6 Rising Contemporary Artists Using Traditional Craft Techniques
Spandita Malik, Parween Devi, 2020. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
The popular practice of reviving ancient and traditional crafts in contemporary art is nothing new; age-old techniques have become ubiquitous across the art market and in museums and galleries alike. The reemergence of such methods has been described as a gesture towards something more certain and tangible in a troubled time, or a means of rejecting the digital in favor of the handmade. The popularity of crafting also signals the shifting away from rigid perceptions of “high” and “low” art forms and of the gender, sex, and race of people who make them. Crafts represent a genuine intersection that resonates with the present moment.
And yet, amid the clamor for craft in the art world, some of the details of these traditional techniques have been lost. While artists like Anni Albers were forced into their craft “unenthusiastically,” artists working today are choosing to engage with craft with intent and purpose, and to represent the specific origins in time and place of their chosen technique. There are many more stories to be discovered in the ways artists are adopting and adapting their ancestors’ traditions, and much to be learned by understanding the roots of these processes, as well as the social and political circumstances that have conditioned them. Here, six contemporary artists recount how and why they work with traditional crafts and what the techniques they use—often inherited through their families—mean to them.
B. 1988, Corpus Christi, Texas. Lives and works in New York.
Sarah Zapata, A Famine of Hearing, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Performance Space New York.
“Textiles are related so deeply to a lot of what my experience is as a Peruvian American lesbian,” said artist Sarah Zapata, who grew up between the homes of her Peruvian father and her mother, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. Zapata’s handweaving practice helps her bridge the two major cultural influences of Peru and evangelical Christianity in her life.
“Peru has such a rich tradition of textiles. My grandfather even owned a fabric shop in Piura where my paternal family is from; also working with cloth is something that a good Christian woman does,” Zapata explained. She noted that there are proverbs about the relationship between a woman’s care of her cloth and her family.
“Peruvian and pre-Columbian traditions continue to be a source of research and inspiration for me, specifically how textiles were used,” Zapata said. “Many hours were devoted to spinning, dyeing, weaving, embroidering cloth in these civilizations, and they are a beautiful monument to how this community of women worked together to achieve a singular goal. In the Paracas civilization, textiles were used to articulate important events in an individual’s life: when they were born, when they got married, then when they died. They were then buried with these textiles; a sort of womb was created with these layers of cloth. These pieces, called mummy bundles, are something that I continue to come back to.”
Zapata’s prismatic textile works are handwoven using an American-style nine-harness floor loom. Working on the floor with her hands on the loom, Zapata said, feels “like the technique was testament to both cultures and a way to understand my relationship to tradition, from an untraditional standpoint.” Zapata describes her practice—which includes room-sized textile installations—as “a continuing investigation into how textiles relate to structures of spirituality and colonialism, and how textiles can adorn the space to direct the body.”
B. 1995, Chandigarh, India. Lives and works in New York.
Spandita Malik, Rukmesh Kumari, 2020. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
Spandita Malik explores the very specific way traditional Indian embroidery has passed down her matrilineal line, becoming a language common to the women in her family. “I learned embroidery from my mother and she learned embroidery from my grandmother,” Malik said. “The oldest embroidery piece embroidered by my grandmother, on maroon silk fabric in gold wire, hangs in my childhood house and is almost 75 years old.
“There has always been a sense of legacy being passed among women through this language of embroidery and handcraft,” Milak continued, “inherited by generations of women and passed along to break the oppressor by simple but significant hand movements captured on fabric, written in thread.” For her series “Nari,” Malik, who was raised in Chandigarh and now lives in New York, returned to the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh to investigate famous embroidery techniques indigenous to and still practiced in each place: Chikankari in Lucknow; Zardozi in Jaipur; and Khaddar and Phulkari in Punjab. Malik spent time with women as they crafted, creating a collaborative portrait project, photographing them, and printing the pictures onto local fabrics. Each woman completed her image with her own thread and technique.
Spandita Malik, Fozia, 2019. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist; Sammlung Klein, Germany; and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
Spandita Malik, Sarfaraz, 2020. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist; Sammlung Klein, Germany; and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
Malik notes that Phulkari (which literally translates to “flower work”) is a unique style of embroidery that is particular to Punjab. “More than just a handicraft, the threads of Phulkari are inextricably tied to the history of Punjab,” she said. “Both have endured much: partition, industrial reforms, changing economic and fashion trends. Phulkari’s history dates back to the time when shared cultural practices were common and women from all religions crafted and wore these embroidered textiles. Just as gold is handed down generations, Phulkari in the early 19th century signified a woman’s material wealth and were deemed an important part of her wardrobe.”
