Grant Watson<Can you say something about the success of “The Subversive Stitch” exhibition?
Pennina Barnett<After the private view, I drove back across the Pennines to Leeds, and remember feeling really proud of what we had achieved—it had been a major project and we’d worked so hard. It certainly had an impact, with high visitor numbers in Manchester, as well as the touring venues. Jennifer [Harris, of the Whitworth Gallery] and I were interviewed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. I still have a postcard that one of the curators gave me when the show was on tour, from a woman who had seen the contemporary exhibition. She wrote, “thank you so much to the curators. This changed my life. I haven’t spoken to my sister for twenty years and I contacted her after seeing this show because it touched me.”
But it was also quite controversial. There were people who absolutely hated it because they expected to see work that was pretty, colorful, and life affirming. It’s true that a lot of the work was black and white and perhaps austere, though the “subversive” sampler commissioned from Lyn Malcolm for the cover of exhibition catalogue and invite cards (the one that’s on the cover of the reprint of The Subversive Stitch book and now in the Whitworth Gallery collection) was very beautiful and colorful. I wrote an essay in 1995 for Katy Deepwell’s book New Feminist Art Criticism called “Afterthoughts on Curating ‘The Subversive Stitch’,” which discussed the critical response to the contemporary exhibition. There was a lively series of letters to what was then Women’s Art Newsletter (which I think was the only feminist art magazine at the time in the UK) about the exhibition, the first lamenting what a miserable exhibition it was, then a respondent accusing the writer of misunderstanding what it was about, and they continued to and fro across a number of issues of the magazine. Germaine Greer went to see the exhibitions in the North East. She hated the contemporary show and wrote a weird review saying something like textiles weren’t for art galleries, but should be made in and for the home.
GW< Was that a blow for you?
PB< No, I just thought: she just doesn’t get it. I admire her early work, but she seems to veer from being radical to deeply conservative. I do realize that it was an important show, and I’m very proud of it, but perhaps it’s become mythologized over time—it’s now over thirty years ago. Some people get confused, and think that I wrote The Subversive Stitch book, which of course I didn’t! In 2010 I noticed that The Subversive Stitch was to be republished (the last edition had been in 1996). To mark the occasion I wrote to Rozsika Parker and said, “I’d love to invite you to Goldsmiths to give a talk.” She wrote back, “that’s so kind of you, but I’ve just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I can’t take on any more commitments.” That was such a shock. She died the following year, 2011, only in her sixties. Later, it occurred to me that it would soon be twenty-five years since “The Subversive Stitch” exhibitions, so I worked together with Jennifer Harris and Althea Greenan (from The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths) towards a two-day international symposium which we called, “The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth,” hosted at the V&A in late 2013. We dedicated it to the memory of Rozsika. After the symposium we worked on a website which included a lot of the material from the symposium and Althea had slides scanned from the Cornerhouse show for that.
GW< So, how did you start working at Goldsmiths? Could you say something about the textile course, which was unique in terms of its history and its relationship to fine art there, as well as the rest of the university?
PB< Not long after I’d completed work on “The Subversive Stitch” exhibitions, I saw an advertisement in The Guardian for a lecturer in textiles at Goldsmiths. I didn’t think I had a chance because I hadn’t been in academia for a decade, but was invited for an interview, and to my surprise was offered the job. The Visual Arts department at that time had two undergrad degrees: Textiles and Fine Art, and there were post graduate diplomas in both areas, too. Undergraduate textiles had a long trajectory going back to 1947, when Constance Howard joined Goldsmiths as a part-time lecturer in the history of costume and taught embroidery to teacher training students. Then in 1975 Audrey Walker replaced her. But I didn’t really know about the Goldsmiths course until I met Audrey at a textile conference in 1983, where we both gave talks. Later, I came down to London when I was researching the Cornerhouse exhibition and went to the textiles department, which was then still in Camberwell. Audrey had a filing cabinet of slides of past textile degree shows there and I went through it looking at students’ work—in fact a high percentage of artists selected for the exhibition had been at Goldsmiths, including a few who had done fine art there.
GW< Was she an embroiderer?
PB< Yes, she made beautiful work, but she trained as a painter at the Slade and was an art teacher well before she discovered textiles.
GW< Did that textile course have its origins in embroidery?
