Artists working within this discipline use natural or synthetic fibers to construct their work. This art form has a history that stretches back many thousands of years with the development of various technologies that have enabled people to make fabric for practical and cultural purposes. Over the last century with the rise of feminism and it’s related influence on the art establishment, these techniques have become firmly rooted in contemporary art. The tactile and repetitive processes involved in fiber arts were long dismissed as ‘women’s work’, with the craft/art binary enforced along sexist lines. Fiber and textile artists’ respond to this dynamic in direct and subtle ways with much of the art being produced taking on political significance.
While processes such as knitting and dyeing are commonly known and used, many groups of people have unique processes or styles specific to their country or cultural background. For example in Namibia, of cultural significance is the traditional ondhelela fabric used by Oshiwambo speaking communities for cultural events and dress. The history of ondhelela is rooted in colonial trade and domination, you can read more about trade-cloth here.
Textile artists like Laimi Mbangula and Elizabeth Shinana make use of ondhelela and other motifs to interrogate and explore the relationship of their communities to custom and tradition. Mbangula and Shinana both use hand dyeing processes, stenciling and block printing. These labour intensive processes aesthetically mirror some of
the industrial printing techniques of mass-produced commercial fabrics. While this aesthetic makes reference to these fabrics, the tactile process of making allows the artists to push back and assert their own aesthetic sensibilities.
While some thousand year old textile processes remain the same and in use today, technology and industry have introduced digital and mechanical processes into these techniques. An example of the digital influence are some of the textiles created by Lynette Diergaardt using a digital weaving process where a design is fed into a computer with software that is linked to a loom, instructing the loom to create the design. Diergaardt also experiments with totally manual weaving techniques, exploring the meditative qualities of weaving as well as the spontaneity hand weaving allows.
Artists like Ismael Shivute and Filipus Sheehama on the other hand have used weaving and sculptural techniques to create works that are both mixed-media sculptures and textiles. Shivute’s ‘All eyes on me’ for example is made up of marula fruit husks, carefully strung together to create a large wall hanging. Fillipus Sheehama uses bone, horn, reclaimed plastic, marula piths, bottle caps or a combination thereof, to create large complicated artworks that often visually reference patchwork. While Shivute and Sheehama might not usually be considered textile artists their process and resulting artworks can be seen existing within the tradition.
The intimate relationship that exists between humans and textile (worn against the skin and used as body and adornments for centuries), provides a rich ground for artists to explore, create, re-create and reflect on the history and the human condition.