Getting Back to Ones Roots

A recent visit to an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London has sparked some serious reflections by me on the arts and crafts subject.

Anni Albers (1899 – 1994) was a textile designer, weaver, writer, printmaker, teacher and a leading pioneers of twentieth-century modernism. This beautiful exhibition of her work illuminates the artist’s creative process and her engagement with art, architecture and design.

A few days before travelling to London I had taken out of storage my small hand loom with my half woven piece. I wondered when I could carve out some time to finish it.

Home after visiting the exhibition and greatly inspired by it, I transformed a small room into a weaving workshop, finished the partially woven piece in half a day, dusted off the bigger table loom that had been lying in a corner, framed and hung on the wall some of the textiles that I had produced on and off over the years. They almost looked like paintings.

Although textile production would be classified as craft (arte minore as learnt during my art school training) what the Ann Albers’ exhibition showed is that the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘minor’ art is often nebulous and misleading.

Anni’s wall hangings are exquisite pieces in their own right. They are images painted with yarn.

She wrote: ‘Weaving is an example of a craft which is many sided. Beside surface qualities, such as rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, it also include colour, and, as the dominating element, texture… Like any craft, it may end up in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art.’

While beholding such a rich display something triggered in my mind and I concluded that the excuse why I kept postponing weaving was lack of time, but deep down I now think it was because I considered it less important than painting.  

Although painting and drawing is currently my main occupation, craft has always played a very important role in my artistic formation, particularly pottery and weaving. Weaving though is in my blood. All my childhood summers were spent in my grandmother’s village, Arigna, a cluster of houses built, or I should say ‘knitted’ together on the slopes of a mountain in the Italian Alps bordering with Switzerland.

There in that valley most houses had a weaving workshop for in those days rug production was a thriving form of cottage industry that employed mostly women who could complement the scarce income generated by farming.

The rugs were woven using long strips of material cut out of discarded clothing. Families from the region would send their clothes to be recycled into textiles by post stuffed in big jute bags with their return address stitched on.

One way for us children to earn pocket money was to cut the fabric into strips, wrap them into balls and sort them out by colour, tint and shade, a job I loved (the sorting out, not the cutting). I believe that was my first training in colour studies.

I liked spending time in my auntie’s dark workshop which had only one small window that let in a shaft of light on the loom. There I learnt the basic of weaving simply by looking and was thrilled when she’d allowed me to have a go.

Nowadays only one weaver is keeping the production going. I fear that she too may soon stop  and with her the rich heritage made up of life stories, folklore and traditions will disappear.

Daniela, Arigna’s last weaver in her workshop

Somehow I sense that the Anni Albers’ exhibition has shown me the importance of upholding these traditions, to preserve and protect them and perhaps to find a way to keep them going.

This is why shortly after London I flew to Arigna to reconnect with the place and the people and see if it’s possible to start a new creative adventure because, as in the words of William Morris: ‘Art and crafts ignite our imagination, stimulate our creativity and bring us a sense of fulfilment. Poetry, painting, pottery, music, meditation, gardening, sculpting and other forms of arts and crafts can meet all basic human needs.’

William Morris (1834 – 1896) English textile designer, poet, novelist and social activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement.