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Exhibition: Skin-to-Skin: Challenging Textile Art
Artists: Various
Standard Bank Gallery, 16 April - 10 May 2008

Skin-to-Skin: Challenging Textile Art opens at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg on 16 April 2008, running until 10 May. Curated by Fiona Kirkwood, the exhibition reflects South Africa's multi-cultural identity and unique history through diverse work by artists using textile-related concepts, techniques and materials.  

The title of the show, Skin-to-Skin, is a metaphor for the present day amalgamation of various cultural groups that were racially separated under apartheid. According to Kirkwood, the textile-related works on show are "the artistic fruits of a new unified South African society." These works are by Tamlin Blake, Lynda Ballen, Leora Farber, Nicholas Hlobo, Karin Lijnes, Nkosinathi Khanyile, Fiona Kirkwood, Angeline Masuku, Walter Oltmann, Langa Magwa, Jane Makhubele, Nandipha Mntambo and Yda Walt.  

Skin, and skin pigmentation, has played a significant role - politically, socially and culturally - in South Africa. Under apartheid, people were classified into racial groups according to the colour of their skin, and 'skin-to-skin' relationships, or relationships across the colour line, were outlawed. All of this changed when democracy dawned in South Africa in 1994.  

One artist on the show who reflects the changing face of the country under South Africa's democracy is Yda Walt. In Miriam Makeba Street (2007), she focuses on Johannesburg as a city transforming itself out of apartheid into a vibrant cosmopolitan environment with immigrants from all over Africa. Another such artist is Jane Makhubele, whose works on the exhibition are based on Nelson Mandela's shirts and illustrate recent episodes in the former president's life, like voting in the 2004 elections.  

While skin has been central to the politics of South Africa, it has also been significant as a marker of cultural identity in traditional communities. As such, animal skin is used by a number of artists on the exhibition to comment on aspects of traditional life. Langa Magwa, for example, uses cowhide to explore his experiences of scarification of the face, as well as circumcision as a ritual into manhood.  

Goatskin and cowhide are used by Africans to connect with the ancestors - a theme in Tamlin Blake's beaded work, Baby Skins (2007), which is based on Zulu pregnancy aprons (isibodiya), worn to ward off evil spirits and as a request for protection from the ancestors for unborn children.  

Angeline Masuku and Karin Lijnes also express an affinity with traditional African societies. While Masuku's basket portrays life in a Zulu village, Lijnes' work, Patricia and Francina (2007), highlights the idea that there were no discarded homeless people in such societies.

While some artists explore their connections with traditional cultures by using skin, Leora Farber's contribution to the exhibition is also about identity but from a different angle. In her photographs and video performance she transforms herself from a white Victorian settler to a post-colonial African by grafting indigenous aloe leaves onto her skin, or what appears to be such.    

The exhibition also focuses on another critically important association with skin - HIV/AIDS. South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world, exacerbated by the African traditional practice of 'skin-to-skin' sex i.e. without using a condom. While Nicholas Hlobo focuses on issues of masculinity and sexuality in black society, both Fiona Kirkwood and Walter Oltmann explore HIV/AIDS in their work. Kirkwood's work is an installation using a washing line with second-hand clothing, some of which is marked with words and symbols linked to HIV/AIDS, like "multiple partners". Her piece is accompanied by a video showing its use as an educational tool in and around a downtown shopping centre.  

Oltmann's piece, Mother and Child (2007), is a wall-work made of wire showing the skeletal figure of a pregnant women dying of AIDS.  

A showcase of contemporary developments in the field of textile art, Skin-to-Skin was recently shown at the Kaunas Art Biennial - Textile 07 in Kaunas, Lithuania.  

The show is sponsored by Standard Bank, Artists for Human Rights Trust, Bartel Arts Trust and Pickfords Removals South Africa.

Karin is well known for her unconventional way of working with cloth and mixed media. Her work reflects her commitment to women and creations by women from other cultures. Current issues on redefining concepts of arts and crafts find prominence in her approach. Process is most important and results in a fascinating range of varied expressions. Layers of waxes, embroidery pieces, paint, found material, resin and so forth give shape to highly conceptual artworks in the form of books, two dimensional, and relief works on cloth, installations etc.

Frieda Hattingh - 2001
Curator of Unisa Art Gallery

Her research was highly individualistic and ground breaking and she was one of the first students producing and exhibiting work in collaboration with indigenous cultural groups. Her subsequent practical work could be interpreted as falling into the category of artmaing labelled by Suzanne de Lacy as "new genre public art".

Elfriede Dreyer - 2001
Head Unisa Department of History and art and Fine arts

The works themselves explore the baggage wrapped around "women's work" and domestic craft practices. Women are taken to be the cleaners of the "mess", healers, nurturers, to make things for the love of it, to have endless patience. Collaborations and connections take place in traditional craft practices, between self, artefact and environment. It is these layers that make up Lijnes's work, informed by her own experiences which make it a personal journey. She says of her work: "I see the work as visual texts, resonating with ideas and ways of recycling, collaborating, synchronicity and the idea that there is no one way of reading or defining what we know."

Press release AVA May 2000

Cross cut - criss cross

Notably these artists began as painters. They used oil on canvas. But Cross-cut Criss-cross there is little use of paint and canvas in a traditional way. Instead there is resin, thread, cloth found objects, wax. There is stitching and embroidery.