The beauty and value of the work is in the detail: “Darning stitch was the most commonly used technique to make Phulkari and the quality of a piece could be measured according to the width of this stitch,” Malik said. “The narrowest was the stitch, the finest was the piece.”
Spandita Malik, Kosar, 2019. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist; Sammlung Klein, Germany; and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
Zardozi, meanwhile, practiced in Rajasthan, was historically used to adorn the walls of royal tents and their animals. A laborious, weighty embroidery using metal gold and silver thread (gold leaf and pure silver wires were once used), the practice can be traced across the Middle East and South Asia, and has existed in India since the time of the Rigveda, between 1500 and 1200 B.C.E. Over the course of this long history it has come in and out of fashion, promoted for different social and political purposes, most recently, Malik said, after the independence of the Indian government.
The process of Zardozi embroidery begins cross-legged, seated around the Addaa, the wooden frame. The technique involves tools including “curved hooks, needles, salmaa pieces (gold wires), sitaaras (metal stars), round sequins, glass & plastic beads, dabkaa (thread) and kasab (thread),” Malik noted. The craftspeople trace the design on fabrics like silk, satin, or velvet, which are stretched over the frame. The work then begins with the needle—and it is then that the communal magic happens.
Spandita Malik, Nuzrat Praween, 2019. © Spandita Malik. Courtesy of the artist; Sammlung Klein, Germany; and Sarah Hasted, Brooklyn.
“These Indian women that I work with come together to seek refuge from their lives and help each other. They make collectives and find a way to turn their labor into financial freedom,” Malik said. “They teach each other the embroidery that is culturally famous in that area and has been passed on through generations of women in their family.”
B. 1985, New York. Lives and works in New York.
Jordan Nassar, I climbed the cloud, 2021. Photo by Matthew Kroening. Courtesy of the artist; James Cohan, New York; Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles; and The Third Line, Dubai.
“For me, as a second-generation Palestinan American, my connection to my heritage is diluted and feels so distant at times,” said Jordan Nassar.
The New York–based artist is known for his practice of traditional Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery, known as tatreez, an ancient technique usually passed from mother to daughter and practiced in the home, over a cup of tea. Nassar, too, first encountered it at home in the decorative objects and household items his father had brought back from Palestine. The works provide an opportunity “to bring me into direct contact and collaboration with Palestinians in Palestine—in other words, has allowed me to, in one way or another, become something of a part of the actual Palestinian community, which is priceless to me,” Nassar said. He often works collaboratively with artisans and craftspeople in Palestine to create works inspired by traditional designs and introduce surprising and unexpected interpretations of Nassar’s own emotive reimaginings of his fatherland, and its particular light and landscapes.
Jordan Nassar, The Sun Still Watching, 2021. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle. Courtesy of the artist; James Cohan, New York; Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles; and The Third Line, Dubai.
“In the diaspora, often the most accessible avenues for connecting to one’s culture are exportable material objects, like food, music, and crafts—because we cannot experience the way of life in the homeland, the flora and the fauna, the land, the climate,” Nassar said. “I have always engaged, therefore, with these tangible manifestations of our culture, and so my practice of Palestinian crafts has become the center of my connection to my heritage.”
Embroidery occupies a particular place in Nassar’s life, and the rhythm it creates in his day-to-day keeps him constantly in step with a centuries-old way of life. “The lengthy process of learning these crafts,” Nassar said, “of training my hands and my body to do what I imagine so many Palestinians doing with their hands and their bodies, makes me feel closer to Palestine.”
B. 1993, Wrexham, Wales. Lives and works in Manchester, England.
Anya Paintsil exclusively works with hand tools: a punch needle and latch hook. “Punch needling is using a hollow needle to push through yarn through a hessian/burlap backing, creating loops,” she explained. She uses the techniques of rag rugging or proddy—which involves pulling small cut strips of yarn or fabric through hessian—or rug hooking, in which case the strips are pulled through canvas. Each piece contains tens of thousands of loops of textiles.
