Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 2005
Threads of Conflict
William H. Van Every, Jr., Gallery, Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., January 20–February 27, 2005
Installation view of two Hmong story cloths. Courtesy of the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College.

Quietly stirring within the walls of Davidson College’s Van Every Gallery is war, violence, and sadness. It is a welcome surprise for the Charlotte region, whose most controversial dialogue on art tends to concern which Impressionist exhibition to visit. Although Davidson College consistently presents reputable but safe artists, the gallery’s director, Brad Thomas, has here curated a show that provides the public with artwork taking on substantive subject matter.

The exhibition combines functional craft of textiles with conceptual purpose, bringing together three separate groups—Hmong, Afghan, and Chilean peoples—whose work treats the violence and injustice that surrounds their lives. Although neither artists’ names are listed nor dates of the works given, anonymity does not necessarily interfere with understanding the works: several wall texts give overviews of the historical significance. And the primary messages of conflict and strife are direct and disturbing.

Political turmoil connects these three vastly different cultures; however, their approach to imagery and technique makes the work of each population distinctive. The Hmong story cloths, on loan from Hmong Arts, Books, and Crafts in St. Paul, Minnesota, are minimally quilted and elaborately embroidered. They function as storyboards illustrating the journey of the Hmong people as they fled from persecution in China and other countries and eventually immigrated to the United States. The text and numbered images on a few of these pieces clearly lead the viewer through the stories. The larger, more embellished pieces using trees, mountains, and landmarks to divide regions and times are far more interesting. The images of local people using swords and guns to fight with green-uniformed soldiers are visually flat, but the scenes are vividly clear and intricately interlaced. Scenes of daily life are interspersed with the fighting: people cooking and a woman giving birth are juxtaposed with images of armed checkpoints. In one area, people escape to refugee camps across the Mekong River on inner tubes and rafts; this river flows across the entire textile, connecting the events in a visual map and memorializing actual events. Themes of traveling and escape contrast with the text pieces, which depict folklore rather than current conflict. Both show history, but the shift in content is unsettling.

The Afghan war rugs prove no less disturbing and may provoke more interest in the American viewer given recent events. These works of art, borrowed from the collection of Kevin Sudeith, an Afghan war rug expert, are made by highly skilled craftspeople and are technically and functionally superior to the other works in the exhibition. Within the perfected symmetry of these utilitarian objects, imagery of artillery, tanks, and firearms are subtly interwoven with abstract patterns and traditional symbols. In these desirable decorative objects, which are comparable in size to area rugs, missiles and grenades have replaced the traditional motifs of flowers and animals, and although the colors are still warm and muted, they seem to symbolize aggression and instability. The 1979 Soviet invasion created a shift in imagery that transcended traditional symbolism and birthed a literal response to events that continues to evolve. One rug portrays a specific location, with recognizable architecture and traffic patterns, ominously suggesting that this object may serve as directions for covert operations rather than simply integrating modernity into its ornamentation. Flags and aircraft among geometric and abstract symbols become identifiers for friends and foes as the theme of foreign occupation merges with daily life.

Two pieces specifically reference the World Trade Center attacks, with images of planes exploding into the skyscrapers and with dates and names clearly labeled; “Made in Afghanistan” is woven in large letters across the bottom of both rugs. Perhaps these works are merely filters for imagery with no political or religious intention; the Western viewer, however, is struck by an honesty that interlaces aesthetics with vernacular propaganda. Whether these pieces serve as celebratory calls to resistance or as commemorative works, the rugs represent a culture and country whose recent history is saturated with turmoil and discord.

The Chilean arpilleras come from the collection of Marjorie Agosin, an internationally recognized human-rights activist and author of Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile 1974–1994 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996). The scenes portray a seventeen-year struggle during which thousands of people opposing General Augusto Pinochet’s rule, mostly young men, disappeared. The works are hushed and naïve, but at the same time they create uneasiness with the questions they raise. These small patchwork pieces do not overtly represent violence but quietly and desperately ask, as many female relatives did, “Where are the missing detainees?” Scraps of random fabrics as well as clothing from the missing are sewn together to represent scenes of protests; childlike figures, carrying signs in front of jails and churches, march forward and demand answers. The bright happy colors and the three-dimensional dolllike figures contrast with the simplified depiction of a crematorium oven and tombstones. If the viewer did not know the political censorship and the fear that these women endured, their determination and bravery might be lost in the simple sadness these stories describe.

With the exception of one Afghan war rug, which is placed in the entry gallery with the Chilean arpilleras, the work is separated by culture into the three rooms that make up the gallery space. All of the work is hung on the walls, again with the exception of a few of the Afghan rugs, which are lain on the floor on raised platforms. Upon entering the gallery, my immediate reaction was to pass the Chilean arpilleras and move directly to the back of the gallery to the Hmong story cloths; the arpilleras’ small size and familiar—perhaps too familiar—format made it easier to pass them by. Although the subject matter is challenging and these works are not merely decorative, the colors and techniques are similar to textile pieces sold to tourists in many Latin American countries. This was indeed an oversight.

The exhibition feels very complete, giving the viewers numerous examples of each region’s art. All of these works demand that we question our knowledge of world oppression and isolation from one another. Although the Chilean arpilleras speak of injustice on an individual level, they echo the hostile invasions of Afghanistan and the displacement and murder of the Hmong people. This exhibition exposes not only the atrocities and subjugation of these specific cultures, but also our own shortcomings as global observers of truth and as humanitarians.

Jennifer Marie Wallace
Lecturer, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Winthrop University