South African artist Igshaan Adams trained as a painter at the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town. Amid financial struggles in his mid-20s, he decided to stop buying pricey oil paints. Instead, with his grandparents’ permission, he cut up clothing and other fabrics from their home and stitched them together to create a figurative image. Soon after, in 2010, he got a job teaching painting and composition to weaving artisans at an NGO called the Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Trust. He knew some weaving basics before taking the job, but the experience sparked an “embodied” connection to the craft. “I realized at that moment that I never loved painting,” he said on a Zoom call from his studio at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. “I never connected with the medium as strongly.”
After training those artisans, Adams began working as he does to this day, unraveling Islamic prayer rugs and meticulously reweaving them with beads that evoke the zikr or Tasbih strand that Muslims use for prayer. It’s “a symbolic gesture,” he said, a way to make his own space within Islam as a queer mixed-race Muslim, and to consider “the aspects of my identity that were in conflict with each other.” Today Adams employs a team of 16, including his former painting students and their relatives, as well as his own family members, to help him finish sprawling tapestries that have the scale and wall-power of paintings. Several works incorporate worn-out linoleum flooring ripped up from friends’ and neighbors’ houses, a building material associated with working-class homes. His 2022 solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Desire Lines,” included the 10-foot-long, earth-toned Langa (2021), made from wood, plastic, glass, stone, nylon rope, wire, and cotton. The beige X across its center is based on an aerial Google Maps image of the footpaths grooved into the land between the Cape Town community of Bonteheuwel, where Adams grew up—designated for “Coloured” people during the apartheid era—and Langa, an adjacent Black suburb.
Recently, many early-career artists trained in fine art have been following a path similar to Adams’s, turning away from painting—along with the art historical baggage and limitations that come with it—and toward fiber. They’re using the materials of craft in ways that look a lot like painting. But these artists take the material as an invitation to center personal and social histories, often from historically marginalized perspectives. Queens, New York–based Natalia Nakazawa, an artist of Japanese and Uruguayan heritage, first trained as a figurative painter at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In critiques and studio visits, she experienced what she called “terrifying” conversations, rife with exoticizing tokenism, about the brown female bodies in her paintings. After exhibiting figurative work at the Queens International in 2006, she “close[d] … that chapter.” Today, she uses textiles to address cultural heritage, diaspora, digital circulation, and institutional power. “One reason why I gravitated toward textiles was to escape obsessive conversations about the body’s particulars,” she said, during a visit to her studio in Long Island City, New York. “I wanted to talk about ancestry, history, past, present, future. I wanted to talk about globalization and markets—how images are translated from one medium to the next and are sold.” A recent textile, Demons and Protectors: Say their names #GuiYingMa #ChristinaYunaLee #MichelleAlyssaGo (2022), features images of three Asian American women who were murdered in New York during the pandemic, alongside images of beasts and fragmented sculptural hands. There is a “fragile quality to how much we can honor and protect our own community members,” Nakazawa said.
Brazilian-born, Los Angeles–based artist Lila de Magalhaes initially studied painting, but turned to embroidery after being introduced to the technique while working as an assistant in a painter’s studio. After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art and the University of Southern California (where she focused on video art), she worked as a studio assistant for Ivan Morley, and came across his “rickety Japanese analog hand-guided embroidery machine.” The tool took her back to her childhood making crafts as a Waldorf school student in Switzerland, where she was raised. She now makes tapestries that, from a distance, are dead ringers for paintings. Only when you get close enough can you see their otherworldly imagery is embroidered onto dyed bedsheets or silks, and embellished with layers of chalk pastel. Her visual vocabulary— kittens, worms, insects, abstract body parts, and often, a woman riding naked astride a horse—plumbs the unconscious. A self-professed Jungian, she refers to the dyed thrift-store bedlinens she embroiders as “the place of the unconscious and dreams.”
This new generation of artists freely mixes fiber and painting, addressing formal and political concerns in works that are dyed, woven, embroidered, and sewn rather than rendered in oil or acrylic. Indeed, on a trip to galleries in downtown New York this past winter, tapestries often dominated the wall space typically given to painting. One standout show was an intergenerational exhibition at Kaufmann Repetto, “Re-Materialized: The Stuff That Matters.” Millennial artists working in figuration—like LJ Roberts, who makes embroidered portraits of queer and trans individuals; and Erin M. Riley, whose tapestries often depict her own tattooed body, captured in iPhone selfies—were included, along with veterans like 80-year-old knotted-rope artist Françoise Grossen.
The turn from paint to textiles is a trend that has been brewing for a while. The ground was laid by a series of exhibitions that celebrated both craft and the tendency toward ornamentation and decoration, both of which have long been associated with women and non-Western cultures. Nakazawa pointed to recent surveys like “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art, 1972–1985,” which opened in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as influential for celebrating ornament in contemporary art. “A lot of people relegate women and people of color to a decorative realm,” she said; for this reason, she considers the medium of textiles a tool for formerly marginalized people to reclaim full humanity
Other landmark shows foregrounding textiles and craft include “Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present” (2014) at the ICA Boston; “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” (2018) at the National Gallery of Art; “Quilts and Color” (2014) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” (2019–22) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Many of these exhibitions build on the legacy of feminist art history by reclaiming contributions to formal innovation created in domestic settings, celebrating collective practices, and leveling the hierarchy between fine art and folk art. In the process, they revealed how gender, race, and class underpin aesthetic biases.
