Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer




Re:design, an exhibition of textiles and baskets made from recycled materials, was on display at the Joss Graham Gallery in London May 15 – July 31. The Joss Graham Gallery is dedicated to contemporary and antique textiles and basketry from India, Asia, and Africa. While the theme of recycling determined the selection of objects for this exhibition, the informal setting of “re:design” thankfully avoided the well-worn path of a self-conscious eco-friendly image. In fact, unless one read that many of the objects were made from recycled fabric, electrical wire, and even plastic wrappers, the theme of recycling may have gone unnoticed.

The reason for this may rest in the objects’ origins. Much of the work was sourced from the African and Indian continents, as well as other parts of Asia. For many of the regions represented, recycling is not seen as a trendy design alternative but a necessity for production. Many of the artisans producing these works would simply be without raw materials if it were not for the ingenious ways in which everyday resources are reused. But the success of the “re:design” exhibition lay not in a heavy-handed emphasis of these facts but rather in a straightforward attention to the amazing quality of workmanship and creativity on display.

The works included a line of clothing and bags by the Delhi/London-based designers Blank. Educated at the National Institute of Design in India and The Royal College of Art in London, the design team weaves silk remnants into garments, scarves, and bags. Blank is certainly not forced to work from recycled materials. But this elective decision, coupled with experimental weave structures and high quality finishing, produces distinct and inventive surfaces.

At the other end of the spectrum, a mid-20th century Tibetan ceremonial robe sewn of exquisite diamond patchwork and worn by a tulku, or young incarnate lama, still feels contemporary today. From the 1950s, a mat made by Saami Fakir community in Pakistan was pieced from remnants of cotton cloth. More modest materials were woven into blinds (bamboo, plastic, and newspaper) or coiled into baskets (electrical wire and sweet wrappers). Thin plastic wrappers that started life covering the exterior of coffee boxes were fashioned into kites.

The examples selected for “re:design” were evidently crafted from hands – and eyes – skilled at seeing waste as an unnecessary luxury. The resulting levels of artisanship generated a sense of intrinsic value far beyond many of the objects’ more modest beginnings. As a Vrindavan, India, widows’ cooperative that makes woven baskets from plastic bags explains in its mission statement: “WASTE to become INCOME; REFUSE to become RESOURCE.” Such resourceful creativity presents a real lesson to designers working in the high-tech CAD-driven design world of today, a world in which the almost limitless array of options often results in work that lacks a genuine creative input. The sophisticated manner of “re:design” draws from many dying craft traditions; the most important of them all may be that of intuitive creativity.

FiberArts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2003: 56)