10 Pioneering Textile Artists, from Sheila Hicks to Nick Cave
The practice of weaving was invented as early as 27,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest forms of human technology. Textile art—which encompasses weavings, embroideries, tapestries, fiber arts, carpet design, and more—has undergone a renaissance over the past century, as artists have pushed the boundaries of what can be considered a textile, as well as how a textile can be considered art. The 1970s, in particular, marked a turning point in this history. Feminist artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro challenged the distinction between textiles and fine art, embracing techniques that were traditionally relegated to the realm of “women’s crafts,” such as sewing and quilting. Below, we’ve compiled a list of 10 artists that have continued to push the envelope in this field, from pioneering figures to emerging names you should know.
Installation view of “Unknown Data” at Galerie Frank Elbaz. Photo courtesy of the gallery.
Hicks began working with fibers in the late 1950s, traveling from Chile to Morocco to India to study the weaving techniques of local artisans. Rather than making flat works, Hicks built on her research by pushing the medium into three dimensions, producing tactile objects that entice viewers to reach out and touch them. “I think that is important, the wanting: the desire to hold it in your hands, to befriend it, to see if it bites,” the artist has said.
For her site-specific work Séance at Design Miami/ Basel in 2014, Hicks presented bundles of brightly colored fabrics, which appeared like giant heaps of cotton candy in the darkened room. While she is best known for such large-scale works, she has also been a prolific maker of miniature textiles. Using a handloom, she incorporates unexpected materials like porcupine quills, feathers, steel fibers, and bamboo into small abstract compositions, which the artist playfully calls her “minimes.”
In the early 1970s, Italian conceptual artist Boetti was thinking about collaborating with Afghan artisans. As a test run, he asked local craftswomen to create two embroideries, one with the words “December 16, 2040” (the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth) and the other with the text “July 11, 2023” (the day he predicted he would die). The embroiderers strayed from Boetti’s original designs, however, surrounding the dates with floral patterns and decorations. Boetti—interested in the concept of chance in artmaking—enjoyed this surprise, and thus began his decades-long partnership with Afghan craftswomen.
Boetti traveled to Afghanistan so frequently that he opened his own hotel in Kabul in 1971. It remained open until the Soviet invasion in 1979. During this time, the artist began his famed “Mappa” series (1971–1994), for which he commissioned over 150 embroideries of world maps that included flags from each country represented. Taken together, these textiles document the changing political landscape, as borders between nations shifted from year to year. In the 1980s and ’90s, Boetti continued to employ Afghan artisans who were living in exile in Pakistan to create textiles depicting word-squares for his “Arazzi” series and everyday symbols for his “Tutto” series.
Harlem-born artist and activist Ringgold began working with textiles after a trip to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 1972. There, a gallery guard introduced her to Tibetan thangkas—traditional Buddhist paintings on cloth, surrounded by silk brocades. Returning home, Ringgold enlisted the help of her mother, a professional dressmaker, to make politically minded thangkas of her own, sewing frames of cloth around depictions of brutal rape and slavery. In 1980, Ringgold crafted her first quilt—again, with some sewing help from her mother—called Echoes of Harlem (1980), portraying 30 Harlem residents in a mandala-like composition.
After her mother died in 1981, Ringgold continued to work with textiles, embarking on a series of story quilts that would come to define her career. These works combined visual and written storytelling to explore topics such as the underrepresentation of African Americans in art history, the artist’s upbringing in Harlem, and the legacy of Aunt Jemima. According to the artist, the textile medium allows her political messages to be more digestible. “When [viewers are] looking at my work, they’re looking at a painting and they’re able to accept it better because it is also a quilt,” she says.
American artist Scott created over 200 cocoon-like sculptures while participating in the art program at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, the first organization to provide studio space for people with disabilities. Showing little interest in artmaking during her first two years at the center, Scott began her textile practice in 1987 after taking a course with the visiting fiber artist Sylvia Seventy.
Working at a frantic pace, Scott would wrap yarn, fabric, and other colorful fibers around found objects like broomsticks and shopping carts, often engulfing these items so thoroughly that they would become unrecognizable. Scott spent weeks—sometimes even months—on each sculpture, working up until her death in 2005. Considered to be an “outsider artist,” Scott was born with Down syndrome and became deaf during her infancy. She had lived in a state-run institution in Ohio for 35 years before moving to California.
