To Recap: 2015-2020

"To Recap: 2015-2020"

catalogue essay commissioned by Fiberspace Gallery, Stockholm

During the past five years, textiles have experienced a long overdue welcome from art fairs, galleries and publishers. The recent extent of increased visibility suggests a significant shift in appreciation of textiles. These observations are not new. But they often occur without discussion of the surprising extent of this shift, or consideration of what broader recognition may mean for the future of textile art.

To recap: Last year Frieze London included the exhibition Woven described as a “global story about the practice of fibre art”.[1] Online this year at Frieze New York, the Richard Saltoun Gallery dedicated their virtual presence to one of the earliest textile art exhibitions: “Wall Hangings” exhibited in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[2] Recent Venice Biennials have included a similar textile presence[3] as did documenta 2017[4], which included, among others, Swedish Sami artist Britta Marakatt-Labba who has referred to the inclusion of her work in exhibition as career changing[5].

Solo exhibitions have also expanded their welcome. The legacy of Anni Albers needs little in the way of confirmation, but the Tate Modern’s recent solo exhibition of her work[6] meant an extensive presence of textile practice finally occupied their galleries.[7] Elsewhere, textiles familiar to national audiences have travelled more internationally. The tapestries of Swedish-born Hannah Ryggen, well known to Nordic audiences, have recently been exhibited in Germany and England.[8] Last year, the Met Breuer showed Indian artist Mrinalini Murkherjee’s[9] fibre sculptures for the first time in America, while African-American artist Faith Ringgold’s painted quilts, familiar to her home audiences, held her first solo European institutional exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries.[10]

Group exhibitions have similarly been filled with textiles. At Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town in 2018, Material Matters: painting at the end of an era included a seminar which focused on the textile content of what was named a painting exhibition.[11] In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019[12] included more textile work than any other material. Yet more textiles were visible in Oslo this year in Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art held at Astrup Fearnley.[13]

The belated presence of textiles in significant art fairs and exhibition venues, as well as a number of ‘trojan’ group shows that included but did not name the textile, leaves us with a curious predicament. Should we celebrate the overdue recognition and ignore the often inaccurate claims of newness? Or is it more useful to attempt to correct the record in the hopes that future exhibitions will not need to leave the textile so infrequently named?

Although the chosen content is narrow in scope, the release of books such as Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art suggests that material categorisation can serve a purpose.[14] Elsewhere, publications such as American art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Fray: art and textile politics widen the emphasis of textile art by placing the amateur and professional side-by-side. As an indication of the expanded role of social practice in textiles, Fray pays equal attention to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as it does Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña.

Adaptation and flexibility have long been the textile’s survival strategy. Ironically, this has also meant that the textile has often remained overlooked. Today it may be more accurate to agree that, yes, recognition by mainstream art fairs, exhibitions and publishers is welcome. At the same time, medium specific initiatives that understand the legacies of textile practice, relish the nuances of tactile communication and respect skilled making continue to occupy a crucial role. The recent warm welcome of textiles marks a fulfilling time for all involved with textile practice. But contexts that see no need to claim this as new, or anonymise the textile’s presence, remain vital.

[1] See Hettie Judah “Woven at Frieze London, Tells a New, Truly Global Story About the Practice of Fibre Art” (26 September 2019)
[2] See
[3] Skye Sherwin “From the Bauhaus to the Venice Biennale: How textiles became art”
[4] See Beatrijs Sterk “Documenta 2017 in Kassel” (14 June 2017)
[5] Skype interview with the author, Frida Åström and Britta Marakatt-Labba February 20, 2020.
[6] Anni Albers, Tate Modern London (11 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)
[7] The Albers exhibition was not the first Tate exhibition to name textiles. The Turbine Hall installation by “Richard Tuttle: I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language” (14 October 2014 – 6 April 2015) and corresponding White Chapel exhibition also addressed textiles, but with a greater emphasis on Tuttle’s own textile collection.
[8] Recent solo exhibitions of Hannah Ryggen’s work include Modern Art Oxford (11 November 2017 – 18 February 2018) and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (26 September 2019 – 12 January 2020) as well as the release of Marit Paasche’s comprehensive book Hannah Ryggen: Threads of Defiance (The University of Chicago Press: 2019).
[9] 4 June – 29 September, 2019
[10] 6 June – 8 September 2019
[11] Anthony Bumhira, Erica de Greef, Tandazani Dhlakama, Jessica Hemmings & Hayden Proud (2020) “Material Matters in Paintings at the End of an Era” TEXTILE, DOI:
[12] 6 September 2019 – 12 January 2020
[13] 31 January – 6 September, 2020
[14] Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art (Phaidon: 2019) follows another medium specific volume by Phaidon released in 2017, Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art. The University of Chicago Press: 2017