More Art Than Craft: ‘Threads to the South’ Explores and Elevates Fiber’s Place in Culture

Curated by Anna Burckhardt Pérez, the show focuses on how artists in Latin America have used thread and fabric to reflect on identity, politics and the longing for home.

An installation view of “Threads to the South” at the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art. Photo: Olympia Shannon

Textile production has been intertwined with the progress of our civilization throughout time and space, serving as a bridge and a secret code of communication beyond geographical and cultural distances. Similar techniques, types of fibers used and elements and patterns can be found in different parts of the world, revealing unexpected connections and cultural exchanges. The show “Threads to the South” at the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA) tracks a series of narratives expressed using fiber art as a tool and conceptual framework to explore the relationship between belonging, identity, traditions and land in Latin America and beyond. In its various forms, such as threads, knots, weavings, banners, flags and embroideries, the process of creating, contemplating, narrating and experiencing the fabric reflects an approach to history and place that appears to be completely different from Western paradigms. Gathering a heterogeneous group of multigenerational Latino artists, the show acknowledges the material, communicative, social and political meanings threads and fiber have assumed in their different forms while exploring the region’s splintered history of belonging and unavoidable cultural hybridization.

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The exhibition’s title borrows from the poem “I am climbing threads to the South,” written by the Venice Golden Lion artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña. Living most of her life in exile, most of Vicuña’s works are nourished by this intense longing for her homeland and inspired by the quipu, one of the most ancient technologies in the history of Abya Yala, the region that we most often refer to as Latin America and the Caribbean. Used as both a tool for record-keeping and communication, it was banned by colonial powers. In her practice, Vicuna has reactivated this ancient technology’s narrative and spiritual meanings and brought them to the contemporary art scene.

Frame from a performace of Cecilia Vicuña where she pulls a glass filled with Milk with a red thread.
Cecilia Vicuña, Vaso de leche, Bogotá (Glass of Milk, Bogotá), 1979. Performance in front of the House of Simón Bolivar, Bogotá, as part of the collective action Para no morir de hombre en el arte at the invitation of CADA. Photo: Oscar Monsalve. Courtesy the artist and England & Co Gallery, London. © 2024 Cecilia Vicuña / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

On view in the show is a series of photographs from her site-specific performance Vaso de Leche, Bogotà, 1979, made right after her return to Colombia from London; in the video, the artist spills a glass of milk in the street by tugging a red string made of wool. It is a simple but highly symbolic action to call attention to a national scandal in which almost two thousand children died in Colombia after drinking contaminated milk, victims of the politicization of the supply of essential goods during the Chilean regime.

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One key point that the curatorial essay emphasizes is how fiber-based objects have long been labeled as “soft materials” associated with “female practices” and how pre-columbian textiles and the work by contemporary Indigenous communities have been described by Western art history as “craft.” In contrast with those stereotypes, the exhibition proves how artists from the region have instead used threads and fibers as extremely contemporary political metaphors or tools of resistance. Animated by this tension between mounting and protest, most of the works are, in fact, deeply influenced by the similar turbulent political trajectory shared by several Latin American countries. A strong example of this is the synthetic-fabric flag by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, Seja Marginal, Seja Herói….(Be an Outlaw, Be a Hero), 1968. Made for an open-air manifestation, on its surface, the artist screen-printed a newspaper photo of one of his friends lying on the ground after being murdered by a Rio de Janeiro paramilitary organization.

Appropriating the flag instead as a positive tool of belonging and a site of memory, young Colombian-Misak artist Julieth Morales presents four banners woven in the style of a Misak skirt. By reviving this tradition in her contemporary art practice, Morales claims ancestral ties with the land and addresses the loss of collective memories and traditions that occurred in years of Westernization.

Installation views of an exhibition featuring textile art at ISLAA New York
The exhibition proves how artists from the region have instead used threads and fibers as extremely contemporary political metaphors or tools of resistance. Photo: Olympia Shannon

For most of those artists, fiber art is primarily a way to reconnect and revive important legacies and ancestral knowledge. This is what informs, for instance, the work of Peruvian artist Cristina Flores Pescorán : tapping into rituals of communal healing with the use of natural elements, her work Revivir (To Revive) 2022, is a crocheted sheep wool body suspended in a liminal space. Between falling and lifting, death and life, it suggests the potential of traditions and bodies to regenerate constantly.

