Saturday, 17 September 2011

Research Point - Visiting an Contemporary Textile Exhibition: Ancestor Bags, Sue Hiley Harris

I took myself off to Bankfield Museum in Halifax this afternoon to listen to Sue introduce her Ancestor Bags exhibition, on from today until 30 October 2011.  When I was researching what exhibitions were coming up, this was one I really wanted to see because I'd read that it was a representation her direct ancestors.  I've been researching my own family tree for the past few years and was fascinated to see how she symbolised her personal genealogy to textiles.    

Is there a theme?
The whole exhibition consists of abstract woven sculptures.  Each sculpture represents one of Sue's direct ancestors from four generations, from her parents through to great, great grandparents on each side, totalling 30 pieces.  All the ancestors were born in either the UK or Australia and codes are incorporated into each piece which give information about the individual.

Is it well displayed?
I thought the display was very impressive and well thought out.  Sculptures were hung from the ceiling by an invisible thread with the coded information just at eye level.  I enjoyed being able to walk through and view them from each side, appreciating the three dimensions.  All the pieces were in one spacious, high-ceilinged room so it didn't feel cramped or overcrowded and the walls were light, plain and not distracting.  There were comfortable low chairs and a table to sit, look and make notes without feeling you were in anyone's way.  The museum staff were very welcoming and said they like visitors to stop and sit or sketch.  During the talk, Sue mentioned that she had a science degree and was influenced by geometric shapes.  I felt that the heights and distances between the exhibits were most probably carefully measured to be pleasing to the eye.  

Is the lighting appropriate?
Yes.  Sheer white blinds on huge windows filtered natural light and there were overhead spots so although slightly dim there was no straining to see anything.  The light was not harsh, did not create any glare and cast lovely shadows on the walls.

Is there enough explanation of the exhibits?
Although each piece wasn't labelled, it was soon clear to me that the 'bags' were in four rows representing the four generations and the layout was like a hanging family tree.  Working drawings with notes for each sculpture were chronologically displayed in a portfolio and by flicking through you soon got the hang of the code.  There was a large family tree on the wall, and on paper handouts which also had a key on the back. Deciphering the codes was fun and interactive and other visitors seemed to be enjoying it too, kind of like a treasure hunt.  I would have liked more explanation of the aboriginal string bag that was the inspiration for the exhibition, and more on the technique, which was little more than 'woven'.  However, there was a catalogue to buy that does explain these in more detail.

Is it visually stimulating and interesting?
This is a tricky question.  I didn't find it immediately visually engaging.  Walking in, no one was saying 'Wow!', like at the Plains Indian exhibition, and child visitors just walked in and straight out.  Although I appreciated the skill in the construction of the sculptures and found the display attractive, it wasn't this but the concept that was fascinating.  It felt more like discovery than a visual experience.  I left wanting to know more detail about the lives of the people and the connections that the artist made from the project.  Just like adding people to my own family tree, the individuals home country, lifespan and number of children is only a small clue to their lives.

Choose three exhibits and look at these in more depth
The answers to the majority of these questions were the same for all the pieces in the exhibition:

When was the piece made and by whom?
All the pieces were created solely by Sue Hiley Harris.  It took about 6 months to plan, draw and construct each piece in detail ready for their first showing at the Museum of Modern Art in Wales from September 2009.  During the talk, she was keen to point out that it took all her adult life for the ideas to evolve.

What is it made of?
Having lived in Australia, Wales and Yorkshire, Sue says she always wanted these pieces to include wool.  The Aboriginal string bags that sparked the idea for the project are made from cabbage tree palm and bark.  However she eventually chose Chinese hand-tied ramie (plant fibre comparable to flax) as it has similar qualities but greater rigidity for hanging.  Ramie is used for the main warp and part of the weft.  The central part of the structure representing the ancestor's life has a woollen yarn weft.  To enhance the connections with family and home, Sue spun Welsh wool and fleece sent from her sisters in Australia. Natural dye is used to colour the wool yarn.  These are woad, weld, eucalyptus leaves, alum mordant, copper mordant, and local earth pigment such as Australian yellow ochre.

What are the approximate dimensions?
About 1m long, between 5cm - 12cm wide and 3cm deep.

