Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Barbican

The rootedness and intricacies of craft is in the traditional. The techniques and the familial and cultural stories woven through the textiles are passed down through generations.


The practice of craft returns time and time again to the past. Textiles lead us back to our ancestors; they guide us through a history that we can touch and feel. Entangled lives, stories and knowledge lie in the threads.


Over the last 10 years, craft, and textiles art, has had a renaissance. Once considered a lesser form of art to painting and sculpture, it’s domestic and feminine history kept craft and its rhetoric outside of the fine art mainstream. Craft has become a revered, nuanced, deeply-rooted practice capable and able to challenge the parameters and dialogue of contemporary art. It offers a perspective long silenced, mocked and ignored.


Textiles are entwined with us from birth. We’re swaddled in cloths the moment we’re born; we’re dressed in clothes across our lives; we use them for protection, decoration, celebration. The stories behind textiles are stories of identity. They are stories told through our hands.


Unravel exhibition at the Barbican sheds light on textiles ability to weave stories through time and of a time. The nature of textile art, the accessibility and long history of it make it hard to fit into one exhibition. However, the curation of the Barbican’s exhibition respected the duality of the medium, the storytelling and the commemoration, the collaborative and the singular, the process and the protest, the craft and the fine art.


Wandering through Igshaan Adams clouds of antique gold, chains woven and dripping down walls

Igshaan Adams, ‘Gebedswolke (Prayer Clouds)’, 2021 – 23

Human hair delicately embroidered into images of quiet violence by Angela Su. Questioning the ability for the human body and mind to fully heal after trauma.


Sarah Zapata’s vibrant handwoven wool draped over models of buildings long destroyed. Subverting the notion of the rug as floor-based, a practice only begun after the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.

Sarah Zapata, ‘To Teach or to Assume Authority’, 2018 – 19

Gently swaying ‘Quipu Austral’ by Cecilia Vicuña hang from the ceiling, accompanied by the sounds of Vicuña chanting poems related to water, for which thread is a metaphor in Andean culture. The Andean quipu is a system of ‘writing’ with knots, banned by the Spanish conquest in 1583 and ordered to be destroyed.


Once treasured garments wrapped in bundles form Sheila Hicks work. Preserved for longer as a memory but unwearable, a reminder of what we hold dear.  


Every artwork in this exhibition felt drenched in stories. The longer you took to take in the work, the more you understood it, the moreit offered.


I chose textiles, and crochet in particular, as my craft, and maybe this exhibition felt more personal than perhaps it would to others.


Last year I received a blue quilted roll of crochet hooks from my grandma. Her fingers inhibited by arthritis and no longer able to hold them, it was time to pass them on. Amongst the hooks bought by my grandma over the years were three tiny metal sheathed hooks. These were my great great grandmother’s, passed down to my grandma in a similar way. These hooks once manipulated fine white thread to create intricate lace church alter cloths around Salford in the mid to late 1800s.

I have been crocheting since I was 17. A skill taught to me by my grandma, a skill none of her 5 children wanted to carry on.

She taught me to read patterns before I was allowed to pickup a hook. We poured over disintegrating magazine cut outs as she quizzed me on the abbreviations and symbols. It is a shared language between us.

Those hooks, some less than a millimetre in diameter, I use today. Creating my own forms of lace and filet crochet.

Unravel exhibition at the Barbican and the solo exhibitions of Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern in 2023, Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine in 2019 and Louise Bourgeois at the Hayward Gallery in 2022, to name a few, are paving the way for contemporary fine art progress of these disciplines. It is personally inspiring to see critical curation of this form of art.


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur. A turpis id neque commodo condimentum viverra consectetur marmodis
March 22, 2023
Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, Barbican
Emma Stones