In lieu of fabric and thread, Ghanaian artist Anatsui creates monumental, shimmering tapestries out of folded liquor bottle caps and copper wire. “The amazing thing about working with these metallic ‘fabrics,’” Anatsui explains, “is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.” While abstract in composition, Anatsui’s assemblages touch upon a wide array of narratives, from the stories of the consumers who purchased the bottles, to the tale of Anatsui’s early life in Ghana watching family members weave traditional African kente cloths, to the history of alcohol distribution during the African slave trade.
Anatsui works with a team of about 30 assistants to methodically crush, link, and twist each bottle cap, eventually producing sculptures that can weave and bend like cloth. Much like Boetti a generation earlier, Anatsui embraces the element of chance in his work, encouraging exhibitors to hang, drape, and fold his textiles in whatever format they choose.
Like many textile artists, Cave began manipulating fabrics as a child. “When you’re raised by a single mother with six brothers and lots of hand-me-downs, you have to figure out how to make those clothes your own,” he has said. Today, Cave is widely known for his elaborate “Soundsuits”—sculptural costumes that can be exhibited in the gallery or worn by dancers (Cave is an Alvin Ailey-trained performer himself).
Intended to move, these outfits are sewn together—never glued—and create sound like a musical instrument. An extension of his childhood experiments, Cave’s suits are made from recycled materials like old handbags, dyed human hair, plastic buttons, twigs, feathers, doilies, and more. To date, Cave has created over 500 “Soundsuits,” which draw upon a variety of textile traditions from Haitian voodoo flags to African ceremonial costumes, and range in tone from the playful to the political.
Working at the intersection of art and design, Kehayoglou produces hand-tufted rugs and wall hangings that resemble aerial views of pastoral landscapes. Using scraps of yarn salvaged from her family’s carpet factory, the artist creates idyllic visions of nature, filled with lush mosses, grasses, and waterways.
Her textiles often portray specific places that are significant to her, such as the destroyed river near her house in No Longer Creek (2016), or the topography of her native Argentina in her “Pastizales” series. Viewers can interact with these rugs in the gallery or live with them in the home—in fact, the artist prefers that her textiles get a little dirty. “Being touched, walked on, and dirtied brings the works to life,” she explains. “My rugs become a register of lives lived.”
While tapestries have historically been reserved for grand religious and mythological scenes, Zangewa uses the medium to document her everyday life. In appliqued silk, the Malawian artist depicts herself reading Vogue Magazine on the lawn, carrying her son in the kitchen, showering with her husband, and getting dressed in the bathroom. Elevating the mundane, Zangewa’s textiles are meticulous—and can be easily mistaken for paintings when viewed from afar.
Each work is made by hand through a laborious process that begins with template drawings and fabric-cutting and ends with pinning and sewing. “I’m expressing myself and embracing my femininity through my choice of material,” the artist has said about her practice. “Sewing is also very therapeutic and as a person who internalizes things, I find relief in it.”
Though Ahmed works in painting, video, and installation art, the Azerbaijani artist is most known for his fantastical carpets and embroideries. In these works, he playfully riffs on traditional weaving patterns, creating new rugs (though sometimes ripping apart old ones) that feature optical illusions, acid drips, and pixelated glitches. Ahmed’s process begins on the computer, where he uses Photoshop to create these psychedelic distortions. He then prints the design to-scale on paper before handing it off to a team of 20 to 25 weavers.
As carpet-making is a revered practice in Azerbaijan—Azerbaijanis have been producing patterned textiles since as early as the 3rd century B.C.E.—it took Ahmed a few years to convince local weavers to produce his warped designs, and the first to do so worked in secret. While some might describe his practice as rebellious or irreverent, the artist has been embraced by the international art scene. In 2007, he represented Azerbaijan in the 52nd Venice Biennale.
In the spring of 2015, Mexican artist Camil handed out 800 free ponchos at Frieze New York. Patched together from discarded fabrics, these “wearable paintings” could be donned as robes at the fair or sat upon as picnic blankets in the nearby park grounds. Camil took inspiration from the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s “Parangolé” series (1964–1968), in which viewers were given capes, flags, and tents, and encouraged to bring these textiles to life through their movement.
Adapted for Frieze, Camil’s version explored the status culture at art fairs, where being seen can be as important as seeing the art itself. Not limited to wearable art, Camil has also used hand-dyed fabrics to create abstract representations of abandoned billboards in Mexico City and versions of Frank Stella’s iconic Minimalist paintings.