The Politics of Textile Art

The Unexpected Power of Threads

Two recent books focus on artists using textiles as a way of traversing politics and creating meaning. Beauty, fragility and a subversive drive interweave in their works. Nan Collymore examines both books and artists for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

Bryan-Wilson is frank in her acknowledgement that the quilt was also seen as what she calls “a troubled, incomplete library.” For example, black men’s names were largely excluded from the quilt’s narrative. Bryan-Wilson likens this process to a type of archive “unjuried and accepting of all submissions, but still self-selecting in terms of who is encouraged, or feels invited, to participate.”

Her decision to focus on the Neo-Liberalist connection between the United States and Chile is a compelling approach to such varied notions of textiles and their expression in both the arts, crafts and political realms. Bryan-Wilson devotes the chapter “Threads of Protest” to the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña – an image of Vicuña’s work Momio appears on the front cover of Fray – and to a lengthy discussion on the patchwork pictures known as “Arpilleras”. The Arpilleras are largely seen as a hybrid expression of the high and the low, a way of evoking the everyday existence of the maker through simple gestural means – stitches, colorful fabrics and appliqué. The Arpilleras, made by groups of women (the “arpilleristas”) in Chile from simple materials such as burlap and scraps of cloth, were also ways of subversively recounting violence propagated by the military dictatorship of the Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1990. The Arpilleras are historical timelines of the makers’ lives, sometimes depicting tranquil domestic life, other times displays of bloody scenes of people shot in the streets.

Julia Bryan-Wilson demonstrates that fiber and cloth are holders of memory with their set of complex gendered, cultural, historical and classed abstractions that, despite their seemingly visual innocence, are laden with profound meaning. The beauty in all of the chapters in Fray, intersected throughout with lush imagery, is the beauty of the fragile nature of cloth.


In Read Thread / The Story of the Red Thread (Sternberg Press, 2017) one must expect the unexpected of Cecilia Vicuña: various episodes of red yarn gracefully positioned in different spaces – a tree, the street, a bike. Some are woven, cat-cradle like in different scenes, others a singular thread, quipu-like, hanging by themselves. Her revisioning of the quipu (the record-keeping textile device used between c. 1350 and 1532 in the South American Inca populated Andean region) is a way of evoking a ritualistic history of her ancestry, while criticizing the loss of these ancient systems of communication, partly through war and partly through Spanish colonialist forces.

The appearance of Vicuña’s red thread is a powerful meditation on many things. The red color symbolizes blood, guts, menstruation and what’s within us. There is also the idea of red being analogous to political opposition – communism, revolution – revolution being something that Vicuña would have been familiar with, growing up in post-Allende Chile with all of the fear and intimidation associated with the Pinochet regime.

In this book we encounter the red thread in moving ways, as familiar, yet obtuse; as passive, yet violent. The choice to use glossy pages for the first two thirds of the book serves to emphasize the material as a living organism, something that is abject and corporeal. This part of the book uses photographic images of the red thread in its different guises with accompanying texts – some poetry, references, fragile works on paper.

The latter part of the book, on matte pages, offers four short essays on Vicuña. Jose de Nord poetically portrays Vicuña’s exile from Chile in the early 1970’s. “She was already living the hardest sort of exile,” he writes, “an exile, the kind that abandoned her body on the shores of a beach that changed into the impenetrable outer edge of that interior that had previously bestowed precariousness on her.” De Nord speaks of the tiny fragments of detritus Vicuña would collect and usher out to the sea. Vicuña’s resulting works, the precarios, present ways in which the artist is identifying with the fragility of nature of the ebb and flow of life. The precarios also speak of the precariousness of that exiled life, the creation of something new that can be returned as something altered.

In the short essay “Body as Place: Political Crossings in Cecilia Vicuña’s work,” De Nord charts the earliest use of the red thread in Vicuña’s vast body of work. He retells the story of her remembering the first time she saw the mummy of Cerro El Plomo and the impact seeing this human artifact had on her. Looking at the decayed body of the child and noticing that in their hand remained a small scrap of thread that was still vividly red, Vicuña sought to repeat this vision of the red thread as a reminder of the blood of the ancestors, of a re-visiting of place “as a body of the earth” and a treatise on post-colonialism.

The books:

Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Cecilia Vicuña & Michele Faguet, Read Thread / The Story of the Red Thread, Sternberg Press, 2017.


Nan Collymore writes, programs art events and makes brass ornaments in Berkeley California. Born in London, she lives in the United States since 2008.