On fabric, global citizens and a turbulent society


During the social-artistic project Salon des Réfugiés, 2016 - Salon des Refusés 1863 Sanne De Wolf weaves and embroiders, together with refugees staying in Red Cross reception centres, the fabric for the exhibition of the same name in the INBOX-space of the M HKA. Former meetings and interaction with refugees in Antwerp, urge De Wolf to position her work on the edge of art and society and thus to react to recent developments in our turbulent society. Her focus on fabric in its different connotations explain the artist’s commitment to expose connections down to the immaterial layers in the ritual performances she creates and in her installations intertwined with memories and intercultural references.


The history of textile is at first sight closely related to social processes and economical tendencies. It is striking that throughout history important developments in the art of weaving seems to run parallel to extreme changes in our way of life. Thus the earliest textile samples date back to the Neolithic, exactly the period when people first switched from a nomadic existence to a more sedentary manner of coexistence.


During the Industrial Revolution an explosive demographic growth and expansion of colonial possessions go hand in hand with the necessity to develop an industrial loom. It is therefore in regions that have been associated with fabric since the Middle Ages (for instance those around Verviers and Ghent) that the industrialization from Great Britain first reaches the European mainland. At the end of the 18th century Joseph- Marie Jacquard builds the first fully automatic and programmable industrial loom. Jacquard fabrics are considered one of the pre-modern technologies at the origin of the computer. Its impact on our way of life is obvious.


The expression ‘the social fabric’ has indeed become such a common metaphor that we tend to forget it is one. Paul Vandenbroeck, scientific collaborator at the royal Museum of Fine Arts and lecturer at the K.U. Louvain, sees a clear link: ‘Weaving and setting up the small scale social fabric have been two similar expressions of a single concern. The weaving is not only an art form. She is also the bearer of countless messages. The motifs on fabrics, abstract or figurative, were not so much ornamental, but wearers of content.’1 Therefore it can’t be a coincidence that the textile medium is used to express complex layers of social significance. With the exhibition TEXTILES Art and the social fabric in M HKA in 2009 its curator Grant Watson focussed on the link between textile and the human subjectivity, using the medium to express political ideas (think of flags or banners) and its link with economics (certainly in Belgium). Within art history textile is often considered a marginal phenomenon. This exhibition and the exhibition of Craigie Horsfield one year later have proven to be important in the reevaluation of this medium within contemporary art.


In the context of the exhibition Warp and weft in M HKA the artist Craigie Horsfield explains his predilection for tapestries, woven according to the jacquard principle as follows: ‘It is rather beautiful that the tapestry takes on its meanings in the juxtaposition of the threads. In the tapestries, the coloured threads alone are meaningless, but together, in confluence, they take on the fullness of the meanings we bring to them. It can be seen as a metaphor for a social world. You can imagine the threads of the tapestry as the structure of a community, in which each takes on the potential of meaning as they are woven together with others.’2


The Iranian researcher in Human Development en Social Sciences, Vida Razavi, in the context of different projects she created in the last few years to bring refugees and locals closer together, displaces the focus from a comparison of the individual threads to the connections themselves. ‘Not the number of individuals but their connection is what consolidates society. In a fabric it is the tight structure of interwoven warp and weft that makes it lasting, likewise solidarity within a society is determined by the density of its connections.’3


The project ‘Salon des Réfugiés, 2015- 2016 - Salon des Refusés 1863’ aims at focussing on these social connections when in the weaving process patterns, lines and embroideries emerge from the dialogue between artist and refugees. Within this process of cocreation equality is central and the artist explicitly positions herself as a global citizen. ‘The global dimension of citizenship is expressed in behaviour that does justice to the principles of mutual dependency in the world, in the equality of people and in the shared responsibility for the solution of global issues.’ The asylum seekers from reception centres are appealed to in a way that differs completely from the neoliberal call seeing activation as employability on the labour market.4


Considerations on the social part of art and artist have had forests grubbed. Still it is interesting here to link Salon des Réfugiés, 2016 - Salon des Refusés 1863 to two key concepts in the M HKA- collection: action and society. ‘Action’ refers according to Anders Krueger to performance art in the narrow sense but also to ‘performative’ practice liable to change the world. It is not essential if a work of art did change the world, but what is, is the fact that the artist believes it can and shows the intention. ‘Society’ refers to socially engaged art and art mirroring its broader context indirectly.5


De Wolf believes in the possibility of redesigning the society if we as world citizens awareness of and dialogue with these two speeds: the technical evolution on one hand and cultural heritage on the other. In Salon des Réfugiés, 2016 - Salon des Refusés 1863 social structures are interwoven with references to art history, non-Western patterns, personal memories, and present and past are connected. Thus the artistic process produces a synergy of time, matter and energy.


Piet Van Hecke M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium