blank Projects in Cape Town, probably would have smiled even if Usher had not bought one of Igshaan Adams tapestries. Why Usher’s interest in Adam’s art is important is debatable and certainly that his work will be hanging on one of Usher’s walls, or even folded away in a store-room belonging to this famous American will be tied to this South African artist’s legacy. All the punters who passed it over at the Cape Town Art Fair, where if memory serves me right it showed first or works similar to it, are probably kicking themselves. What did Usher see in it that we overlooked?

Textile Art is the new art-art. Here is the measure: if a group show or art fair is not a group show/art fair without a textile art piece then you know. This may be why Blank Project’s stand at this art fair, which appears to have been dedicated to Adam’s textile art, had already proved a hit long before Usher stumbled into it- or did he make a bee-line when he read reports of it? This may also explain why Turiya Magadlela’s 'stocking art' sold out at the Armory Fair, also held in New York recently and also incidentally, promoted at the Blank Project’s stand. Abstract Textile Art it is a thing. Garnham seems to have figured this out and has lined up Gerda Scheepers’s stretched garments to keep the wheel turning.

But is she African enough? Textile Art is somewhat linked to stereotypical notions about contemporary African art being an extension of African traditions. I explored this in a recent article for Ogojiii, an African-centred publication. Here are a few points I made in that story:

Textile Art has been around in SA for some time and appears to have been linked to a desire to advance ambiguity: “Nicholas Hlobo’s art was always difficult to peg; the malleability of the rubber material he used might have lent itself to the kind of ambiguity he sought out, it also denied the sculpture label. A few years later he continued this ‘textile’ art discourse with a series of ‘paintings’ defined by rubber appliques and abstract forms generated by hand stitching, thereby treating the canvas as a textile.

You could say he was following in the footsteps of El Anatsui, the Ghanian artist famous for creating ‘cloth’ from materials that aren’t ordinarily connected to textiles such as aluminum caps flattened and joined together with copper wire to form dazzling surfaces. …The extraordinary level of surface embellishment has also lent the works a decorative quality and given they can only be viewed by being hung like a tapestry, it is not unexpected some commentators have dubbed his idiom as ‘textile art.’ Is it textile art and what does it mean to use this label in relation to contemporary African art? Surely the label implodes Anatsui and Hlobo’s efforts at undoing western art norms through the use of unconventional materials?

Traditional African expression is linked to cloth – for centuries it has been the carrier of cultural identity, as it has been even for artists - such as Atta Kwami and Kofi Antuban - in the post independence eras. However, viewing contemporary African art as ‘textile art’, might be part of a reflex to view anything produced on the continent through the prism of African tradition or is it just part of an impulse to categorise art that can’t be pigeonholed?”

“Chika Okeke-Agulu the Nigerian artist and art historian pegs Anatusui’s art as metal sculptures rather than textiles. In conversation with Okeke-Agulu in 2011, Anatsui describes himself as “a painter and sculptor put together.”

A recent exhibition at the Whitworth gallery at the University of Manchester that was dedicated to Textile Art included a number of artists from the continent such as Ghada Amer, from Egypt, and the South African couple Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaoana, but also featured some locals such Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winner who embraces the craft vocabularly in his art. Could textile art be emerging as a mode of art like installation or performance? It has been in and out of favour since the sixties, when feminist artists in the US pushed the art/craft dichotomy into new places.

The Cape Town based Igshaan Adams is another young artist employing textiles as his main form of expression.

“I trained as a painter but when I started making work with textiles it made more sense and I kept being drawn back to it.”

Adams often works with found textiles, exposing the stains through wear and tare or dissecting it. It is his abstract works of unraveled fabrics, pulled apart and into a tangle of threads that stands out. Like Hlobo his process of making the works reflects a struggle to reconcile with his identity, sexuality, an inner state. He often makes his works with his mother.

“She has played such a major role in who I am that it makes sense for her to be part of the process of understanding my place in the world.”


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