PB< Yes, Constance Howard set up the embroidery department in 1953 and formally became its head in 1958. In the 1960s she introduced weaving and print, and Audrey built on the experimental approach that Constance had developed, and opened it up even more. Her time there coincided with feminist activism in the seventies, and then the political turbulence during the eighties, when Margaret Thatcher was in government. I arrived in March ’89 when they had recently moved to the main site in New Cross. Audrey had just left the year before, so Christine Risley agreed to be the interim head of textiles. After she retired, Ros Floyd and Shirley Craven co-headed it, and later Janis Jefferies.
GW< And what were your impressions when you arrived?
PB< When I walked into Goldsmiths I thought, “yes, I could work here.” I liked the energy of the college, and of course the textiles degree. I felt very lucky because it seemed tailor-made for me. My role was to develop a new theory course for undergraduate textiles.
GW< It was in the Richard Hoggart Building right? The main old university building.
PB> Yes, when I arrived it had just moved back to New Cross from the school in Camberwell. At New Cross, the undergraduate studios were on the second floor of the main building, and the technical workshops were all over the campus. Textiles had a large print area with long print tables, a smaller constructed textiles area with looms and a tufting gun, and a stitch room with sewing machines. Each was run a by technician who was also an artist in their own right; some of them had studied at Goldsmiths.
What was interesting about the context of textiles at Goldsmiths4 was that not only did it sit alongside other creative arts areas like design, drama, music, and creative writing, but also departments like politics, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and so on. So you’d walk down the main corridor and see a notice that Stuart Hall was speaking the following day. Another thing about Goldsmiths is that practice and theory are seen as interrelated—theory isn’t an “add on.”
It’s a relatively small campus university not that far from central London, in Lewisham, which is a fairly poor part of south east London. It’s not like, say, Central Saint Martins, where the focus is specifically on art and design, with fine art, textiles, fashion, jewelry, etc. As I mentioned, when I started at Goldsmiths, the Visual Arts department had two areas: textiles and fine art. (Later there was also an MA in curating). Having only those two areas side by side created a particular tension, both positive and negative.
GW< Maybe say something about that positive and negative tension?
PB< Well, to be honest the tension was mostly between staff! It always seemed to me that fine art thought it was far more important than textiles. And the majority of students and staff in textiles were female. The old visual arts hierarchy was well and truly alive. But that juxtaposition was also positive. It was a relatively small department when I arrived, and in a way fairly intimate when it was in the old building, because the main textile and fine art studios were on the same floor. For some students that juxtaposition influenced the kind of work they made to some extent, and of course there were the social interactions that took place informally. The philosophy of the two degrees was similar. The Fine Art degree at Goldsmiths had pioneered an interdisciplinary approach, which is far more widespread now. Students didn’t have to specialize in painting, sculpture, or printmaking; they could use whatever materials or techniques they wanted. Similarly, the Textiles degree was concept driven and there were no disciplinary boundaries. Textiles at Goldsmiths was a place to experiment with ideas and use whatever materials seemed appropriate to your work. In a lot of textile programs elsewhere a student had to opt for either printed or woven textiles, or embroidery. The Goldsmiths textiles course was unique in that it wasn’t geared towards industry, design, or fashion. Particularly in the early 90s, there was another tension: at what point are you so far “out” of textiles that you’re no longer “in” it anymore?
GW< It’s interesting to think about the other forms of textile art training, like at Cranbrook College or Fine Art Weaving at Berkeley, or Black Mountain College, which were important for the fiber art and studio craft traditions, because I remember going to Goldsmiths textile degree shows, and it just wasn’t like that at all.
PB< How would you describe them?
GW< I don’t remember a lot of work that was about exploring the materiality of weaving. I do remember a lot of identity-based work, a lot that was figurative or text-based, or referencing clothing. But alongside this, could you say something about how you developed the theory component?
PB< That’s a good description. Before I started at Goldsmiths, I had done a lot of one-off lectures at colleges about the exhibitions I had curated, but I had never put a full series of lectures or seminars together. I had to learn on the job, which was a steep learning curve. Sarat Maharaj had taught on the theory program when the textile and fine art students had shared theory seminars, and was really helpful at the start. He was then teaching in the Art History department at Goldsmiths (later renamed Visual Cultures). But the bottom line was that I thought: if I were a textile student at Goldsmiths, what would I like to know? I had to use my instincts. Janis Jefferies helped me, too; we knew each other from working at different regional arts associations, and had met through meetings at the Crafts Council in London, but she also had experience teaching art students. There wasn’t a template back then. The kind of resources that are available now in textiles—books on textile artists, textile theory, readers, journals—just didn’t exist. Academically, it wasn’t a developed discipline. We had to scout around for well-written material, and textile exhibition catalogue essays were often the best bet.
