Pulling at Threads considers the role of craft in the practices of contemporary artists from South Africa and beyond. Bringing together artists that use techniques such as weaving, sewing, beading and collage, the artworks included in this exhibition challenge traditional art historical hierarchies that prefer painting and sculpture over craft-based media. These techniques represent both process and subject, where the form of making fundamentally informs the meaning of each object. Through labour intensive processes, innovative use of materials, exploration of form and hybrid cultural references, these artworks suggest new approaches to making images and objects in the 21st century.
A return to the haptic—the use of touch to understand and manipulate our world— cannot be appreciated without acknowledging the ways that the digital revolution has fundamentally transformed how we experience the world.
This has occurred in both subtle and fundamental ways. Areas as disparate as banking, grocery shopping and dating have been revolutionized by digital technologies and we now experience money, groceries and love via a screen. It is within the context of our increasingly virtual experience of what was previously a physical engagement, which the use of ‘low tech’ or craft techniques take on their poignancy. These processes require a direct and often sustained engagement with materials. While the artworks included in Pulling at Threads do not reject the digital—indeed many refer to digital media or processes—they nonetheless celebrate tactile processes of making.
Pulling at Threads highlights the various social, political and religious meanings of the materials and techniques that these artists use. Weaving, sewing, beading and collage have long been associated with gender and cultural stereotypes. For example, Liza Lou has painstakingly recreated domestic environments using glass beads that comment on how women’s labour continues to be undervalued. This is reinforced by a meticulous attention to construction. Billie Zangewa has created delicate images out of silk depicting women of colour that confidently and directly engage viewers, quietly defying expectations. In a very different way Ibrahim Mahama brings to the fore Africa’s role in the exchange of commodities and the migration of people through his use of hessian sacks that bear traces of coal and cocoa production. These artists, and many others in Pulling at Threads, consciously manipulate the expectations associated with specific techniques and materials to comment on complex social, political, and religious meanings.
Norval Foundation would like to thank BlainSouthern, Berlin/London; Blank Projects, Cape Town; Goodman Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg; Victoria Miro, London/Venice; WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town; and White Cube, Hong Kong/London.