Memory and Time: Contemporary Written and Woven Narratives

TAPESTRY 2008: The Australian National University, Canberra

"Memory, Landscape and Time: Contemporary Written and Woven Narratives"

“As an imaginative writer I find myself reading in continuously changing ways,” explains the postcolonial author Wilson Harris. “I reread works by writers I may have misjudged and which I return to and perceive differently. I reread my own fictions after a long while and see connections there I planted and yet which seem utterly new.” This paper proposes a ‘rereading’ of contemporary tapestry from two perspectives: the narration of memory and landscape as articulated in the tapestries of Sue Lawty, Clio Padovani and Shelly Goldsmith and the metaphor of tapestry used to express memory and landscape which plays a central role in Harris’ novel The Carnival Trilogy.

This research is, in part, a response to Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s warning in Women’s Work of the interpretative mistakes generations can make if the separation between the use and the creation of textiles grows too great. Barber suggests our common understanding that Homer’s Penelope wove a plain funerary cloth by day and unpicked it by night to stall her suitors is based on a collective ignorance and distance from the pace of weaving. “Homer’s audience,” Barber argues when she suggests that we have long misunderstood the fabric Penelope wove, “would have know that only the weaving of a non-repetitious pattern such as a story is so very time-consuming, but we who no longer weave or regularly watch others weave are more easily misled.”

“There is always a discrepancy,” Harris’s contemporary reincarnation of Penelope concludes, “and as a consequence I unravel the work I have done, unstitch everything, and start all over again from the very beginning whenever that was… [it] never quite fits. Always a sleeve of element or a fluid stitch that’s out of joint.” Reading fiction’s metaphor of tapestry against contemporary tapestry practice, this research attempts to repair the longstanding material misreading of Homer through the reconsideration of the narratives of tapestry in twenty-first century fiction and textile art. A comparative reading both acknowledges the threat of interpretative mistakes possible when distanced from making (Barber) but also celebrates the possibility of a non-linear, dynamic narrative possible when rereading the seemingly familiar (Harris).

home page image: "Language", Sue Lawty (2004), natural stone on gesso, width 100 cm x height 100 cm
© Sue Lawty