The theory course evolved over the years, as I became more experienced. I remember lectures early on that covered, for example, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the Omega Workshops, Russian Constructivist textiles, and the Bauhaus; there were also lectures on modernism and postmodernism, developments in “fiber art” from the ’60s onwards, and I did a session on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979). Another term we looked at “the idea of the artist” using a range of critical writing and comparing the kind of language used, say, in relation to Jackson Pollock versus Lee Krasner, or Frida Kahlo. I didn’t do this alone. One of the first things I did was to recruit a team of part-time tutors to teach with me, and we developed courses together. So, for example, Caroline Evans taught seminars on her research area, which was dress, gender, and identity.
In the ’90s generally there was a strong interest in identity politics, so I developed a second year seminar series called “Mapping Identities” and later “The Stranger,” looking at contemporary artists like Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Eddie Chambers, and Sonia Boyce, and we read texts by Edward Said and Stuart Hall, amongst others. Later I developed a seminar series on cloth and memory. I think through art, and in my teaching the image was always primary, never as an illustration of theory. But theory can also help with that thinking.
GW< And how did you become interested in the work of Chohreh Feyzdjou?
PB< In 1993, I decided to do an MA in Visual Culture at Middlesex University. Doing that part-time over two years alongside the Goldsmiths work was quite stressful, but I’m really glad I did it because it expanded my thinking. I took an option in Third Cinema and for my institutional studies I wrote about iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) in London. When it came to choosing a thesis topic, I was thinking about textile as metaphor, but I was also interested in cultural identities and postcolonial theory, which I had been teaching, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I went to the inaugural conference of iniva when it was launched in 1994, and Sarat gave a talk in which he showed a slide of Chohreh’s work in the basement of the old Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. It was of rolls of distressed canvas on a rusty scaffold, like you might see in a market stall selling carpet or fabric. That image really caught my attention. I’m very drawn to materiality, but that work also reminded me of Torah scrolls.
So, I asked Sarat how I could contact the artist and I wrote to her in Paris, by letter. It was 1995 and the Eurostar had just started operating, so it was suddenly very easy to go to mainland Europe. I noticed that Chohreh had a show at a small gallery in Brussels, so I arranged to go there and then to Paris to meet her. My friend Anna was going to Brussels for work, so I met her there and we went to the exhibition together. I didn’t really know how to “think” about the work. There were large crates that looked weather-beaten, great rusty scaffolds, stacks of empty picture frames, and trays of tiny rather abject looking wax forms covered in black netting. Everything was coated with black, and every object was obsessively labeled and numbered. It was overwhelming. It looked like a scene of post-war destruction, a post-Holocaust trauma. That was my first impression.
The next day Anna and I took the train to Paris. I didn’t know if Chohreh spoke English but Anna was fluent in French. Chohreh was Iranian, but had lived in France for a long time. We spoke a mixture of French and English. She had a live-work space provided by the French government for artists, which was one huge studio with massive windows on one wall, and a small kitchen. Upstairs was a small mezzanine and bathroom. We arrived there in the evening, and Chohreh made us supper, and another Iranian artist friend of hers called Forough was there, too. We all got on really well and had a great evening, and I did a recorded interview with Chohreh. She was very charismatic. In obvious ways our backgrounds were totally different; she was born and grew up in Teheran, and her father had been imprisoned by the Shah for being a Communist. But we also had a lot in common. We were the same age and like me, she had grown up in a middle-class Jewish family. And we had both experienced the death of a sibling: her older brother Chahâb, of muscular dystrophy at the age of twenty-four when Chohreh was sixteen; and my middle sister, Debby, who was killed at the age of eighteen in a road accident during her gap year teaching English in Thailand. In fact when I met Chohreh, she was the only surviving member of her immediate family—both her parents in Iran had died, although she had an uncle and cousins in Paris.
Soon after that first visit, Chohreh was showing work in a small private gallery called Le Monde de l’Art in Paris, so I went back there to see it, and stayed with her. The gallery had offered her the space for a year to do what she liked. It was a long narrow space with full windows looking onto the street. She made an installation project called La Boutique, which was to be like a shop with everything for sale. It contained her dark, abject Products of Chohreh Feyzdjou. She reused work from previous exhibitions together with new Products and planned to change the installation every few months over the year, using the same work in different configurations.
