Unravel: New Textile Art Exhibition at Barbican

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of viewing Unravel, a new art exhibition at the Barbican, ahead of its opening on 13th February. The exhibition centres around textiles – textiles as art, clothing, maps, flags, protest, language, tradition – and weaves in marginalised voices, movements, and experiences.

Within the sustainable fashion space, there is a similar thread that runs through the predominantly female POC workforces, to the mindless consumerist shop shelves, and into our ever-bulging wardrobes. So I was excited to view this exhibit, and see how it relates to fashion more generally.

Redressing The World Of Textile Art

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. And yet, textile art has often been seen as a lesser art form, drawing links to craft rather than fine art, and being gendered as feminine. This archaic, patriarchal view aims to be redressed in Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art.

Barbican has curated a host of textile artists to showcase works that challenge the art world and the world at large. This collection of artists – predominantly female, queer, and POC – use textiles to tell stories ranging from intimate, private moments, to challenging political narratives.

My Life In Textiles

Good art brings about feelings, and in Unravel, I felt familiarity, solidarity, and horror. Some pieces jolted me back to memories from my own life. A warm glow as I remembered the commemorative kitchen towels with illustrations of my classmates’ faces printed on them. A sombre moment reflecting on the suffering of citizens in war-torn countries, including my family in Iraq. A veiled rage at the police brutality and unlawful killings depicted in Teresa Margolles ‘american Juju for the Tapestry of Truth’.

I marvelled in wonder at the intricate beading in Igshaan Adams’ ‘Heideveld’, and felt a sudden peace looking up at the unspun wool drapes in ‘Quipu Austral’ by Cecilia Vicuña. I left the exhibition feeling awe; so surprised at how Western sexism could mute such a powerful art form.

My Overall Rating of Unravel: 8/10

Textile art is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than any other art medium. The smell of the fibres – soft cotton, vegetal sisal – and the woven histories of nature, tradition, and human experience, make for powerful viewing at this exhibition.

I came away from Unravel feeling better informed, and very much inspired. I highly recommend visiting the exhibition, on from 13th January until 26th May 2024, as it makes for a really beautiful, insightful few hours. Tickets are £18, with pay-what-you-can tickets available every Thursday from 5 – 8pm.

If I had one wish, it would be to see fashion and garment workers better represented within this exhibit. Clothing and textiles are so very intertwined: clothing and textiles make up 7% of world exports, with 430 million people thought to work in fashion and textile production. So where is the art highlighting the plight of garment workers at the hands of fast fashion? Why is there no artwork from China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other world-leading clothing exporter countries?

While you can argue that fashion is in a different category to textile art, there are many textile artists who use their work to protest fashion’s exploitative supply chains and planetary impact. I felt this was missing from the overall piece, and in a way, continues to marginalise textile workers – 80% of whom are women.

Disclaimer: I was invited to the press view at Barbican Centre. All views and opinions remain my own.


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