A desire to explore and honor the domestic heritage of lace and embroideries also motivates Argentine artist Mónica Millán’s recent series of embroidered works: her installation El vértigo de lo lento (The Vertigo of Slowness), 2002-2012, and a series of pencil-drawn portraits, pays tribute to a group of women weavers in Paraguay and their art of cotton lace called “ao po’i.”, emphasizing once again the strong relationship with a place formed through communal matriarchal practice or ritual, but also embracing the inevitable hybridization, as this technique is already a combination of Indigenous weaving and Spanish embroidery.

The invisible threads between traditional techniques and materials connect the body with the land. Something that has always been at the center of the work of recently market-rediscovered artist Olga de Amaral. Indigenous campesino and ruana weaving traditional practices have similarly informed her fascinatingly sculptural objects and tapestries. Standing in the middle of the show, her Tapete-Número 330 (Carpet-Number 330), 1979, made of wool and leather, exemplifies how the artist engages in processes of abstraction and distillation, not only of the forms but also of the colors, feelings and elements of the natural environment that surrounds her. She has said, “On entering into the essence of weaving, its function as a protection from the elements is inevitable. It is important to look at the landscape and not be surprised by the paradox that arises: landscape, inversely, begins to be perceived as an abstraction of weaving.” Another metaphorically powerful example of this is the sculpture En Carne Viva (In the Raw), 1981, by Argentinian artist Nora Correas. Made with a deep layering of wooly reddish fibers, this sculpture evokes the human flesh, insides, dark mountainous landscapes and serves as a powerful metaphor for physical and psychological repression under Argentina’s violent military regime at the time.

Sculpture made of red wooly fibers reassembling a body
Nora Correas, En carne viva (In the Raw), 1981. Courtesy of the Artist and ISLAA New York

The threads of textile art can become a symbolic tool also in reconnecting a personal microcosm of the work with the universal orders, as Antonio Pichillá, a Tz’utujil Maya artist from Guatemala, suggests in his series B’atz Nudo (B’atz Knot), connecting Maya cosmologies and cyclical life calendars with the Western tradition of abstraction. “The knot is the bond between beings and their beginnings. The union allows them to continue on a certain path.” For the artist, the knot represents the convergence of two contradictory systems that tried to explain the universe’s structure.

The exhibition closes with Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso, another of the pioneers in weaving Indigenous technologies and contemporary art practices, using video to record and revive the rituality of these practices: in her videos Colorando las hebras (Coloring Strands,2011) and Decolorando las herbs ( Bleaching the strands, 2011) the artist parallelly reclaims her Maya Q’eqchi’ Indigenous techniques of dyeing textiles and similarly ritualistically erases her action, violently rewashing them with clear water. Different temporalities blend in this ritual of both initiations and refusal in an attempt to wash away years of Indigenous misconception, proving how ancient knowledge of material can come together in radical futures.

Weaving together differently layered engagements with fibers and textiles, the show allows us to follow the threads to the South through past, present and future, through personal and collective, body and landscape. As the catalog accompanying the exhibition comments, textile’s weft has allowed distinct cultures, processes and temporalities to encounter and fold into one another in a dialogic place between indigenous knowledge and traditions and Western influences.

Eventually, those artists interestingly locate their work in this liminal and intersectional space where past and present, local ancient traditions and global contemporary sensibility collide and implode in new possibilities of identity expression and narration—suggesting in this way the possibility of an alternative collective lineage and an acknowledgment of universal ancestral wisdom that has long connected humans across cultures. In the show, textile-making dialectically weaves symmetries and asymmetries, becoming a model for alternative multiculturalism.

Threads to the South” runs at ISLAA (142 Franklin Street, New York) until July 27.

More Art Than Craft: ‘Threads to the South’ Explores and Elevates Fiber’s Place in Culture