Omaha, Nebraska
February 6 – April 25, 2015

Textiles can be mind boggling in variety. Which is why the concept of a “collective” exhibition as the KANEKO Center termed their spring calendar of events is both disorientating and honest. Hosting six textile exhibitions simultaneously, the FIBER program touched upon the textile in all its diversity. At one extreme the colorful cacophony of Florabunda exhibited printed Hawaiian shirts, while the floor above included embroideries by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz titled Fabric of Survival and produced in collaboration with the Institute for Holocaust Education.

In between, Fiber Legends brought together the work of Nick Cave, Sheila Hicks and Jon Eric Riis; the American Tapestry Biennial displayed their touring exhibition; The Quilted Conscience Project which “works with immigrant/ refugee children, newly arrived in the United States, and traditional American communities, here for many generations, who don’t yet know their newest neighbors; and Global Threads – an eclectic gathering including kimono’s curated by Yoshiko Wada, (disclaimer: I curated a contribution here based on the book Cultural Threads I recently edited) as well as works by Mary Zicafoose and Susan Knight.

Despite the weighty mantle of the title Fiber Legends, first hand viewing of works familiar from photographs is always a treat. Nick Cave’s Soundsuits make use of found objects harvested from antique shops and flea markets. One of the many lives of the Soundsuits occur when animated by performance, but they are no less compelling as static objects because of their engrossing surface complexity. A similar approach to scale combined with incredible attention to detail is shared by Jon Eric Riis and Sheila Hicks, the latter coincidentally born in Nebraska but a long-time resident of Paris. Unusually, all three “legends” work large – far larger than typical of textiles.

In stark contrast to the Legends exhibition, upstairs Fabric of Survival displayed the remarkable embroideries of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz depicting her childhood as a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Poland. Thirty-six embroidered scenes show the artist with her younger sister and the temporary guises they adopted as Polish Catholic farm girls to ensure their survival. Nisenthal Krinitz’s disarmingly detailed recollections provide a moving record of her personal experience while confirming the ability of the textile to carry some of our most difficult histories.

Yoshiko Wada curated Kitsch to Art Moderne: Meisen Kimono revealing the variety and sophistication of palette and pattern found in the Japanese kimono tradition. Wada explains that after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 a broader cross section of Japanese society began to wear dress previously unavailable to the general population. The term meisen “was generally used to indicate mostly silk cloth that was patterned… These relatively inexpensive and visually dazzling textiles were new to the market and became popular, especially among lower- and middle-class women.”

Another distinct textile tradition was captured in Florabunda, which focused on Hawaiian shirts dating from the 1950s through to the 1980s. The exhibition installation worked unusually well here: bent metal piping created a forest of suspended shirts that managed to avoid feeling empty despite the absence of a body to provide shape. At times, enjoying a sheer volume of color and pattern – especially if you consider the cold of Nebraska’s long winters – is no bad thing. When seen en masse variety rather than repetition becomes clear.

FIBER took an unusual approach to the textile by setting the political and the decorative in such close proximity. In practice, both ends of the spectrum from the sobering messages of the Fabric of Survival embroideries to the joyous color of Florabunda are equally valid examples of textile practice. Housing such variety under a single roof provided a viewing public less familiar with the textile’s range to digest, in a single visit, these extremes.

download full exhibition review published in Textile: the journal of cloth & culture, 14:3, 404-407.

image credit Nick Cave (detail)