Can you identify the techniques used?   
Detailed mathmatical working drawings on show demonstrate how painstakingly accurate the measurements needed to be to make the bags work as a collection.  Sue made the bags two at a time - husband and wives, as the children's details were generally identical (except where one had additional children with another spouse).  In the ehibition booklet it says 'strip templates were produced and marked where, during construction, intersections in the structure would occur'. Sue bought the ramie ready hand-twisted and tied and used this for the main warp, creating strips 2m long x 3cm wide on a floor loom.  A second warp was set up on what she calls 'a Heath Robinson' - a back strap loom using a stair bannister and the body to give tension.  She spun and dyed the wool fleece used for much of the weft herself.  Woad made the blue, woad overdyed with weld made green, eucalyptus leaves with alum mordant made orange and eucalyptus with copper mordant made the brown for the woven triangles.  Yellow ochre earth pigment was applied by hand. The intersections were created using a complex techique similar to one used by Incas where one warp passes through another.  Finally, the long strip was stitched into a loop.

Is the work representational or abstract?
Abstract.  Although the sculptures are described as bags, they are a descendant of the bag forms Sue began creating around the time her mother died.  Over the years this theme developed and her sculptures became increasingly abstract as she discovered the practical and aesthetic advantages of suspending the structures.  The original vessel shape however can still clearly be identified in line.

Where did the designer derive their inspiration?
When she settled in the UK, her mother had sent gifts of Aboriginal string bags from Australia on request as they reminded Sue of the bags in Queensland Museum where she worked as an artist during her student years. She liked them as they were all different and showed a huge variety of knotted and looped techniques, that interested her as a weaver. On a practical level, they were a light and convenient to post from the other side of the world. During a trip to Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 2003, Sue saw a bag that reminded her of a favourite from her own collection. The tag said 'Bag used for carrying bones of dead relatives' and this, along with her mother's death, triggered an idea for an upcoming exhibition in Victoria. She planned to express her Australian heritage in vessel forms similar in shape to the bag.  This current exhibition stems from her desire to develop the family history theme.  During her science degree, Sue studied genetics but this was an opportunity to learn more about her own ancestry. 

How would you describe it - decorative, expressive, functional or symbolic?
Symbolic.  Sue admits that she has never been interested in pattern or decoration.  It is structures, symbols and geometry that appeals to her.  Squares on the central panel represent decades. Some are split into triangles that symbolise the genes passed down from each parent. The weft yarn used in the construction of the triangle is either British or Australian, depending on the birthplace of the parent.  The size and position of the loops around the central panel indicate how many children the ancestor had and at what stage in their life.  The size, shade and position of the coloured triangles represent the longevity of the child, gender and birthplace, also those that are a direct ancestor of Sue.  The colours used are symbolic, such as the Australian yellow ochre dust that sinks in and represents the dry climate.   Although the sculptures in the exhibition are not functional themselves, the Aboriginal bags that inspired them were extremely so, with their numerous shapes and techniques, depending on the intended purpose.

This has been dusted with yellow ochre, therefore an Australian born ancestor

To what extent does the piece refer to tradition (technically or through images), another culture, a period of fashion:
The techniques are very traditional.  Hand spinning is a primitive art, natural dyes have been used to dye yarn for centuries, the looms are very basic and similar to those used in ancient civilizations and intersecting warps is a skill the Incas have used for thousands of years in hair braids.  It was interesting to read that, until this project unfolded, Sue was unaware that many of her own ancestors were 19th century weavers and woollen mill workers. Some lived and worked just a few miles from this museum.  The Aboriginal culture features mostly in the initial inspiration for the project, rather than the techniques, apart from using earth for colouring (they now use modern brightly coloured dyes that were first introduced by the pilgrims).  Sue says there are over 300 Aboriginal languages and a great deal of secrecy in the culture so it is difficult to prove many of the traditions actually existed.  However they were known to bury their dead relatives then later dig up the bones, so the tag on the bag may be correct.  It really could have been used for carrying them.  There is no reference to any period of fashion.

What qualities do you like or dislike about the piece?
I don't have any strong feelings about the pieces. It is the idea and the collection that I appreciate.  It was interesting to start to see some patterns giving clues about history by looking at the collection as a whole.  All the emigrations to Australia taking place in the nineteenth century for example.  You can also see subtle changes of shape over generations as the number of squares representing decades increase in line with life expectancy.  The bags all look similar but I like that the ancestor dictates the unique design of their own.  Once you understand the code, you can identify the bag from the person's story and vice versa so the pieces I was attracted to were those that suggested they had an interesting life story, whether it was a particularly long or short life, an emigration, children late in life or over many decades.  One of the bags I looked at represented Janet Bertha Uther, who did not have children until relatively late in life for her era.  Sue explained that Janet (her maternal grandmother) could not marry her pineapple farmer boyfriend until her disapproving parents had died, which was when Janet was 36.  Her husband's family apparently didn't think Janet was good enough for theiir son either!      

More information about Sue and her work can be found at

After my visit, I booked to go on the workshop 'String and String Bags with Sue Hiley Harris'. Read how I got on here.

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