Archive for September, 2009

2009 Weave of the week #35: Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Fabricator of tales
September 14, 2009

"Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)" by Yinka Shonibare, 2001

"Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)" by Yinka Shonibare, 2001

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, is a contemporary British-Nigerian artist, and a visit to his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum derailed my plan to write about a traditional Nigerian (!) textile this week.  I enjoyed the show so much that I wanted to write about it before it closed next Sunday, Sept. 20.

Mr. Shonibare was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005, and is (unlike many of the people I write about) so fabulously successful and internationally famous that I’m going to skip the basic biographical information, which is available on Wikipedia and on the artist’s website, and go right to a random sampling of my impressions from the show.

The multi-media exhibition comprises sculpture, paintings, photography, and film, and “African print” fabrics, like the ones shown throughout this article, are at the heart of almost all his work.  If Liza Lou’s goal is to bead the world, Yinka Shonibare’s may be to cover it in Dutch wax-print fabrics.  This photo from the show suggests what that might look like:


And below is a close-up of the wall covering. This print of black soccer players is the only one in the show that was designed by the artist.


The textiles that we call “African prints,” or Dutch wax prints, were inspired by Indonesian batiks, and are manufactured in the Netherlands and Africa and sold throughout Africa, where they have been completely embraced.  To see what the fabrics look like as African garments, look up, for example, Mandabi, a 1968 film directed by Ousmane Sembène of Senegal (it’s available on Netflix).  My husband saw Mandabi years ago, and all that he remembers about it is how knocked out he was by the fabrics.

A selection of Dutch wax prints was presented in a showcase in the exhibition, and the photo below shows a portion of that selection.

Dutch wax

Yinka Shonibare’s artwork is concerned with questions of identity, authenticity, colonialism, imperialism, class, art history, the Victorian Era, and fashion; but don’t get the wrong impression — his work is also colorful, accessible, inventive, and a lot of fun.

Headless mannequins are one of Mr. Shonibare’s trademarks, an idea he connects to “the French Revolution when the aristocracy had their heads chopped off” (see an excellent short videotaped interview with the artist here).  The headlessness also helps us focus on the fabrics, the costumes, and the gestures, without distractions.


I thought the similarity between the artist’s Two Heads at Once, shown above, and Nicolas Ghesquière’s “batik” dresses from Balenciaga’s 2010 Resort collection, shown below, was astonishing.  Let’s be charitable and call this an example of art influencing fashion.  (Inspired by Mr. Shonibare, I personally decapitated the models shown below.)

Balenciaga resort 2010aBalenciaga resort 2010b

There is a video in the exhibition in which Mr. Shonibare discusses his interest in fashion.  Also a thirty-minute color video, A Masked Ball, in which I noticed the interlocked “C” Chanel logo on one of the ball gowns.

The sight of a roomful of dancers whirling around in 18th-century-style formalwear (made out of a riot of color wax prints, of course), powdered wigs (not headless), and Venetian-style masks is fantastic.

But with all this eye candy to talk about,  I still haven’t mentioned the most unusual part of the exhibition, Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play,  a site-specific installation in several of the Brooklyn Museum’s 18th and 19th century rooms. Child-size mannequins, headless, and at play (in Victorian costumes made from Dutch wax fabrics), have been placed in the museum’s various period rooms for us to find.  The picture below shows a girl and her doll under the table in an 1806 South Carolina dining room.

dining room

This is my favorite part of the exhibition, because the museum’s period rooms were peaceful havens for me when I was a child, and I hadn’t visited them in years.  They are a fascinating and probably underappreciated part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, so I hope that this “treasure hunt” introduces them to new visitors.

Running concurrently with the Brooklyn Museum show is another of Yinka Shonibare’s  site-specific installations, Party Time: Re-imagine America,  in the Newark Museum’s 1885 Ballantine House.

Mr. Shonibare says, “To be a good artist, you have to know how to fabricate [nice pun, if that’s a pun], how to weave tales, how to tell lies, because you’re taking your audience to a nonexistent space and telling them that it does exist.”

