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"The Difference Loom" exhibition banner

Quanta Gauld . Keiskamma Art Project . Mbali Khoza . Fabian Saptouw (SA artists)
Janis Jefferies . David Mabb . Richard Rigg . Nina Wakeford (UK artists)
Iziko South African National Gallery, Annexe
22 August - 27 September 2013

Curatorial statement and some images:

"The Difference Loom" is a visual contemporary art exhibition exploring textiles and technology. We sense the body in textiles, but not in technology. We discern the analytical in technology, but not in weavings. This exhibition is about those perceptions/disconnections, explored in that area where textiles and technology intersect, explored through the works by 8 artists who use textiles as one medium of social critique.

At first the link between textiles and technology seems tenuous, but the first automated weaving loom and today's computer share a history.

Janis Jefferies "(2007) meets Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942 – 43) after Mondrian"

The “Jacquard Loom” was invented in 1801 and used wooden punch cards to direct the thread or stop it from going into a weave. Twenty years later, Charles Babbage relied on the Loom’s punch card technology to invent an automated machine that could calculate sums. He realized the binary system could also be used to represent, store and process abstract mathematical data. Today’s computers, though they no longer use punch cards, still have the same “Store” and “Mill” of Jacquard’s and Babbage’s machines, which are better known as the “Memory Unit” and the “Central Processing Unit” respectively.

This illustration of human creativity forms the genesis of Janis Jefferies’ work. In an earlier work made in collaboration with computer scientist Tim Blackwell, “Swarm Techtiles”, she made sound visible. Sound was turned into warp and weft threads through a software programme, and these “threads” were woven into images of dynamic patterns, colour and complexity. Some of the screen shots were then collaged with mathematic code and woven into tapestries on a Jacquard Loom. When we look at “Ave Maria (2007) meets Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) after Mondrian”, the tapestry to your left, can we hear, see and sense the music? Can we sense the human thought that produced the Jacquard Loom, Babbage’s “Difference Engine” and Jefferies’ work?

Janis Jefferies
"Ave Maria (2007) Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) after Mondrian"; 2007; taquete, jacquard in rayon; 160 x 60 cm

In an exhibition about textiles and technology, one issue that comes to the fore is the value of human labour in relation to that of the machine.
"The Difference Loom" exhibition in situ image with works by David Mabb, Fabian Saptouw, and Quanta Gauld

The two are taken to be in opposition - as much our inheritance from the Industrial Revolution as the advancements of that age - for whilst the first automated loom, the Jacquard Loom, revolutionized the industry, it also put many operators out of work.

David Mabb looks to the responses to that earlier age of the machine as represented by two significant socialist-based design movements with opposing beliefs, the English Arts and Crafts movement (1840s-90s, England) and the Russian Constructivists (1920s-40s, Russia). In England, protests by displaced textile workers lead designers such as William Morris to question the impact industrialization had on design, skill, and the lives of ordinary people. His solution was to return to a past when men worked and were valued as artisans; a return to nature and art as the source of wealth and comfort, such as in the Medieval period (we can see the influence of the designs of that period, with its rich colourings and patternings, on Morris’ work). In contrast, the Russian Constructivists, prompted by the utopian climate following the Russian Revolution, rejected the past in favour of the future, and advocated a move away from labour intensive modes of production to industrialization (the aesthetics of artists such as Luibov Popova were based on the geometric and angular, to reflect the qualities of precision, impersonality and order made possible with machines). In his work Mabb tries to juxtapose both Morris’ and Popova’s iconic patterns in aesthetic balance so as not to favour one argument over another, instead calling equal attention to their ideas.

Fabian Saptouw addresses the value of the man-made versus machine-made by hand-crafting items that are commonly mechanized. To make “Chainmail”, Saptouw hand-cut and -rolled 1.5 mm gauge steel wire, and linked it. Look closely and we can see that despite his meticulous work, the links are irregular. Such irregularity means his chainmail fails as a protective industrial good, but the “hand-made mark” of the maker elevates its value as an artwork.

Mabb’s and Saptouw’s works raise complex questions about how we value the man-made and the machine-made, and in this way, how we value man and machine?

in the back: David Mabb
"Luibov Popova Untitled Textile Design on William Morris wallpaper for Historical Materialism";2010; screenprint on wallpaper; 53.5 x 70 cm

in front: Fabian Saptouw
"Chain mail"; 2013; 1.5 mm gauge steel wire; 50 x 50 cm

If there is an (extra) aura in hand-made art, do we also project something like it onto technology?
"The Difference Loom" exhibition in situ image with works by Nina Wakeford & David Mabb

