After 18 months of intensive planning and a lot of talking, meeting, emailing, travelling and more talking, Stitched Voices was finally ready to be set up and launched in March 2017, and the events programme kicked off. In this post, we recall what it was like to help set up an exhibition for the first time, we try to capture the spirit of the opening event, and we introduce you to the different activities and events that accompanied the exhibition – and turned it into so much more than “just” a display of textiles.
Christine: What I remember most vividly about installation week are two distinct kinds of excitement. On the one hand, there was the elation upon seeing all the pieces laid out together for the first time on tables in the still-empty gallery space, and the joy of putting them up. On the other hand, I was anxious and worried: what if something goes wrong? What if we do not finish this on time? What if no one comes to our opening night?
Berit: There had been a bit of a tension before installation week as to whether we needed to start the process of planning the layout of the room and the hanging of the pieces beforehand (the Arts Centre curator’s view, based on experience and the practicalities and availabilities of the technicians) or whether everything would fall into place once we saw the pieces laid out in the gallery (Roberta’s view based on the experience of previous textile exhibitions). This was resolved in that the gallery was already partitioned by smaller walls creating distinctive corners when the pieces arrived on site, but that the distribution of the pieces themselves was only decided once they were in the gallery. I was surprised by how self-evident some of the distribution was – some walls and corners just felt right for specific pieces, and the process of hanging them was remarkably enjoyable. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the technician understood the context of the pieces – and that he would go away and construct specific hanging aids that would do justice to the pieces. My main frustration concerned the small bits and bobs (such as captions) that seemed to take ages to get right.
I discussed the way we had used the gallery space after our closing event in a private conversation with Roberta, who emphasised how – as a team including the Arts Centre people, her and us – we had managed to refuse any ordering of the pieces into one major, overarching (chronological or other) narrative, as that was exactly what the exhibition was not about. Rather, while clustering them roughly thematically, sometimes by country of origin (Mexico, Northern Ireland, Chile, Colombia), sometimes by content (torture, protest, technologies of warfare, work created as result of previous exhibitions), we tried to make sure to let the pieces speak for themselves and tell their respective, sometimes divergent stories. This was also reflected in breaking up any order in the way we hung them – e.g. if one wall had a horizontal line of textiles, another wall would have its pieces displayed in a cluster.
Christine: I can only speak for myself here, but the launch event was the happiest and proudest I have felt in a long time. To have so many people come to our opening night, to see friends and strangers, colleagues and students, people from town, activists, artists and makers and musicians, enjoying themselves and appreciating our exhibition, to hear their praise and their wonderment… it was a very special night for me. Probably also because we rarely, if ever, experience such a level of public acknowledgement and exposure of the work we do, so we do not usually receive this kind of “feedback” or reaction to our work. I felt that our work had, cumulatively, really brought about something that was of consequence, that other people truly cared about.
Dani: Yes, it was a great night! The Gallery was full of people, live music, dance, poetry readings, conversation, and also a lot of connections were made that night, in person, in the room, between people who all had diverse interests in the themes brought about in the exhibition. It was great though, I think, to move from the Gallery into the cinema, and that the musicians and others came and performed in that space too – songs and poetry recitals – before the screening of Neruda.
Berit: Yes, I agree. I was very touched by the amount of people at the launch and their heartfelt interest. The Chilean live music, some of it connecting directly to pieces in the exhibition (La Cueca Sola), certainly played its part in making this launch special. Among the many new connections we made were those with a group of Chilean exiles from North Wales, who told us that they owned six arpilleras. We decided to build them and their stories into our final event somehow, which we ultimately did. All in all, it was a fantastic evening.
Lydia: I think so, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the gallery so full! At some point it was also mentioned that these launch events are usually small, with some of the artists, a few friends, and friends of the Arts Centre in attendance. The opening also reflects how many people we came in contact with throughout our process of organising.
Berit: Just as important and rewarding as the exhibition as such, I would say, was the events programme we had organised to accompany it. It included a broad range of different activities, from poetry and music, to textile workshops and roundtables, and to academic workshops. Each week, two PhD students of our Department, Danielle Young and Amal Abu-Bakare, offered guided tours which gave visitors an opportunity to engage with the makers and stories behind the textiles in more depth (and without having to read long captions). I am glad the Department was willing to finance this, and the feedback suggests that visitors appreciated this type of deeper engagement.
Lydia: The process of organising the textile exhibition provoked me to organise an International Women’s Day event, which incorporated a textile element. The Clothesline project attempted to gather together messages and commentary on gender-based issues, from the personal to the international. The aim of the event was to use the exhibition and prompts from multiple speakers to speak about “what it means to be a woman in contemporary international politics”, adopting an intersectional approach. What really moved me about the event is that it opened up so many conversations about gender and (institutional) sexism that I didn’t think would be possible in the context of the Main Hall of our departmental building.
