Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Olga de Amaral

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Olga de Amaral

“Weaving linen and cotton together,” Olga de Amaral explained during a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City during early 2003, “creates the perfect surface: a clay-like cloth that is the basis of the strips which are, in turn, the cornerstone of my work. I have always thought about them as a way of making the thin, elemental thread, much larger and more visible.”

This strikingly simple explanation speaks of work that is often celebrated for its complexity: textures are dense and evolving, the palette often shifting as viewers move back and forth in front of a work. De Amaral was born in the high Andean city of Bogotá, Columbia and continues to call the region home, a fact that makes the beauty and peacefulness found in her work all the more surprising. But in the half-century since de Amaral embarked on her studies at the acclaimed Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Bloomfields Hills, Michigan she has clearly devoted her life to the exploration of textiles. Some of her most celebrated work has been produced in the past two decades and often centres on the illusive qualities of metallic surfaces, an inquiry de Amaral explains as her desire to search for a way to “turn textiles into golden surfaces of light.”

De Amaral’s process really involves the weaving of weavings. Cotton and linen are woven in thin strips, later to be used as warp and weft. But first the woven fabric strips are coated in white gesso, a process she explains helps to “stiffen, smooth, cleanse and give body to the units, to heighten the sensation of austerity and to prepare and protect each one.” Rather than conceal the texture created by weaving, this step leaves the imprint of warp and weft still visible. After a further layer of rice paper, colour, often gold leaf, is introduced to the treated surface.

In many pieces, the woven structure is manipulated to allow for squares of plain weave beside squares of loose warp, which can later be pulled outward to create the tabs and tufts that contribute to the complex surfaces. Like whorls of hair or thumbprints, these surfaces have broken free of the right angles of the woven grid and are both original and impossible to replicate. Landscapes – both real and imaged – also come to mind, and in fact de Amaral herself refers to the need to “fulfil my visions of vast imaginary landscapes [with] larger quantities of these woven golden elements.”  In order to do so, she turned to a team of assistants, each with specific skills.  “For the last twenty-five years I have worked with seven lives, fourteen hands, seven women who infuse each small element with Columbia’s vitality,” she explains. “The communal process impregnates each bundle of strands with the spirit of each of these women’s lives, each element acquires a unique patina, as does the knob on the door to a frequented room.”

Along with the communal aspect of her work, de Amaral often uses metaphors that relate her weavings to language. “Perhaps I would like to write with my weaving, rather than describe it” she explains in Olga de Amaral, el manto de la memoria, published in 2000. Elsewhere the “woven fragments” or basic rectangular units, which make up her weavings, are described as “the ‘words’ I use to begin creating landscapes of surfaces, textures, emotion, memories, meanings and connections.” De Amaral determines that her work is both about and very much by the culture and community of her troubled homeland. Returning to the women who have assisted her for more than a quarter century, she explains, “This team of weavers, this place, is my strongest and deepest connection with my country. To me they embody Columbia.”

Embroidery Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2005: 30-31)