Ann Coxon’s grandmother was always knitting. At home in rural Derbyshire, where she raised not only her own children but also evacuees taken in by the family during the Second World War, she was forever making and mending. She would unravel jumpers and restitch them in smaller sizes. She would embroider things. “This was a woman who was clearly creative, but who never had the opportunity to make anything of it, other than what she made for the home or for her children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren,” says Ann. “That inspired me.”
We’re talking ahead of Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope, a major show of works in fibre that Ann has curated at Tate Modern. After studying textiles at school, then fine art and art history at Leeds University (“art historian Griselda Pollock was the reason I wanted to go there”), she went on to read a degree in curating at the Royal College of Art. She began working for the museum part-time in the late 1990s, before becoming an assistant curator in 2002. “When I graduated from Leeds there was New Labour, Tate Modern was being built, and it seemed like a good time to go to London and see what it was all about,” says Ann, who is now Curator of International Art at Tate Modern.
In the early days, she channelled her love of textiles into other projects, among them the exhibitions Interweaving Cultures at the Jim Thompson House Museum in Bangkok and Craftivism at the Arnolfini in Bristol. When she first expressed her interest in stitched and woven works at Tate, she was confronted by the traditional view that such art was low art, crafty and domestic. One senior male colleague told her that textiles were not what they did at Tate and suggested she try the V&A, while another would point out works in the collection and declare their makers weren’t artists. But then there was what Ann describes as a major breakthrough.
In 2016, Frances Morris became director of Tate Modern, and the following year Maria Balshaw was appointed as director of Tate. “Having women in these positions has changed the picture in terms of what gets through and is seen as a viable option for an exhibition,” says Ann. Around the same time, she was invited to research Anni Albers, and in 2018 she curated a revelatory exhibition of the Bauhaus-trained artist’s colourful, handwoven grids. The show was a roaring success. “That was a big sea change for Tate Modern, and for me.”
Since then, Ann has made it her mission to acquire more textile-based works for the permanent collection. Considering the ways in which cloth holds memory, a display called Inherited Threads comprises pieces by the intergenerational quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, integral to the history of African American art. These sit alongside exciting works by contemporary artists including Zohra Opoku and Antonio Pichillá Quiacaín. Ann is also excited to open the new exhibition on the great Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who in the ’60s and ’70s created monumental hanging works from woven fibre. “This was the most important and radical period of her career, and it’s when she made her name.”
Working with a mix of fibrous forms – wool, horsehair, sisal from rope she found down at the docks – Abakanowicz would weave directly onto a loom without relying on a template-like cartoon. Eschewing the conventional rectangular format of tapestries, she removed her works in progress from the wall and stitched them together to create three-dimensional rounded sculptures that the audience could walk into as well as around. She called them situations and environments.
“Unfortunately, in her lifetime, she got sick of being called a textile artist,” says Ann, who visited Abakanowicz at her studio in Warsaw after she gave a few key works to Tate in 2009. “She wanted the world to take her seriously as a sculptor, to recognise that her works are about big issues – she was responding to war and the human condition. They’re very existential in a way.” Together with co-curator Mary Jane Jacob, Ann believes that now is the time to look again at Abakanowicz’s contribution to the history of art, and her starring role in the movement that was known in Europe as New Tapestry and later in the US as Fiber Art. “We have to get over this issue with textiles and look at it as radical, sculptural, environmental work.”
Beyond the looming walls of Tate Modern, the resurgence of textiles continues apace. Artists are incorporating or referencing textile traditions in their work, and fabrics are showing up in commercial galleries and at major art fairs such as the Venice Biennale. A collective bid to be sustainable – to reuse and recycle materials – has also contributed to the form’s rise. “A lot of things have come together, and the art world is finally waking up to the fact that textiles are as valid a medium as any,” says Ann.
She believes that part of the strength and appeal of textiles also lies in their accessibility. “Thinking again about my grandmother, it’s a way of channelling creativity that’s available to people who haven’t had an art school training, who can’t make big splashy canvases because they’re in a domestic setting, who don’t have access to a dark room,” says Ann. “It’s always been something that’s there, to pick up and put down, and that you can sit and do during the evening.” It’s personal and political, radical and fresh. Part of the fabric of life.
Interview by Chloë Ashby, an author and arts journalist. Her first novel, Wet Paint, was published by Trapeze in April 2022.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.
Ann wears our Check Cotton Wool Dress.
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle Of Thread And Rope is at Tate Modern from 17 November 2022 to 21 May 2023.
Captured in the photographs are the following works: Zohra Opoku, Kings and Queens, 2017, screenprint on cotton, cotton and textile, copyright Zohra Opoku; and Ptolemy Mann, Circadian Rhythm (detail), 2019, hand-dyed and handwoven textile, copyright Ptolemy Mann.