Nina Wakeford explores this using the theories of seminal child psychologist David Winnicott as a platform in her work “Good Enough Mothers”. Winnicott theorises that an infant starts out in an internalized, idealized world but must transition to external reality for its proper psychological development. The role of the mother is to be initially the source material of the internal world, and then to help the child with its adaptation to the external; as such, the optimal mother is one who is just “good enough”. Wakeford wonders whether we are not “infants” still living in the internal idealized world with respect to technology? Consider old technology, such as dial-up phones, which we view with nostalgia and not as obsolete things, and our hubris that new technology will solve all our problems, while at the same time we fear being replaced by robots. Given the weight of this argument, one might be surprised by how “low-tech” a form is taken by Wakeford’s tie-dyed fabrics, bundled and set like figures on chairs. But perhaps they are our required “good enough mothers”?

in the back: David Mabb (as before)

in front: Nina Wakeford
"Good enough mothers"; 2012; 3 tie-dyed cloth bundles; dimensions variable

"The Difference Loom" exhibition in situ image with detail of work by Quanta Gauld

Quanta Gauld’s practice investigates contemporary issues of human exploitation and abuse through writings on human morality, and tries to embody those words in her work. The exhibited piece is a response to Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the beloved country”, from which the quote - and the work’s title - comes. Given that the wire fabric that Gauld has painstakingly woven is being unraveled by a machine, one might assume Gauld is criticizing the abuse of humans by machine. But as the machine was built and programmed by Gauld herself, it is as much her work as the weaving. So who then is the abuser?

Perhaps both Wakeford’s and Gauld’s works remind us that technology is human-made, and therefore the achievements and limitations, the respect and abuses, are our own?

Quanta Gauld
"A silence falls upon them all"; 2013; gold wire, arduino in wood box; dimensions variable
Textiles invoke our sense of touch, even when – as art works - we are not allowed to touch them.
Keiskamma Art Project "Keiskamma Guernica"

We “feel” their textures, weight and volume with our eyes. Moreover, as their common use is clothing and protective wrapping, what we are sensing is the human body.

This haptic evocation is particularly evident with the Keiskamma Art Project’s “Keiskamma Guernica”. It is a direct reference to Picasso’s work in scale, composition, and subject matter of human suffering, which for the Keiskamma Art Project members is due to the decimation of its community through HIV Aids. It is a tapestry made partly with hospital blankets. Do we sense the presence of the dying patients, as well as those left behind?

Keiskamma Art Project
"Keiskamma Guernica"; 2010; used hospital blankets, Xhosa skirts, other fabric, embroidery, wire, beads; 780 x 350 cm
Mbali Khoza "Stitches"  

Mbali Khoza’s work “Stitches” also calls forth the human presence, though less corporeal and more ephemeral. It is a performance piece presented here as a recording. The inspiration behind Khoza’s work is a man she met from central Africa whose tribe has spoken, but not written, language. She invents for them an alphabet, using it to write a text, with needle and cloth but no thread. There is an ancient metaphor that thought is like a thread, and the narrator, a weaver of tales. Khoza tells us of this man and his language in the sound of her “sewing”, and as his thoughts have been woven into hers, she weaves hers into ours.

Mbali Khoza
"Stitches"; 2011; performance with fabric and needle

in situ Richard Rigg Keiskamma Art Project  

Richard Rigg’s work looks like a jacket forgotten on the floor. But when we read the title the first part of which is “Cloth Arranged to Look Like a Jacket” we realise it is an illusion, for it is actually an uncut, unsewn piece of cloth that Rigg has carefully folded to look like a jacket. This would be a throw-away sentence of a story if it were not for the continuation of the title “(Self-Portrait)”. For now, we know the artist wants us to conceptualise a person – a “Self”. Is the “Self” simply the artist, or is there more? As we understand that it is us, the viewer, who in comprehending the cloth/jacket illusion, complete the artist’s work, so we may wonder if the “Self” is actually us? In which case, the work is not about the cloth/jacket, but the way we think.

Extending Rigg’s idea to the exhibition in general, it is our hope that this exhibition about textiles and technology also showcases our making, thinking, and how we value what we make and think.

in the back: Keiskamma Art Project (as before)

in front: Richard Rigg
"Cloth Arranged to Look Like a Jacket (Self-Portrait)"; 2011;
folded, uncut, unsewn cloth
; 60 x 44 x 10 cm

for more images, video clips and press clippings, please visit the exhibition on FB (link below)



research consulted include the following:


"A sound you can touch", Janis Jefferies, Montreal conference paper, August 2005
"Tactile Affects", published Tessera volume 32, Jennifer Fisher, 2002
"Luibov Popova Untitled Textile Design on William Morris wallpaper for Historical Materialism", David Mabb, 2010
"Art and socialism", paper presented to the Leicester Secular Society, William Morris, 1884
“Imagine no possessions – The socialist objects of Russian Constructivism”, MIT Press, Christina Kiaer, 2005
Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”, paper presented to the British Psycho-Analytical Society, David Winnicott, 1953
Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq.”, Luigi Menabrea, translated by Ada Lovelace, 1842/43