‘Thread Bearing Witness’ by Alice Kettle at Whitworth Art Gallery
Written by Stefanie Trow
Photography by Peter Corcoran
With baby in tow, I took myself off to The Whitworth Art Gallery to see the exhibition: Alice Kettle, ‘Thread Bearing Witness’. At a high level, I knew the exhibition was about refugee crisis, movement and displacement, but it wasn’t until later I discovered that Alice Kettle engaged and worked with communities and individual refugees to create this work.
As soon as you walk into the gallery space (Mezzanine Level) you are greeted with 3 large landscape canvases: ‘Sea’, ‘Ground’ and ‘Air’. Interestingly they aren’t just simply hung on the walls, with two out of the three actually being stood freestanding in the middle of the gallery space, held upright by wooden supports. The three canvases are positioned in triangle formation, enclosing the viewer in the middle. It feels deliberate, reinforced with the positioning of the seat to view the works. It instantly makes me think of Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, viewing Monet’s water lilies: the scale, arrangement and the impressionistic quality of the work. This last sentence may lead you to believe then that I am talking about paintings but in fact, I’m not. Each canvas on closer inspection is made from hundreds of woven threads, layered and entangled, creating a sea of colour and imagery.
I loved the fact you are free to walk around the back of the pieces, which give the work another dimension. And, if you hadn’t already realized that these works where made from stitch, when viewing them from the back you can see the thousands of tying thread.
‘Sea’ is the only canvas hung on the wall, hung quite low, which I like, enabling more people to be able to see the work up close. It also makes me feel like you could just walk right into the work, into the sea. Aesthetically the colours are beautiful, splashes of orange set against an array of blue and hints of purple. The thread has a metallic quality to it too, which adds a hint of shimmer to each piece, definitely adding to the sea quality of this piece. Is this a calm beautiful sea though? After closer inspection all is not what it seems. Beneath the beauty of the work, what I first presumed where splashes of orange, appear to resemble figures, strewn or flung across the canvas. Then I start to see figures everywhere I look. Some more formed than others, some appear ghost like
I move onto ‘Air’. A beautiful piece, that feels calmer than ‘Sea’. It’s like looking up into the clouds. You can’t help your eyes leaving the canvas and going upwards, seeing what appears to be a large balloon rising behind it. They feel connected, and I like viewing them this way, layered in front of each other. ‘Air’, in the same way as ‘Sea’, also has splashes of orange dotted around the canvas, this time in the shape of triangles. Then it becomes obvious, these are kites flying in the sky. Your eyes move from kite to kite, I start to wonder who is holding them and my eyes follow the threads attached, leading me downwards to the bottom of the work, where they connect to ghostly white faces. Juxtaposition to these haunting faces is beautiful embroidered birds, flying freely in the sky. They seem liberated compared to the faces, that are chained to their kites.
And finally out of the three, ‘Ground’. My least favorite initially out of the three, purely down to the colours. Very fickle of me! The dominant colours definitely suggest land, soil, heat and sand. This combined with the simple but intricate imagery gives a primitive and child like quality. The work is filled with simple embroidered drawings: houses with rainbows over them, love hearts with crossed eyes, planes flying overhead, arrows suggesting we need to move left, ghostly faces again, but now more colorful, and they appear more like balloons and pops of small explosions of colour. It feels more optimistic yet nostalgic in some way. The way the thread has been worked seems less chaotic, suggesting something or someone is settled. The only words to be seen on this piece are “Save Pikpa” signed with a love heart. For me, it is a slow burner, the more you discover its intricacies, the more you grow to love it.
After all the excitement of these three pieces you can’t help but become drawn to ‘Balloon’ by Kettle, hovering mysteriously, abstractly resembling earth and its continents. It is held down with what first looks like colourful batik cushions, but after a sneaky touch and its fitting title ‘Sandbags’ (by Susan Kamara) I come to the right conclusion. The sand bags conjure up associations with war and disaster, their purpose here to hold or weigh down Kettle’s balloon / earth. Black, chaotic, winding thread is sewn over ‘Balloon’, suggesting a route, meandering back on itself, reaching dead ends – it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular, are we lost? Do we need to find another way? Maybe like Dorothy we hope the balloon will take us back to Kansas.
Set back from the sandbags are a collection of textile sculptures by various artists, which I’ve noticed dotted around in other parts of the gallery. They look similar to beanbags, and appear to be made from all different types of brightly coloured fabric, words sewn onto them. They look clumsily made but this adds to their beauty. You have a sense that they have been made collectively and embody personal messages and meaning.
On the wall next to them, you get the same feeling. A collection of drawings and two works on fabric all hang together, simple and child like. They are all made by a collection of artists and individuals from refugee camps. The works seem to ‘go together’ with similar subjects and colours; birds, trees, flowers, people, house and a few words in places. “Freedom x peace = A life, no black or white” catches my eye and I begin to understand behind each piece is a person and a collective longing for home, freedom and peace. I assume these pieces may have informed ‘Ground, Sea and Air’.
Moving to the opposite end of the gallery, a giant multicolored swath of fabric named ‘Stitch a Tree,’ takes over the entire wall. The cloth is covered with hundreds of white squares with trees painted on. As a whole they make up a giant patchwork forest. Looking in a nearby display cabinet it explains the ongoing project, where anyone from the UK can contribute a tree to be sewn onto the patchwork, showing support for displaced people around the world. Why a tree I wonder? Symbol of growth? One tree is strong but a forest is stronger? Symbolism appears important over aesthetics. There’s a raw and honest quality to the work. It’s a feast for the eyes. You feel you can walk right into the art, as it trails off the wall and onto the floor. I’m very tempted to touch it, like a lot of the works in this exhibition. You could spend a long time studying each individual square, but my time is up, Baby Nyle has decided he has had enough. I lift him out the pram and he has a good look around. I imagine older children would really enjoy this exhibition, and like me, they’ll want to touch the works or even try to lie out on the fabric sculptures. Naughty!
I left the gallery feeling emotive, astounded at the breadth of work and the way Alice Kettle has woven together all the “voices” of the people she has worked with, telling their personal experiences of the refugee crisis through a common language of textile. This powerful and colourful show gives us a rare insight into a topic we only often see through the eyes of the media. A must see show!
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Our guest blogger is Stefanie Trow. Stef is a contemporary artist based in Manchester who is currently on maternity leave. Stef has exhibited with Albemarle in London & Comme Ca Art in Manchester. Find out more on her Instagram @stef_trow_art and her website.
Peter Corcoran is a photographer who is based in Cheshire. His work has taken him around the world, photographing interiors and people. HIs clients include Singapore Airlines, Bruntwood and Phoenix Group to name a few. Fing our more about Peter on his website and his Instagram @petercorcoranphotography