Well he is (good, that is),  he does (take you there),  and I enjoyed the trip.

2009 Weave of the week #34: More colored squares
September 6, 2009

Colored squares

Designed and handwoven by Fern Devlin ca. 1980

I started my “weave of the week”  feature last year because I was amazed at how much one of my doublewoven scarf designs looked like some of the work in the “Color Card” exhibition that I had just seen at the Museum of Modern Art.

Then my recent discovery of Alighiero Boetti’s delightful woven word squares inspired me to yank  a pillow (shown above — one I designed years ago) off a kitchen chair to be this week’s featured weave, because I have been thinking and writing about  colored squares, and this is another way to weave them.

The pillow design was one of a series of color studies, and when I did them, I carefully wrote down the yarn information, though now — several decades later — it doesn’t matter at all what  specific yarns I used.  Unfortunately, the weave draft itself has disappeared, so lesson one is:  Don’t make half-assed notes, and if you do remember to make fully-assed notes, file them (and the samples) carefully.

If this weave structure has a name,  I don’t know what it is, so I’ll call it “binder weave” because it alternates two fine binder (tie-down) ends and picks with one end and pick of a much heavier yarn.  Both yarns in my fabric were wool: 4800 ypp for the binders and 1600 ypp for the pattern.  Below are closeups of both sides of the weave, from a commercial swatch.

Colored square face

Binder square face


Binder square back

Binder square back

By the early 1980s, I had been weaving my own fabric experiments long enough to have made a haphazard collection of pillows in a hodgepodge of colors, yarns, and weaves that interested me.  So after reading an article about Bill Goldsmith’s high-end interior design LCS Gallery in Manhattan,  I decided to try to sell my work there and made an appointment to see him.

One glance at the interior of the LCS Gallery told  me that I had made a big mistake:  Every piece of merchandise — and the showroom décor as well — was in some calm neutral color and/or natural material.  I’m still embarrassed to remember how I felt unpacking my work — NOT neutral;  NOT  “natural ” — which now felt garish and out of place.  Mr. Goldsmith was icy and unimpressed, but he taught me lesson two:  Do your homework on prospective clients first, so you don’t waste a buyer’s time, or your own, by showing something that’s alien to that buyer’s/store’s/gallery’s aesthetic.

Fortunately,  lesson three is that not all buyers are snobs, or narrow in their taste range;  some of them — even busy major store buyers — will look at beginners’ work.  Henri Bendel’s  “open-see” days were legendary,  and their gracious accessories buyer, Claire Nicholson, gave me my first order — one piece each of six mohair and lurex scarves (swatch of one colorway below).

The wound healed, and I sold off most of my pillow samples, but I never called Bill Goldsmith again.  In fact,  it was at least ten years before I dipped a toe back into the interior design market — but that time I made sure to do my homework first.

Mohair/lurex scarf swatch

Mohair/lurex scarf swatch

Obsession? or just focus?
September 1, 2009

I don’t get to the movies very often, but I recently saw Julie and Julia and liked it more than I expected to.  The film’s two feel-good storylines — Julie Powell’s rise from blogs to riches and Julia Child’s equally unlikely-seeming stardom — had a lot to do with why I enjoyed it so much, of course, but the movie offers more than that:  it is also smart, funny, extremely well acted, and set mostly in Paris and New York City (two more pluses, for moi).

Julia’s part of the story starts in Paris, and there were several interesting vintage fabrics, which I noticed en passant, in the Paris scenes.  But at a later point, after she and Paul have left France and moved into a house in New England, a traditional tan overshot coverlet, prominently folded over the back of their living-room couch, distracted me so thoroughly that I almost missed a very dramatic scene.  Though the coverlet stole the scene from Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as far as I was concerned, it is unlikely that anyone else (well, anyone outside the set designer’s family) will find it worth mentioning, so I thought that I would.  (My husband didn’t notice it at all.)

In a nutshell:  Julie and Julia is a film about two food nuts, being commented upon here by one fabric nut.  Will anyone else out there be pausing the DVD at that point to ogle the coverlet?