A JOURNEY THROUGH AFRICA – WITH TEXTILES

African textiles provide the inspirational material for a joint exhibition of work by myself, a painter, and my mother, textile artist Barbara Reed. The exhibition title is named after the line of a poem by the great South African artist, Gerard Sekoto.

Our work currently on display at Hartlepool Art Gallery, until November 12th 2016, invokes a wealth of images, from the literal to the fanciful and abstract. It weaves all the varied strands of our lives into a vibrant joyous display.

The textiles on show are executed in a combination of patchwork and applique with machine and hand stitching. They are also knotted, twisted and threaded with beads.

My mother trained in fine art and textile design at college in Hartlepool in the 1960’s. She was drawn to the colours and sounds of Africa when first hearing South African singer Miriam Makeba on an LP borrowed from a college friend.

Moving to Africa to live and work, first to Uganda and then Botswana, the various houses we lived in have all been decorated and hung with my mother’s African prints. These cotton textiles were originally produced in Europe for sale in West and Central Africa, but are now produced in factories in most African countries.

Kanga cloths, popular on the East African coast and worn as clothing were rectangular in shape and very useful as tablecloths. Printed in Eldoret, Kenya, they had very strong graphic patterns with a text along the border. This was usually a Swahili proverb, political slogan or health warning. Brought back to the North East they were considered very exotic by my Grandmother in Hartlepool in the 1970’s.

My mother’s favourite print from the 1970’s was bought in Botswana. Printed on cotton in Zimbabwe it was a cheaper imitation of the imported African wax prints and it celebrates a football match between two teams, KK Elevens versus Leopards. A treasured fabric, today it hangs in the exhibition, recycled and sewn into ‘Juju’ – a piece based on masquerade costumes from Nigeria.

My mother became Curator of Art at the National Museum Botswana.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s the museum acted as a platform for South African artists protesting against apartheid. The museum had extensive collections – including San artefacts, traditional sculptures, masks, textiles, baskets. She became knowledgeable about many pieces and exposure to these influences and textiles has had a profound effect on her art and practice.

She began making large scale wall hangings and blankets. Covered with animal motifs, they had a vibrant quality. This can be seen to some effect in her work King’s Cloth – a large cotton applique hanging depicting scenes on the carved door of the palace of a Yoruba King.

A large circular sculptural work in the exhibition is entitled ‘In Praise of Ancient Mothers’. This central piece acts as a pivot to the whole exhibition radiating out and complimenting all the other works. Inspired by a Yoruba ancestral Egungun costume commemorating deceased mothers, a group of fabric dolls stand proud on the top of the structure. Two of the dolls represent my grandmother, Ethel May Raine, and Martha Sutton. The smallest dolls represent the many siblings they cared for, having been forced to leave school at 14years of age to do so. The whole piece brings together Africa and the North and is dedicated to these two strong women from Hartlepool.

A gleaming counterfoil to the textiles are a series of my own oil paintings composed of dense layers of intense but carefully controlled colour. Several feature images of human and animal forms carved into the layers.

In addition, to the oil paint I also build up a thick foundation layer  using construction caulk, leaves, sand and objects found on the beach (a trait inherited from Africa where nothing is wasted). This creates a texture and energy that compliments the textiles. Each piece of work holds a very personal story; some are based on music I grew up with featuring South African musicians while other work is inspired by memories of adventures in the desert.

Weekends spent at the museum helping my mother hang exhibitions and being surrounded by precious art work has proved to be huge influence on my current work.  Although several of my mother’s textiles consist of her earlier works, a visitor to the exhibition commented it is as if all the works had been produced together, the artists working side by side and that subconsciously “you had the shapes and textures of the textiles in your mind –the dialogue between the textiles and the oil paintings is very powerful”.

Take Your Road and Travel Along – An Exhibition of Works by Barbara and Catherine Reed

Dates: 27 August – 12 November 2016

Venue: Hartlepool Art Gallery, Church Square, Hartlepool

Gallery open: Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm