Cloth and Culture Now: The review

Contemporary textiles are being exhibited and admired in galleries around the world. At the same time, traditional textile skills are thriving in many cultures. Where do these two worlds collide?

A major new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich entitled 'Cloth and Culture NOW' explores the links between contemporary textile practice, strong traditional practice and overlapping global influences. 

Featured are works by 35 artists from Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania and the UK, using traditional techniques and materials such as tapestry, knitting and embroidery as well as digital print and photography, optic fibres, moulded plastics, rusted metal and even bin bags.  

The exhibition is innovative and fascinating. I was particularly enthralled by the interactive aspects of the endeavour. As part of the exhibition, Lithuanian performance artist, Laura Pavilonyte, has installed a large textile maze, with balls of wool, entitled 'How To Become Happy' outside the Sainsbury Centre. As well as this installation and two levels of artwork, the exhibition incorporates an education studio which will play host to several special textile workshops for children, schools, families, and adults. Throughout the exhibition's stay at the Sainsbury centre there is a series of events where adults and young people can join practical workshops with a variety of specialist artists teaching new textile skills.  The exhibition also boasts an interactive area where the viewer can become the artist, sharing their stories of works they have created or sit down to add a stitch or two to the  communal textile creations in the area.



The Cloth and Culture NOW project is the result of 3 years research by Lesley Millar, the curator of the exhibition. In the introduction to the lavishly illustrated Cloth and culture NOW book, which can be purchased to accompany the exhibition, Lesley reflects that "In the highly contemporary work of these artists it is possible to identify a continuum from specific traditional practice." The artist is able to move from the traditional to the contemporary whilst still embracing the traditions of their craft, and that is what makes this exhibition fascinating.

It was for this reason that I  was particularly interested in the work of Freddie Robins (UK) who works with knitted textiles as her primary material.The first thing I wanted to know was why she chose to work with knit. She replied; Well I studied knitted textiles at university, and in the late 70s, knitting was very popular, it was a popular way of making fabrics. I was drawn to it because it was big and because my Godmother, who was like a second mother to me, worked amazingly with textiles. Other kids would get knitted sweaters that they hated but she would always create the most fashionable things for me.”

When I asked her why she continued to work with a craft many people see as outdated, Robin agreed; “Yes, nowadays knitting has a bad reputation. Although 'young and trendy' people are beginning to see knitting as 'cool' again, most peoples perceptions aren't that way, and they still see knitting as an outdated old-fashioned skill. I saw an article in the Guardian which was referring about old age and brain cells dying, and the image they had chosen to illustrate this was of someone knitting. To me this uncool low status attached to knitting just makes it ripe for subversion.”  Freddie certainly does subvert this status; her knitted creations are unique and original. One look at the work Freddie creates (pictured right) is enough to make knitting seem very cool again. It is encouraging to see someone working within this important British textile tradition: updating a craft form considered outdated and modernising it to keep it alive and exciting for future generations.

All of the pieces in the exhibition are interesting and thought provoking (for a full list of the exhibitors click here) but the artists who feature in the exhibition whose work I especially enjoyed are:

       Kristi Leesi (Estonia) ‘For your eyes only’

This piece is an interesting subversion of traditional textiles such as chintz and checks teamed with new, modern fabrics such as skulls and Playboy bunnies. The central image is a masculine one of James Bond, but it is interpreted through the more feminine skill of patchworking.

         Ieva Krumina (Latvia) ‘Nobody’

This piece seemed particularly relevant to the ECA’s environmental credentials as it focused on reusing materials: the image was screen-printed onto recycled garbage bags. The piece is particularly important as it seems to challenge your perceptions of what is rubbish by making the carrier bags look gold and luxurious.

        Michael Brennand-Wood (UK) ‘Stars underfoot- The slow reveal’

Michael’s piece is a large mosaic of bold coloured embroidered flowers and faces made from acrylic, wire, glass, fabric and thread (pictured above). Standing in front of the piece forces you to contemplate what does and doesn’t exist in the wider universe, whilst the piece simultaneously has couture fashion overtone: you can imagine his creations as exclusive hat pins or brooches.




It is exciting to view such a tactile exhibition that you can feel involved in, created from objects that in your everyday life you touch and use without even thinking about them as 'art'.  The role of cloth in culture is both a changing and unchanging one, and that is what the exhibition challenges you to explore.




The exhibition runs from 29th January 2008- 1st June 2008.

The Sainsbury Centre is open from 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Sunday, and opens until 8pm on Wednesdays. The centre is closed on Mondays. Admission is £2, £1 Concessions.

For more information visit the Cloth and Culture NOW website.

Review by: Tor Brierley


Images (Top to Bottom): Silja Puranen (Finland) 'Without Safety Net' Michael Brennand-Wood (UK)  'Stars Underfoot- the slow reveal', Freddie Robins (UK) 'Perfect:Alex', and Masae Bamba( Japan) 'Flame'