Rag rugging emerged in the U.K. in the 19th century, when textile mill workers and their families began to repurpose the surplus and waste from the mills. It’s these origins that also interest Paintsil. “Both techniques emerged mainly as crafts of poverty to repurpose old fabric and old clothes and have strong connotations of utility and labor—which is really what drew me to these techniques as opposed to other kinds of textile that are associated with the decorative,” Paintsil said. “The association with the domestic, the creative output of working-class women historically, and accessibility is also important to me: Rug hooking was most often carried out in the home by women with very basic and cheap tools and fabric. You can create very large rugs without needing a big loom or other types of expensive apparatus.”
Paintsil practices techniques she learned from her Welsh grandmother. “I believe she learned them from my great grandma—they both grew up on farms, and this kind of practice was relatively common along with other kinds of textile craft,” she said.
Contrary to the common perception that these hand-based methods are therapeutic, Paintsil said she finds the opposite to be true. Though she finds the labor and concentration enjoyable, it’s important to acknowledge that the process is intense and arduous.
“I see working in this way and without the automatization of electric tools as part of my heritage, but also in working at the scale I do to kind of jar with people’s perceptions of historically female-dominated crafts and their associations with being dainty, mindless pastimes,” Paintsil said. “The process is long, painstaking, and requires constant decision making as well as attention to detail—true of all embroidery-based craft in my opinion, but working at a large scale, I feel it can’t be ignored or dismissed.”
B. 1989, Mexia, Texas. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Diedrick Brackens creates beguiling figurative tapestries that depict both real-life events and allegories—but the artist’s chosen materials and techniques hold histories, too. Brackens always works with cotton, which he describes as “reliable, versatile, and affordable,” though it’s also “tethered to the foundations of empire and enterprise, and it is forever burdened in its raw and natural state in the minds and live experiences of Black Americans.”
For Brackens, handweaving, his predominant technique, has its own distinctive pace that connects him with a rich past. He first fell in love with weaving after taking a summer class at the University of North Texas and was immediately hooked. “Working with a loom feels like time travel,” Brackens said. “For me, the transportive quality is not only about engaging with the ancient technology of cloth making; I also get caught up in the spell of the rhythmic movements, the way the minutes bend to hours, or when things are tough and minutes feel impossibly strained.”
Brackens—who will open a solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery this July—also enjoys the way handweaving connects to the domestic and the intimate in day-to-day life, in a way other media cannot. It’s weaving’s particular relationship to time, too, that he is interested in evoking. “As a craftsperson I am beholden to time, to keeping track, to endless counting, to an accrual of line after line of threads interlacing to form fabric,” he said. “I do know that a viewer can sense this labor in the resulting object. Beyond that I want there to be a sensation that returns a viewer to old memories, to their personal histories with the quilter, seamstress, mender, knitter kin: I want everyone reacquainted with their storytellers.”
B. 1982, Seattle. Lives and works in New York.
“Textiles are so deeply ingrained into our culture, history, homes, and bodies. So if I’m using quilting, or weaving, or hand-dyeing fabrics, or embroidery, people often share their memories or experiences with these materials and are excited to contemplate them within the structure of painting and within my abstract shapes,” said Amanda Valdez, who uses warp and weft (the matrix in which a cloth is woven on a loom) to create inviting, textural abstract works that mix quilting, sewing, weaving, and painting. This piecing together of materials is deliberate, allowing for all kinds of intersections. “The egalitarian foundation of this approach with abstraction paired with bringing modes of making that are outside of painting into painting usually communicates quite clearly to viewers,” she said.
Valdez has been influenced by the architecture of the Pacific Northwest, where she grew up, and her own physical and emotional confrontation with the world. Introducing different materials in her work is a way of thinking through all of that—but recently she had the chance to go bigger with her ideas. Valdez traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, on a residency at New Roots Foundation, situated within a large, world-class textile mill known for unique textiles that are exported worldwide.
“At my request I was given an eight-harness floor loom nestled within the mill to experiment on,” she said. Learning different modes of weaving with Luc Deweerdt, a fourth-generation Belgian textile engineer, Valdez conceptualized a large-scale weaving made on a huge loom that required four people to operate. “It was important to approach the weaving like my paintings, so I brought together unlikely combinations of weaving methods into one piece, as in a chenille shag with a flatweave wool. As I got closer to finalizing the piece I kept thinking other artists who weave would do something so much more sophisticated given this opportunity. This mill wove the Sheila Hicks Venice Biennale pieces, and here I am using chenille shag!”