I have recently moved to work at Whitworth Park Hall of Residence on Oxford Road on the main university campus. It has taken a little getting used to this new proximity, however. My pre-relocation thought processes had been something along the lines of: “I can have a half-hour lie in every morning and still get into the office before 9 – a win-win situation”.
I somehow hadn’t foreseen my own complacency when living so close to uni. My actual thought processes have now morphed into something like: “I’m so close to uni that I can have a lie in, maybe a cooked breakfast, and do all my uni emails while I listen to Melvin Bragg on the radio and still be in the office for 10 – a win-win situation”.
A new on-campus location does mean, however, that I am a three minute walk away from the university’s award-winning Whitworth Art Gallery.
At the Whitworth at the moment is an exhibition entitled Art_Textiles, which brings together a diverse range of textiles-based artworks which, as well as highlighting to the ignorant layperson like myself the sheer variety of media and formats and the artistic intent which accompanies such highly-skilled handicraft work, also challenged and questioned ideas of gender, race, and class in various ways.
One room is dominated by a tall figure of a black woman, dressed in a flowing blue domestic uniform, holding onto two strands of hair-like material which drape from an embroidered portrait of Madam C J Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America. The work by Mary Sibande powerfully represents the twin challenges of race and gender, as Walker made her fortune by selling a range of hair products to African American women, many of whom found their only opportunity for regular paid work as domestic servants for white families. The work is loaded with meaning, with embroidery being a stereotypically female pursuit and the significance of hair and hairdressing for women, especially African American women.
This work is juxtaposed in the space with a number of works which use African themes and African-derived motifs in embroidered patterns and opposite it is a Grayson Perry tapestry which all at once is garishly coloured but shows a beautiful landscape, and grotesque and unsubtle with some of its imagery but also so ridiculous it is quite amusing.
Among the huge exhibition, I also particularly enjoyed an installation informally dubbed the “Womb Room” by Faith Wilding; a dark and enclosed room draped with crocheted webbing which is secluded, calming, and relaxing, with the webbing at once proving natural and intricately fascinating, but also jarring – with random strands which hang down and unexpectedly brush against you and the constant danger of entanglement one ill-advised move away.
It is a really interesting collection which has been put together, and well worth a visit. The final piece I would recommend looking out for is an embroidered banner from the suffragette movement which is over one hundred years old. It sits really nicely among an array of contemporary feminist-inspired works, but it has an added cachet in its status not only as art, but as a beautiful artefact, having been made for and carried on rallies. It brings a degree of historical context to the other pieces around it and helps to remind us that this type of craft work has a long and important history as piece of art, and especial significance in the creative lives of women for centuries.