Sewing is an areas colonized by women. Stitching is a creative act - often conducted in the company of other women. Although Karin and Gwen do not associate with each other in the actual act of sewing, their ideas are intertwined and connected by thread of similar concerns - feminism, an environmental awareness and a need to excavate other verities than the dominant ones, those apparent on the surface of things - the meta-narratives of power. In an inversion of traditional values Karin has chosen to spend slow hours with the needle embroidering onto plastic bags of the supermarket throw away kind. She uses gorgeous coloured thread with tiny stitches and loving detail she embroiders onto these objects of valuelessness. The plastic bag has an instantaneous usefulness as carrier. This is matched by its equally instant dispensibility. From the supermarket to the kitchen it has a useful life of not more than an hour or so. this stand in contrast to the two weeks of stitching a single image. The slow act of creation with the needle and thread speaks of an age when time was not so compressed. Karin offers a trenchant comment (some would say perversely so) on the environmental issue of wastage.

In a similar way Gwen is concerned with environmental issues. She has been called an "ecofeminist" although she balks a little at the label - it smacks of categorization - of being too easily bored. Neither of these artists is willing to accept labeling - not for themselves nor for any of their ideas.

Gwen is concerned with humanity's loss of connectedness with the earth. In her large "Earth's skin" she explores the idea of harrowing - of penetrating the earth's surface with the steel of powerful machinery.

Harrowing/ploughing is about the feminine receiving the masculine - it is the passive and the soft of being penetrated by the hard and the unresisting. But her metaphor warns of the too easy protest stance. Hers is not a simplistic position of a radical style feminist or a "new Ageist" disciple. The act of harrowing or penetration of crosscutting, is also an act of impregnation - of creation - recreation. Cutting into the act of regeneration. Gwen's connection is with the romantic tradition of the sublime. The awe and terror with which one regards nature and the world. as she says, in our age of cynicism, achieving the state of awesomeness and terror is well neigh impossible. Yet for Gwen the significance lies in the attempt. Reconnectedness with the earth is where salvation lies.

"Criss-cross" refers to the medieval concept of the alphabet. Using this connection in a major work, Gwen has explored the possibilities of connectedness in a private alphabet. The wall mounted books reveal only glimpses of its content. Most pages are not visible having been sealed with wax. Not being seen does not necessarily deny the existence of words. Not being seen does not deny their being. That is the nature of things to lie beneath and below waiting for the knowledge of revelation the cross cut can bring to the criss cross.

In a similar way to Gwen, Karin has sealed texts so scrutiny of the contents is denied. But the books are chosen to close, unlike Gwen's are not her own. The secrets within cannot be held warmly to her chest in a self knowledge of possession. Instead Karin has shut out the voices she no longer wants to hear. In her series of books, works such as Grey's Anatomy, Mineral of the World are transformed. They cease to be books, conveyors of information. They are bound, sealed, waxed, burned and violated. They cannot be read. They are no longer available as sources of information.

Karin is resisting, in fact denying the meta-narrative implied by major texts of this nature. When she says these books do not speak for her or to her, she is also saying they do not sepak for the myriad "other" voices. She is saying that there are other verities that have equal value, that too have to be heard. Karin's art speaks for and about the other. In a most poignant work she has engraved an image of her grandmother onto the surface of an old domestic iron.

This engraving is as detailed and as loving done as on a conventional plate. Yet the print made by the iron looks like a scorch mark. Here too are layers of meaning. the image of her grandmother was taken from a photograph of the hunter/grandmother, complete with gunbearers and tells of a woman of considerable will and courage - qualities reflected in her granddaughter. Hunting in Africa early in the twentieth century is about colonialism, power and exploitation of the earth and animals. But this is not a man in the metaphorical rape of Africa, but a woman - albeit in a masculine role. The fact that Karin engages with these contradictions should warn one of too easy a reading of her works, like that of her colleague Gwen. The fact that the image of dominance and power is then captured on the surface of the domestic iron, which is itself a symbol of extreme subservience adds to the depth of I-rony (sic).

Wax is a substance used by both artists. Whether it is used to aggressively seal and silence the books of grand narrative in the work of karin or to heal and protect as in the work of Gwen, it is a material invested with meaning.

Cross-cut Criss-cross is about the connectedness of things. It is about weaving over- under - through and above. It is about threading, joining and making connections. It is also essentially about women's experience, womens' work and women's realities. It is about cutting to the quick of things.

Wilma Cruise
Millenium Gallery
October 23 2000

MAFA exhibition: 1998

The work of master's student Karin Lijnes is an affirmation of a feminine voice. Lijnes' work is a mostly organic assemblage of embroidery, buttons, technical equipment, computer hardware, tablets, fabric flowers. All mixed and put together to form an unholy alliance of different spheres.

Lijnes admits she is inspired by Mapula embroideries and specifically by those that deal with women's issues. In fact, special embroideries were made by the Mapula for incorporation in Lijnes' work. In her work Lijnes attempts to give form to a female conscious world without creating ab essentialistic cluster of feminine identity. She is however unravelling a sense of identity, wherein the concepts of sameness and difference feature strongly. It is clear that Lijnes' ideas about the feminine is influenced by the French feminist Luce Irigaray who deals specifically with the theme of sameness and difference. Kijnes' work titled "Playing in the fields of the speculum" also refers to Irigaray's well known work "The Speculum of the other woman" (1985).

However, Lijnes' work brings another female theorist's work to mind who is perhaps not so well known in the South African context - cyber feminist Sadie Plant. In a recent text titled "The Future looms. Weaving women and Cybernetics (1995), Plant makes an extraordinary ink between the matrix of the computer and the weaving loom. "The computer emerges out of the history of weaving, the process so often said to be the quintessence of women's work. The loom is the vangaurd site of software development".

The fact that Lijnes includes in her assemblages, among other things, mother boards, disks and stiffies combined with embroidery pieces, brings Plant's vision of linking weaving and digital technology to mind. Lijnes succeeds in re-weaving different traditions, not only different cultures but also she inter-weaves the feminine and technological spheres.

"Giving form to a feminine world"
Amanda du Preez

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