|INDIAN PRINT FROM THE J. FORBES WATSON COLLECTION OF SPECIMENS AND ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE TEXTILE MANUFACTURERS OF INDIA, LONDON, 1873-1880. Photo by Jolie Stahl.|
I was very lucky to have chanced upon the late February NPR program, On Being, when Krista Tippett interviewed exhibition "maker" Ann Hamilton, professor at Ohio State University, Columbus, and the person responsible for last year's exhibition at New York's Park Avenue Armory. (Hamilton prefers to be called a "maker" rather than an artist.)
In that huge Armory exhibit, "The Event of a Thread", New Yorkers were able to climb onto swings attached to giant white curtains that hung from mile-high vaulted ceilings. Somehow, as swingers swung, the curtains opened and closed. Facing the swingers was a row of stenographers working away on endless rolls of paper, totally unconnected with the fellow humans visiting the exhibit. It was all quite visceral, and somehow I didn't want to linger too long.
What intrigued me in the radio interview was the elegant expression of Hamilton's theory that thread and textile were both important forms of communication. She told Tippett that when she first started making things out of textiles she thought of the textile as an animated surface that both covers and reveals, a place of embodied knowledge, the first house of the body.
She recalled body memories of sitting close to her grandmother as a child, knitting or doing needlepoint as her grandmother read aloud. The rhythm of the two acts were remembered together. The threads of needlecraft and the threads of ideas produced the same experience for her. She continues to find a tactile experience in words.
With me, textiles often evoke a tactile emotion, sometimes a happy one, sometimes one full of wonder, sometimes a sad one. Examples from J. Forbes Watson volumes of Indian fabrics, published in 1866, were on display near The Metropolitan Museum's Antonio Ratti Textile Center, coordinated with The Met's major exhibit, "Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade". The exhibit's long run ended late last year.
Watson was a doctor who traveled to India with the Bombay Army Medical Service in 1850 and lived there for three years. There is no accounting for his interest in Indian fabrics. The fabrics he presented in his pattern books were manufactured in India and "were meant to inspire textile manufacturers in India and England."
Admittedly the paisley or boteh/buta motif is too powerful for eastern cultures to keep just to themselves. Shown above, a charming floral with budding branches that turn into the teardrop motif. But it is just so hard to see India at this point (1866), losing what was left of its industry to a more industrially-savvy country. It was even sadder when I came upon a pattern book at another library that showed a cotton print of English roses mixed with the motif, intended to be sold back to the Indian customer.
Still the small exhibit was a welcome one and part of our shared embodied knowledge. As Hamilton told Tippett, text and textiles are always woven experientially for her – as they can be for us all. JP