Chohreh’s work became the focus of my MA thesis, “Reflections on Loss and Exile in the Work of Chohreh Feyzdjou.” The title echoed Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile,” which I had been using in my teaching. I had a great thesis supervisor at Middlesex, Claire Pajaczkowska, who suggested I read Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun and Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia.” I didn’t have a background in psychoanalytic theory, so it was challenging. And reading that material was intense on another level, because of losing my sister when I was fifteen, and then my father, when I was studying at Leeds. Although I’d talked about those deaths in therapy, reading Freud and Kristeva and other psychoanalytic texts made me think a lot about the process of mourning, and I was also reading about the relationship between art, symbolization, and loss. So Chohreh’s work was very important to me on number of levels—emotional, intellectual, and of course artistic.
In the midst of writing the section of my thesis on mourning and melancholia, “Passing through the Black,” I received a phone call from Paris in February 1995 with the news that Chohreh had just died of an embolism. It was such a shock. I knew that she had a blood disorder, because when I stayed with her she’d gone to a hospital appointment, and had told me about it.
GW< That is tragic. Could you say something about how the multiple by Chohreh that you chose as the textile object for your “Folded Life” contribution connects to this story?
PB< I went to her funeral in Paris, and six months after that there was a colloquium at the École des Beaux-Arts in celebration of her life, which I contributed to. Later I received a grant from Goldsmiths to continue my research on Chohreh’s work, which fed into various papers I published here, and catalogue essays in France. One of the visits was to record an interview with Peter Foolen at Peninsula, an artist-run initiative in Eindhoven, and he gave me the multiple. Chohreh had installed an exhibition in the gallery there in 1995, and had covered the whole gallery floor with coconut fiber that she had saturated with grey-black pigment. It’s the same material that you see inside the box, the multiple.
The label on the lid of the box is significant. I asked Chohreh about it, and she said that when she came to Paris no one could pronounce her name, which exacerbated her sense of “otherness.” So in frustration she decided to stamp “Product of Chohreh Feyzdjou” on every single object. It was a very serious gesture, but also a playful one. And it was a comment on commodification—in the same way as you might buy a box of tea that says “Product of India,” this was a statement about the commodification of art, the art work a product.
When I first saw her work in Brussels, I thought that it had been burned to give it an aged look. But when I asked Chohreh about it she said that she never burned or destroyed her work. She might take it apart, but she would recycle parts of it, so I think she saw it as a re-making. She was insistent that it was about creativity, not destruction. The nineties was also a period when a lot of artists were exploring abjection and materiality in their work—Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak, Marc Quinn, Helen Chadwick—and I found it really interesting. I used to do a first year lecture on abject art. So the box also relates to that interest.
GW< Helen Chadwick also died very young didn’t she?
PB < Yes, in the same year as Chohreh.
GW< What happened to Chohreh’s work after she died?
PB< She died intestate, and nobody knew where her work was. When they finally located it there was a difficult legal case to clarify who owned it and then FNAC (National Foundation for Contemporary Art, which is like the Arts Council in France) purchased it and took it down to Bordeaux to their storage at CAPC (CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux) They needed a juggernaut to transport it all. And when they opened the crates, they found a cache of small colorful drawings and aquatints, so there was always another side to Chohreh.
GW< Can you say something more about the textile element in Chohreh’s work?
PB< Well, the materiality, for a start. Her raw engagement with materials. But when I saw the slide that Sarat showed at the iniva symposium, the rolled-up canvases brought to mind Torah scrolls (the five books of Moses), and especially those rescued from Nazi pillage in Europe after the war. Chohreh had taken her paintings off their stretchers and coated some of them with a walnut stain pigment. In fact, I later found a black and white image that her photographer friend Dennis Bouchard had taken in 1992, of Chohreh holding a roll of her drawings, slightly to her side, which is just how the Torah is held when it’s carried in the synagogue. (Bizarrely, or ironically, she also holds a cigarette in her hand.) When I was researching my MA thesis, I found a beautiful quote by Jacques Derrida where he recalls the torah being carried around the synagogue in Algeria, where he grew up. He imagines children in the synagogue there—perhaps himself—watching it as it is taken round, maybe even carrying it themselves, which is regarded a great honor, and dreaming “of it long after, of arranging there all the bits of their life.”
We’ve talked a lot about Chohreh’s work because it marked a turning point in my writing and teaching. I collected a lot of material on her work which I need to go through again, and that weighs on me. I need to go back to it—perhaps that’s the next project.