Textile art has subversive potential, as demonstrated by an exhibition in Chicago organized by young British architectural collective “Assemble” together with artists from New Orleans.

If you go to the Tapestry Gallery in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, you’ll primarily see European wall tapestries from late Medieval times through to the Rococo. The wall hangings display scenes that appear frivolous somehow – depictions of hunts, images of banquets, fêtes galantes, in short the pleasures of the feudal elite in pre-Modern times. Then, between the densely covered walls, there are freestanding costumes, which appear almost to move.

Fringes and feathers whirl about them, and the parts that cover the body are embellished with tiny pearls applied with the most meticulous of embroidery. The costumes are testament to the Masking Culture, a custom from New Orleans which, in its current form, has existed for at least two centuries. Hence, just as the city in the south of the USA is a melting pot of cultures that are now hard to distinguish from one another, this too is a habit that emerged from the fusion of many trends.

The Native Americans gave Catholic carneval a costume

The Catholic carnival probably plays a role, but the Native Americans gave it a costume. It’s not for nothing that members of the Masking Culture are also known as Mardi Gras Indians – Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Yet there is another part of this story of origins, too: The native inhabitants of Louisiana offered fleeing slaves protection, which led to the cultural fusion. One man with an intimate knowledge of these narratives is Demond Melancon, a lecturer at the Material Institute in New Orleans, and one of Masking Culture’s most eloquent story-tellers.

Black Masking Culture, Image via amazonaws.com

The school of art and fashion in the city on the Gulf of Mexico has not been there for long – it was only this year that it was founded in an abandoned automotive workshop. British architectural collective Assemble was heavily involved, as Maria Lisogorskaya, one of the group’s founders, explains over the telephone: “I travelled to New Orleans a few years ago and was immediately fascinated by the city. The idea of setting up a school there seemed fantastic to me, and the more we worked on it, the more deeply we became involved. It was like an addiction to engage with the people and the culture.” She continues: “Originally we were just supposed to design a building, but we ended up doing something quite different. It was an interesting journey.”

Assemble, a group of architects who number between 14 and 20, was set up in 2010. Back then, its founders were all new graduates and many of them were working in architecture firms in London. “It’s always this way that when you study architecture, you have to design things and build models, but then ultimately you end up just working in an office and designing bathrooms. So we wanted to try something new with new materials,” explains Lisogorskaya.

It was like an addiction to engage with the people and the culture.

Maria Liso­gorskaya
Demond Melancon, Material Institute, Photo: Duval Timothy

The year 2010 was also just after the financial crisis, when nobody was really brave enough to make long-term investments, let alone in real estate. At the same time, a lot of buildings stood empty, be it in Frankfurt, Berlin or London. The first Assemble project was a temporary cinema in what was an empty gas station, launched after the young architects had read about the widespread closures of gas stations in the UK. The second was a theater beneath an underpass.

Design must always be thought of in relation to society

Soon the collective was filling in the gaps and in-between spaces in the big city, and in this way began their most ambitious project to date: in Toxteth. During the Thatcher years, this working-class neighborhood in Liverpool had been a hotbed of protest against the neoliberal employment policies in Great Britain. Since 1981 the government has allowed it to fall into neglect. With help from Assemble, a residents’ initiative resolved to breathe new life into the Victorian terraced housing, and it was this major project known as “Granby Four Streets” that won Assemble the Turner Prize in 2015. Since that time, the collective has aimed to focus on sustainable projects. Architecture, Assemble claims, should involve not only the design of buildings, but also their usage.

Their residents should be included in the process and the work should not end merely with completion of the structural works. In a way, the Material Institute in New Orleans is similar to many of Assemble’s other projects. “We don’t really have any official principles,” says Lisogorskaya, but its holistic embeddedness is certainly reminiscent of their previous work. “We designed the spaces, put together the pilot program; we did the outward communication. It was about more than just the design.” Design, says the collective’s co-founder, should always be considered in relation to society.

There is a new element in this project, though: It’s the first time that the focus has been on production – namely of art, fashion and textiles. In the southern USA in particular, weaving has a special significance, and the subversive possibilities of textile art are evident not only in the costumes at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Since the dawn of Modernism, there have been attempts to shift weaving techniques away from the area of crafts and into the realms of fine art. This is always a political project, since this kind of work is gendered and often practiced by minorities, generally with little heed paid to authorship. At the same time, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest art forms and ways of telling stories.

We don’t really have any official principles.

Maria Liso­gorskaya
Jonathan preparing yarn to go into hibiscus dye, Material Institute, Photo: Duval Timothy

This new project by Assemble and the Material Institute connects this history and tradition: “We focused on textiles, particularly the materials and appliances,” says Lisogorskaya. “The equipment we have now combines the traditions of textile production with modern technology. We are attempting to place an ancient craft in a new context.” The aim is for young people in New Orleans to have the opportunity to not only learn a craft, but also to thus become financially independent.

The visitors are encouraged to weave on a tent made of dyed textiles

Now, the Institute has brought its work to an exhibition at the Logan Center in Chicago, entitled: “Tufting Gun Tapestries”. Why this name? “We had a long wish-list of machines. Then we came across tufting guns and thought they were pretty cool, because these handy devices allow you to weave carpets quickly. What’s more, they make it easy to create figurative forms.” Together with Demond Melancon, the expert on Black Masking Culture and lecturer at the Material Institute, and Duval Thomas, another artist from London, Assemble has designed a collaborative exhibition: Visitors are encouraged to weave their own section of a tent made of naturally dyed textiles. “It’s a bit like woven graffiti,” says Maria Lisogorskaya. The tradition of telling stories using textiles thus lives on.

Hanging backing fabric in the courtyard of Material Institute, Photo: Maria Lisogorskaya
Threading yarn into tufting guns, Material Institute, Photo: Duval Timothy