Seventeen Exceptions to Nine Observations about Textile Art Today

En Katt bland Hermeliner - Textil konst nu is the first large textile-specific exhibition organised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. While the routes each of the exhibiting artists have taken to find their chosen materials all involved a textile education, ambivalence to what this now means is undeniable. Textiles are the constant. Everything else is recognisable through exceptions.

“Undecidable” is how Sarat Maharaj (borrowing from Derrida) wrote of textile art just over three decades ago. (1) More recently, Julia Bryan-Wilson chose the term “fray” in her refusal to restrict the textile to the categories of amateur and professional. (2) From “querying to queering” (3) is Joseph McBrinn’s recent response to Roszika Parker’s early textile scholarship The Subversive Stitch (1984).

Shared by these voices is a recognition of textile art’s logic in exceptions – a quality apparent in the eight artists selected for En Katt bland Hermeliner - Textil konst nu. The group have things in common, shared qualities to their work that more than one artist names as important to understanding their practice. But in keeping with the breadth and variety possible with textiles, there are no single observations that cover the entire group. For every observation that applies to many artists in the exhibition, there is always at least one exception:

1. Textiles are no longer domestic. But Josefin Gäfvert explains, “the rug is the higher goal for the work – practical and still art.”

2. Spontaneity is valued. But Klara Berge recognises the importance of “obsession and endurance”. Emilia Olofsdotter Sundqvist’s explains of her sculptures: “I want my things to be pristine. I don’t want them to look hobby-like”. Anna Nordström admits her method is “time-consuming, but I never know how long it has taken.”

3. Traditional techniques record an anxious present. But Emma Hasselblad’s knitting and crochet creates joyous oversized Pansy flowers: happiness writ large.

4. Synthetics predominate. But Liilian Saksi can even name the individual sheep and the season the wool in each of her works was collected.

5. Threads dangle and edges remain rough. But Klara Berge constructs perfect geometric shapes, picked out in space one taut line of thread at a time.

6. A shared aesthetic is apparent. But Emilia Olofsdotter Sundqvist wants to “reclaim cuteness”, while Sara Kallioinen Lundgren is “looking for the ugly parts” of the world around her.

7. Textile history is not the point. But Gustaf Helsing’s starting point is the question: “what past do I translate into tapestries?” After her studies at Konstfack, Anna Nordström studied the history of textile technology at Uppsala University. Liilian Saksi uses sprang, a technique she acknowledges is more commonly associated with archaeological textiles.

8. Materials are recycled. But Jonathan Josefsson explains, “I buy a lot and work with what I have.” And while Anna Nordström’s quilted pixel-squares started as a way to use up “the smallest of my scraps”, she explains discount shopping for materials is also crucial. Neither artist buys with a particular artwork in mind. Instead they stockpile and work from what is at hand.

9. Textile techniques are familiar. Weaver Josefin Gäfvert explains: “I could not take away my tool.” But Emma Hasselblad’s knitting is often misunderstood as tufting and Liilian Saksi’s sprang misunderstood as weaving.

Textile art has long operated out of step with the expectations of categorisation. Not necessarily craft, and not always fine art, perhaps it is no surprise that exceptions are the identity of textile art today.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, from zoom conversations with the author and exhibiting artists June-August, 2022.

(1) Sarat Maharaj, “Textile Art - Who Are You?”, Reinventing Textiles volume 2: Gender and Identity, Janis Jefferies (ed.) (Winchester: Telos, 2001).

(2) Julia Bryan-Wilson, FRAY: art + textile politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

(3) Joseph McBrinn, Queering the Subversive Stitch (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021).

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