Women Artists of Color Are Using Textiles to Rewrite Histories

Poet and scholar Eunsong Kim described the nature of archival building for Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the West as inherently fraught due to the historical legacy of Euro-American institutions housing culture stolen from across the globe. Her poetic 2016 essay “FOUND, FOUND, FOUND: LIVED, LIVED, LIVED” points to the conceptual ways artists of color have grappled with institutional memory, archives, and personal narratives to rewrite their history and legacy in the West. Textiles, in particular, have been a medium for women artists of color to weave old and new narratives about their familial and ancestral existence.

Despite this, textile-based craft has been ostracized from the canon of art history because of its longstanding association with the practices by communities of color. Exhibitions like “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” (2019–22) at the  have specifically addressed this historical, institutional erasure while reclaiming the craft-based practices of contemporary artists like , and . But less has been written about how women artists of color working today have contributed to the field.

Artsy spoke with , and —rising artists navigating the field of contemporary textile art and its trendsetting status—to discuss their distinct examinations of how history is embedded into each of their processes and negotiated to larger audiences across institutions.

B. 1987, The Bahamas. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

April Bey
Colonial Swag: Na Enjoyment, 2022
TERN Gallery
US$20,000
Portrait of April Bey by J Meadows Photography.

In her self-described speculative futurist tapestries, April Bey uses heightened and subdued color palettes to reflect on the construction and existence of the Black diaspora—its people, culture, and history. She overlays woven jacquard, sherpa, satin, and faux fur with paint, resin, and glitter, depicting her subjects’ skin in unnatural tones set against either a monochromatic or fantastical backdrop, as seen in Keep Acting Funny, So I Can Be Hilarious and Colonial Swag: Na Enjoyment (both 2022).

Her figurative portraits, while realistic, present an uncanny representation of global Blackness. In Regret Was Expressed Just Now Tho (2021), Bey weaves a fragmented portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II—a monarch who sought to uphold and maintain the imperial legacy of Great Britain, which continues to impact Caribbean and African nations to this day. Bey’s narrative portraits reconfigure the history of Blackness to be attentive to both mundane activities and epochal events that structure its existence within Euro-American societies.

April Bey
Calathea Tangerine II, 2022
Simon Lee Gallery
Price on request

While Bey is enthusiastic about the exciting possibilities that lie ahead with the art world’s embrace of textile art in the last decade, she is also aware of the historical patriarchal weight that shrouds the practice as women’s work. “Historically, there’s a perception that, because women have been denied easy access to academia, when [domestic labor] is involved, their work doesn’t hold intellectual value,” she said. “Sewing and textiles, weaving and craft-based disciplines tend to carry a feminine nature that has been seen as maternal and thereby not as intellectual or serious as the praised painter.”

Bey’s work often incorporates a hyper-femininity that is rooted in Black femme cultural production expressed through hair, nails, and style. Her attention towards a performance of Black femininity from the Caribbean and the Americas not only recognizes the medium of textiles as best suited to visualize those narratives, but also deepens appreciations of Black femme and queer culture in her viewers.

B. 1982, East Elmhurst, New York. Lives and works in New York

Natalia Nakazawa
Language of Birds, 2020
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Portrait of Natalia Nakazawa, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Although the textile-based practices of women artists are receiving renewed attention, the depth of the field is not yet recognized for its capacity to redress history. “Maybe simply because it is such a familiar and ‘domestic’ material, people do not consider how radical of a gesture it is to hang a piece of cloth or textile on the wall or on the ground, suspended from the ceiling,” said Natalia Nakazawa. “My hope is that textiles as a soft and self-determined material seeps into the psyche of the institutions that show this work.”

In Nakazawa’s practice, textiles are a literal tool to weave together disparate histories, both ancestral and canonical. For her ongoing tapestry series “Obtraits”(2019–present), she draws from online archives of non-European paintings and sculptures from major museums. Featuring a constellation of cultural symbols and markers, Language of Birds (2020), a jacquard tapestry embellished at the bottom with rooster feathers, depicts two unidentifiable characters walking through a surrealistic room. The piece itself, like the series, regards identity ambiguously in order to address a longer, larger shared history of transnationality that shapes the artist’s life and that of many people of color.

Natalia Nakazawa, Our Stories of Migration, 2018. Photo by Etienne Frossard. © Natalia Nakazawa. Courtesy of the artist.

“My education as an artist really began under the quiet guidance of…my grandmothers on both my Japanese and Uruguayan sides of the family,” Nakazawa said. “Looking and understanding the world in multiple languages [and] perspectives…it only makes sense to me that the materials of our everyday life are perhaps the most radical materials we can use to discuss ‘us.’ That is how I started using textiles, because I wanted to start centering the conversation around the materials that most heavily signified my family.”

For Nakazawa, her choice of medium and material is complicated because the cultural value of craft is so often intertwined with the performance of cultural authenticity. “Artisans act as living conduits for lost practices and serve as the storytellers and connectors to a simpler time in society,” she elaborated. “Utilizing techniques that have become ‘obsolete’ in the modern world, crafting can be an active means of retaining identity, especially for Indigenous populations who wish to continue practicing their own identity.”

B. 1988, Kirkland, Washington. Lives and works in New York.

Pauline Shaw
Untitled (plaid 2), 2020
Half Gallery
Portrait of Pauline Shaw. Courtesy of the artist.

Pauline Shaw’s work grapples with personal memory and how it affects and intersects with larger records of time, like institutional history. She combines felted wool with silk, bamboo, and viscose to create abstract sculptural tapestries that reflect the tension of self-determination in a world plagued by erasure. Informed by MRI scans of the artist’s brain, Shaw’s pieces raise the question of how institutional perceptions of one’s culture can alter perceptions of self.

Engaging with the history and mythology of her materials, Shaw adds her own narratives and personal memory. With many origin stories, felt is long thought to be the oldest known textile. A favorite tale of Shaw’s is the biblical parable of Joseph, who used wool from his sheep to pad his sandals while walking to the market. In the story, the friction from his feet turned the wool into felt. Ultimately, Shaw’s interest in working with wool is biblical, literally.

installation image of Pauline Shaw, The Tomb Sweepers Mosquito Bite, 2021 at “The Shed: Open Call,” 2021. © Pauline Shaw. Photo by Ronald Amstutz. Courtesy of the artist and The Shed.

She likens the process of creating her textiles to the work of a caregiver, stating that her own experience as a first-generation child of Taiwanese immigrants has caused her to internalize the labor intensiveness of her practice as a marker of good work and success. And while the recent attention directed towards textile art feels affirming, Shaw noted, similar to Bey and Nakazawa, that the canonical frameworks of labor and process attributed to sculpture and painting have not been extended to craft.

Shaw hopes that, with exhibitions like ’s traveling group show “The New Bend,” curated by Legacy Russell, more audiences will come to understand the significant role that materials can play in unpacking an artist’s approach and work at large.

Article by: Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.