Monday, September 24, 2007

Textiles Exhibition: War, Patriotism and Politics

This Summer The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles hosted a powerful exhibition of international textiles that explored how communities struggle with the repercussions of war and utilize artistic tools to forge new identities.

Thought provoking textile creations artisans expressed the intimate experiences of social, emotional and structural upheaval in their lives. The exhibition presented works created over a 200 year time line, covering early notions of nation building in the USA through dramatic representations of genocide and Sept 11, 2001.

Working with simple materials in humble environments the creators found voice to their struggles. This powerful exhibition drew upon the extensive work of international curators and collectors, many of whom support the artists and local communities broaden their audience and political activism. The textiles surveyed in this exhibition skillfully explore notions of defiance in the face of atrocity.

The exhibition covered three major themes:

Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory. "Textile works depicting the horrors of war by mostly women artists and artisans from war torn Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and South Africa. This exhibit is an eloquent and powerful testimony to the impact of modern warfare and the relevance and resilience of textile arts in contemporary life."*

Woven Witness: Afghan War Rugs. "A closer look at the influences of war on the evolution of traditional rug design from the Russian invasion through the U.S. Taliban war. These examples are a powerful testament to the relevance of the rug form, its ex
pressive capacity, and the ability of a people to adapt to the ravages of war."*

Patriot Art. "Reflections on how artists, both historically and contemporary, respond to their political climate. With true patriotic fervor, humor, irony and passion, these works marshal a range of textile techniques to serve the inalienable right of expression."*

*Direct quotes from museum. Visit the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Historically textiles have been the domain of the elite, lavish weavings serving as cultural currency and evidence of social standing. Yet the majority of consumer based textiles and household adornments are often produced in arcane conditions. Indigenous craftspeople increasingly face challenges to their well being through oppression and hardship. In this environment female labor oftentimes toiling in servitude is testimony to the disenfranchisement of women’s creativity and social standing.

It is rare for a textiles exhibition to resonate beyond the visual and tactile response. Yet this collection of textiles had an underlying strength in the fusion of three district elements: the overwhelming stories of oppression, genocide and community efforts to be liberated. Highly stylized works from South Africa when viewed through the framework of apartheid and grassroots organizing for political change become even more breathtaking. Storyboards of individual and collective loss unfold; the individual emerges from the gulf of discord.

For many in war ravaged communities the scars resulting from atrocities are unfathomable. The Latin America wall hangings although filled with bright colors tell stories of unimaginable pain. These works were created through a community building workshop that supported women to gather, build friendships and embark upon a healing process.

A critical aspect throughout the exhibition is that of cultural economy. It was evidenced by American Indian artifacts from the period of early expansion west, through non government organizations promotion of community building programs in third world countries.

The museum facilitated a number of public forums, I attended: "Can Art Build Peace? What About Textiles". With a panel of human rights activists and scholars, this timely discussion expanded upon how arts, creativity and collective expressions of hope are powerful agents of change.

The speakers emphasized that creative storytelling is a means for communities to focus on something beautiful and healing. Through art making and the creative processes, deeply felt loss is mourned and reconciliation is gradually realized.
Key Note speaker Cynthia Cohen, Director with the Coexistence Research and International Collaborators at Brandeis University stressed that powerful community change is achieved when local women organize.

This exhibition served to educate and ask many evocative questions and encourage audiences and curators to ponder: How do we address the ethical dilemmas that arise in our arts and culture-based peace building practices?

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