Over two decades, major museum exhibitions have reframed works made in fiber as capital-A Art by showing how formal evolutions in painting developed alongside—and indeed borrowed from—patterns and compositions found in textiles. One touchstone is the groundbreaking survey “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” which traveled to 11 museums between 2002 and 2006. The show’s inventive geometric compositions, made from castoff fabric by a community of Black quilters in Alabama, were eagerly received as a particularly American style of abstraction. As Michael Kimmelman extolled in the New York Times, “Imagine Matisse and Klee … arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves.”
A new generation of artists’ work testifies to the Gee’s Bend quilters’ enduring influence. The 32-year-old artist Bhasha Chakrabarti, whose work was included in the group show “Fiber of My Being” last summer at Hales gallery in New York, studied textiles both in India and with the Gee’s Bend quilters in Alabama; her figurative portraits bring together textile and painterly techniques. Also in 2022, Legacy Russell organized “The New Bend,” a group show at Hauser & Wirth gallery that drew connections between the Gee’s Bend quilters and 12 risingstar artists, including Tomashi Jackson, Eric N. Mack, and Basil Kincaid. Russell described the Gee’s Bend makers as “artists and technologists,” positioning younger artists as their inheritors exploring the many links between textiles and digital tools. The warps and wefts of fabric, for instance, work like a grid of pixels, while their collage techniques recall the disjointed experience of browsing the internet.
The digital plays a significant role in much of the new textile work. Nakazawa turns digitally collaged images of artworks, often by non- Western makers, into jacquard-woven textiles made in North Carolina on recycled cotton. She then embellishes the fabric with hand-stitched elements like shisha mirrors and sequins. “Jacquard is the original computer,” she said, pointing out that women dominated computer programming before the field became lucrative. Digital imagery is also a source for New York–based Pauline Shaw, who studied sculpture at RISD before teaching herself felting through online tutorials. She now mines online museum collections, along with her personal history, to create textile works exploring cultural memory. A first-generation Taiwanese American, Shaw’s tapestries often rework motifs found in East Asian decorative arts. Taw (2022), made from felted wool and cotton scrim, features stylized forms representing a marble, a peony, a chrysanthemum—an emblem of good luck—as well as a poppy, symbolizing extraction and global trade. Small blown-glass objects, resembling flora, dangle from the tapestry’s bottom edge. “In the absence of heirlooms, familial stories and memories became folktales,” Shaw said during a walk-through of a two-artist show at Chapter NY gallery this past February.
For Shaw, the technique of felting—one of the oldest known to humankind—evokes “spaces of the home, care and nurture,” as well as the large-scale textiles that illustrated cultural origin myths in medieval and dynastic China. For Knight Knight (2022), she reinterpreted a Chinese tapestry from the late 16th–early 17th century that depicts the world through land, sea, and sky. Panel with a Phoenix and Birds in a Rock Garden, from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is barely recognizable in Shaw’s flipped, vertical interpretation, where stylized birds circle a reddish center, surrounded by magmalike whorls of beiges, blues, and oranges. A similar tension between legibility and abstraction animated Shaw’s 2021 work The Tomb-Sweeper’s Mosquito Bite, commissioned by the New York venue The Shed. In that monumental installation, a 24-foot-long felted tapestry was suspended from the ceiling by a metal armature and cables, its weight counterbalanced by multiple blown-glass orbs. The delicate glass vessels contained objects based on Taoist altar objects and Chinese zodiac signs, while the felted textile’s abstract design, resembling a tangle of branches, was based on an MRI scan of the artist’s brain. “I liked that this large, seemingly abstract work actually held a lot of specific information,” she said.
These artists haven’t entirely abandoned painting; instead, they are recombining it into an expanded visual vocabulary. Nakazawa still makes paintings, but usually as part of a broader mixed-media work: Her 2019 piece History has failed us … but no matter, includes jacquard-print found fabrics and collaged images of the Japanese internment site Camp Minidoka, where her grandmother and other family members were held during World War II. Here, found fabrics attest to the international digital distribution of patterns and the cannibalization of cultures in contemporary textiles. Nakazawa said these contemporary textile patterns, such as flowers and pleasant abstractions, derive from specific decorative arts traditions. Today, however, they are digitally shared and reprinted around the world, with slight tweaks to color or scale. “Even things that do have deeper cultural meanings also exist in a weird ether of diasporic longing,” she said.
Traditionally, decorative art has been considered less valuable than painting. For these artists, however, textiles, and craft in general, are liberating. De Magalhaes described her turn to craft—she also works in ceramics, inspired by time spent in her mother’s pottery studio—as a “desire to unlearn” the “heavy cerebral” way of working that she studied in art school. Nonetheless, her evocative dreamy works often draw comparisons to painterly pieces. Writer Gaby Cepeda has likened de Magalhaes’s imagery to Old Testament figures, while Andrew Berardini has noted her work’s relationship to the Symbolism of Odilon Redon. Her own goal, she said, is to “find joy and pleasure and meaning within the chaos that is the human condition.”