Desconocida: Unknown

Desconocida: Unknown
The Gallery, University of the Creative Arts, Epsom
February 10 – March 20, 2009

The subtle visual language of Desconocida: Unknown initially belies the horrors of its content. A white wall of hand stitched nametags, the sort you would expect to find under the collar of clothing, run in carefully apportioned rows along the gallery wall. Each name is hand stitched, some expertly, others wobbly and tentative in thread colours that are as varied as the stitches. Currently 1,537 nametags have been sewn at workshops held in twenty-two countries around the world. Each nametag records the word “unknown” in the language of the embroiderer or the name of a woman who has been tortured and murdered in the Mexican border city of Juarez in an appalling, but ongoing, culture of violence against women. 560 women are known to have died, a number that sadly will likely have increased in the time between the writing of this review and its publication.

Norwegian artist Lise Bjørne Linnert first proposed the use of embroidery to record this horrific loss of life for an exhibition at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas in 2006. Since that initial exhibition, the project has continued to record the violence against women that the authorities in Juarez fail to confront. For the Epsom exhibition, workshop participants sewed nametags during an afternoon seminar led by the exhibition’s curator Professor Lesley Millar. Discussion considered the potential of the textile to tell of these atrocities, as well as the challenge of speaking on behalf of another individual. The potential of the textile to record what may otherwise remain unspoken is apparent in cultures around the world. In Chile, arpilleras were stitched to record the “disappeared” during Pinochet’s rule. In Zimbabwe, the Weya appliqué project, recorded the act of infanticide on cloth, a loss of life that may otherwise have remained unspoken. More recently, the Canadian-Irish artist Lycia Trouton’s white linen embroidery, Linen Memorial, is a rare example of a non-partisan record of the names of each individual who died as a result of “the troubles” between 1966 and 2007. Desconocida: Unknown now joins these eloquent tributes.

Linnert made clear in her introduction to this project that her function is as much facilitator as it is artist. Facts are introduced (supported by Trading Voices, a documentary about Juarez she co-produced with Professor Jose Ferreira), materials proffered, and a request made: stitch one name. The gesture is disarmingly powerful. When seen together, these textiles provide an individual and collective record that refuses to be a static memorial. As the violence in the region continues to be ignored by all but the fiercest activists, the modest scale of each nametag and the empty spaces on the gallery wall tragically allow for the creation of more. Carmen Olivia Portillo: I stitched this name. She is a woman I will never meet. From a city I have never visited. But Desconocida: Unknown asks that I at least begin to listen to her story.

Embroidery Magazine (May/June 2009: 53)