Daughters of Penelope

Publication: The Times.
August 2017

In The Odyssey, Penelope, wife of the eponymous hero, rebutted the advances of multiple suitors as she faithfully awaited the return of husband. Her wait endured for 20 years. She filled the long days by weaving a shroud, which she partially undid each night, thus prolonging her fidelity. Even today, in tapestry, unpicking yarn is termed the ‘Penelope Stitch’.

Such hand crafts have long been associated with work in the home, a role traditionally filled by women.  This show of work by 15 women – including Aino Kajaniemi, Linder Sterling, Caroline Dear, Claire Barclay, Julie Brook, Sonia Delauney, Georgia Horgan and Naomi Robertson – unashamedly demonstrates the diverse role of textiles in contemporary art. Many have had past associations with Dovecot. Maureen Hodge, Fiona Mathison and Joanne Soroka were Master Weavers, and Soroka and Mathison also served as Artistic Directors.

In the past Dovecot’s weavers and other employees, were exclusively men (the studios were established in 1912 by the Marquess of Bute). Times have changed.

Maureen Hodge was taken on in 1964 as the first female weaver, since then there has been a progressive increase in the number of female employees. Hodge’s work features here in two pieces. One is an interpretation of an untitled painting by Elizabeth Blackadder and while technically proficient (it was made while Hodge was still in her twenties, after leaving art college) it is more of a transliteration, than an interpretation.

This literalism is a sign of youth and it’s possible to track the progression of Hodge’s work when, nearly four decades, later she was commissioned by the Scottish Parliament to complete Fields of Endeavour, which traces some of main identifying motifs of Scottish identity.

Hanna Tuulikki, who works with voice, costume and performance in an intricate weave of media and ideas has used textiles and materials in the past to great effect. Here, she presents the typically engaging and conceptually rich ‘spinning-in-stereo’ that features a vinyl recording of a traditional Gaelic spinning song or Oran Snìomhaidh, sung by Tuulikki and Mischa Macpherson. The installation includes the song’s notation, depicted in a circular form which, in turn, suggests the unending nature of the work and the cycle of the seasons.

Joanne Soroka’s cotton and wool hanging was woven for the Triennial of Tapestry in Łodz, Poland and celebrates the life of Irene Sandler who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Gilded ash keys, represent the children and a grid below signifies the connections between people.

Christine Borland’s typically thoughtful work, consisting of small brass structures with interwoven thread, Common Groin, explores links between Scotland and Malawi in terms of the textile trade. (The title comes from the mathematical term for two cylinders with a pair of common tangents). Here, again, the warp and weft of a small piece of textile suggest historical and contemporary linkages.

This curatorially excellent show – colourful, delicate, and engaging – will surely prove a popular draw.