Hastings Battleaxe gets to Unravel at the Barbican.

Unravel, The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, to give the exhibition its full title. Went up to London with friend Jan, who leads on our WI’s craft activities. I am not, by and large, a crafty person, but being Battleaxe, have an interest in such things. That Barbican is enough to unravel anyone – how is it, every time I have visited the damn place I get lost in its concrete corridors and halls? This visit was no exception.  Also strayed into the Gaza cognitively dissonant minefield… But talking of textiles, I’ll also briefly write about Patrick Grant from the Sewing Bee. He was the lead speaker at the WI Federation Annual Meeting in Eastbourne the other day.

Textiles – sinister…
Textiles – yucky

But first, the exhibition. Here is a review of it. All the pictures that appear here are from the internet – I left my phone in the cloakroom, so couldn’t take any photographs.  The exhibits were a mixture of textile forms from artists across the world – some powerful and interesting, some sinister, some rude, some yucky, and, as might be expected, some incomprehensible… When considering textiles, you immediately hit the age-old question ‘but is it art?’ Textile work has traditionally been considered as craft rather than fine art, and has been marginalised… this exhibition set out to challenge that classification. In addition, the exhibition focused on big themes – gender, power, race and cultural identity, the nature of oppression etc. Some of the works were made by individuals, including big names like Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois, others produced collectively by groups, usually consisting of women, like the partners of the ‘disappeared’ in Chile.

Textiles – rude

Jan and I had difficulties with the way in which the exhibition had been set out. Many of the exhibits were protected from potentially despoiling fingerings by a metal bar on the ground approx 1 metre away from the object.  If you crossed this, or even leaned across it, an alarm would sound and a guard would appear. Unfortunately, the texts describing the objects were on the walls beside them, written in a smallish font. For women of our age, you couldn’t get close enough to read about the exhibits. Also, it was impossible to see how things were made. We made plenty of alarms go off!

textiles – beautiful

One thing we immediately noticed was that some of the works were missing. To summarise, some artists had removed their work to protest against a Barbican decision not to host a series of lectures hosted by the London Review of Books, which had included a very controversial lecture about Gaza. Here is an article about it. Fortunately, not enough was missing to greatly affect the exhibition, and one artist had left his work in situ, with a notice saying that as the theme of the exhibition was around oppression, genocide etc, he felt it was more important that his work should continue to raise awareness of the issues.  I’d agree with that approach.

The missing works all had a notice in the blank space like the one below, with a link to a barcode setting out the statement from the Barbican. Here is the statement.

By a massive coincidence, when I got home I found that the particular lecture, ‘The Shoah after Gaza’ (Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust), by Indian academic Pankaj Mishra, had been written up as an article in the London Review of Books. Philosopher had lent that very article to Tom, Jan’s husband, and had just received it back, so I read it.  Here is a link to the article. Quite long, not to be skimmed lightly. It is very strong stuff, massively thought-provoking, eye-opening, and with the potential to be very controversial. I’m not going to get into the arguments in the article here. Suffice it to say that Battleaxe agrees with it.

So what does Battleaxe think about the Barbican’s decision? I can see that the lecture would have had the potential to stir up very strong feelings, and the arguments presented could readily be misinterpreted/misunderstood, with potentially catastrophic results… if I had been a director of the Barbican, I would have felt uncomfortable about taking such a risk with my building and my reputation, whatever concerns there were about stifling freedom of speech etc etc.  People are in an on-going frenzy about the Gaza war, largely I guess because we see the slaughter of the Palestinians day after painful day, know it is fundamentally wrong, and yet our protests are pointless.  Those supposedly in power still persist in rubbing our noses in it by going on about Israel’s ‘legitimate right to defend themselves’ yada yada.  Biden et al keep protesting in ‘the strongest possible terms’ but it makes no difference. The other week even a Hastings Borough Council meeting was halted because a debate on Gaza was refused time… As if Mr Netanyahu (or even our own government for that matter) could give two monkeys about what we might think way down here. Mr N also won’t be noticing some obscure artist taking their tapestry out of the Barbican exhibition.

Anyway, a protest seething around the Barbican would quickly fall apart because everyone would get lost. Jan and I managed to get in there without much difficulty, but could we get out again? Of course not.  They might think of improving their signage…

Enough of that. What of Patrick Grant? Well, he certainly is a heart-throb for ladies of a certain age, and last week the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne was absolutely packed. Originally, they had booked Esme from Sewing Bee, but she pulled out and we got Patrick instead, who was a much stronger draw…We were a bit disappointed because he didn’t wear one of his trade-mark tailored suits, but chose a casual blue outfit that unfortunately blended in a bit with the blue draperies on the stage.


He also didn’t give us any insider Sewing Bee gossip, which I imagine was what most of those present wanted to hear.  Instead he focused on the nature of the textile/clothing industry and the need to make it more sustainable, less throw-away and more environmentally friendly. He now has his own company selling British-made clothes sourced from British materials, but I fear, at a price…  He hovered on the dnagerous brink of being party political – the collapse of the country and the need for a new government. Of course I agreed with him, but hopefully it was strong stuff for ladies from the Dark Interior of E Sussex… Good. He spoke really well and it was very interesting and again, thought-provoking. Turns out he is not a tailor by trade, he’s a businessman, and a very good one at that.

Enough of this slightly confused ramble… So many links in this post, to lots of worthwhile stuff, especially the LRB article.

Battleaxe with chums at the WI Annual Meeting…




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.