Dani: Over the weeks of the exhibition not only were a basket of handkerchiefs available in the Gallery for people to pick up and embroider as they liked, next to two armchairs and the display of the Mexican ones, I also decided to run sessions in the Gallery weekly where I would sit and embroider and invite people to join, and that way talk about the project too. In the year before the exhibition I had already organised several other sessions of what I called Bordando por la Paz Gales // Embroidery for Peace Wales, so this became an intensified period of this where we produced, through many many different people’s hands, mostly anonymously, a large pile of handkerchiefs to be returned to Mexico and used elsewhere. The cases we embroidered came from a variety of places: 10 of the cases of people who had been killed came directly from the group in Mexico City, others were prominent cases I knew about, or ones recent to the time I was researching, and then others were embroidered for the disappeared relatives of people I had gotten to know in Mexico. These sessions were attended sometimes by several people, other moments I was alone, but being in the Gallery enabled some great conversations with visitors to the exhibition. Other people (several, in fact!) who tried the embroidery became very hooked. I also brought the bits along to other events we were having around the exhibition for people to work on while they listened.
Christine: I really enjoyed the embroidery sessions! I think these sessions and the possibility to embroider in the gallery were very important for how our exhibition did its work: it was inclusive, visitors were challenged to become involved, right there and then, and to participate in the Stitched Voices story. Of course, our textile workshops were also intended to work towards this particular goal. What I think was quite unique about the handkerchiefs, however, was that they are really reactions to an ongoing, a present struggle against violence, forced disappearance and forgetting. What we and our visitors embroidered has direct meaning and value for people halfway around the world and supports, in an ever so tiny way, their struggles.
Lydia: The roundtable on Women’s activism and crafting resistance was intended to gather together women activists from a range of contexts to talk about their work and how they used textile to protest and resist. I think what emerged from this roundtable was much more than this. In their own ways, each of the speakers narrated how their own lives were intertwined with the textiles and resistance. This was really pronounced in Thalia Campbell’s intervention. She had crafted her talk around key points of resistance in her life, making reference to the multiple banners she had made, the people she had come into contact with, and the places that she had travelled with these banners.
Christine: Having one of her banners exhibited in the Arts Centre’s main gallery and being invited to speak at the roundtable in the Main Hall of our department became small, but very meaningful parts of Thalia’s life journey. She had known the Arts Centre and the department in the 1980s, and back then, neither were spaces that would in any way welcome women’s voices or textiles as expressions of these. For me, it was very moving to hear about this and to realize in how far what we were able to do with the exhibition had been made possible by the earlier struggles of Thalia and so many other women.
Lydia: I think one of the successes of this roundtable, along with the banner-making workshop before it, was that many members of the local community came along with their own banners and stories to share.
Dani: We also secured funding to pay a local artist, Becky Knight, to run five textile workshops during the exhibition, on themes and at times we felt would complement the events programme or bring people to the Gallery. For example, an arpillera doll making workshop on the first day of the exhibition, a doll-making workshop for children over the Easter holidays, and a banner making workshop before the Women’s activism roundtable. What I thought was great about this was that to facilitate it, and for general use, we had a large table in the Gallery space and these would be held in the Gallery, amongst the pieces, where anyone could come and join in. It was part of our aim to have the Gallery space itself as an open, dynamic, and used space, so there was no need to do workshops, embroidery etc elsewhere.
Christine: Several of the textile makers who came to Aberystwyth for our finissage commented on the workshop table (and materials!) being in the gallery for the entire duration of our exhibition – they all thought it was a great idea! And I agree. We originally put it in there because, during the installation, the space seemed so empty, but it worked really well, not least as a reminder that the textile pieces were not (only) art, but also craft, and often a collaborative one at that.
Dani: Another event we had in the Gallery was a wonderful evening of poetry, storytelling, and song with Eileen and Damian, reflecting on their experiences of the Troubles. The other was an acapella concert “Frankie Armstrong with Bright Field”, but unfortunately I think that was the only event none of the four of us could attend. Different corners of the Gallery came to life with these different events, different atmospheres were created, lighting was changed, the acoustics changed. It was just, for me at least, about challenging, again, certain assumptions about Gallery space and how it should be used and performed.
Berit: The final workshop brought together a number of people who had in one way or another been involved in the exhibition, or who we had come across in the course of it. We had makers of three textiles with us, explaining their engagement as political textile artist (Heidi Drahota), textile workshop facilitator (Janet Wilkinson), and political protester (Jimena Pardo). Becky Knight, who had given textile workshops throughout the exhibition period and who had also made the title textile for Stitched Voices, was involved with a doll-making workshop at the Department of International Politics on “100 Years of International Politics”, anticipating our centenary in 1919. We also put the exhibition into a broader context of conflict textiles, questions of remembrance and justice, and other forms of (often unacknowledged) political art (murals) with contributions by Karen Nickell and Bill Rolston (both Ulster University) and Lorna Dillon (University of Kent). Last but not least, Apolo Santana and Pedro Fuentes, leading members of the Chilean exile organisation “Chile 40 Years On”, seconded by Keith Jackson, who we had met at the launch event, shared their experiences of violence, oppression and exile, and their use and making of arpilleras as a way of overcoming trauma, with the workshop participants. In many ways, the final workshop was a summary of the exhibition as process and conversation, in all its aspects from making to protesting and remembering to academic conceptualisation. In this sense, it also functioned as a starting point for future projects.
Dani: And of course again the second day all took place in the Gallery, so on the last day of the exhibition, a Saturday, the Gallery was full of discussion, action, embroidery, artists, and connections being made.
Do you have any experiences with setting up, launching and accompanying an exhibition? What are your “best practices” in doing so?