TOAST Magazine

Objects of Meaning | Ekta Kaul

ARTS & CULTURE

The textile works of Ekta Kaul narrate stories of place and belonging, all tied together through a dictionary of intricate stitches.

After training at the National Institute for Design in India, Ekta moved to the UK to further explore her studies in textiles, before setting up her own practice in London.

Combining embroidery techniques with rich narratives, her large-scale pieces are bold and minimal, and celebrate the craft of both the traditional and the contemporary. 

We find a moment to talk to Ekta about her life as an artist, and where her love of textiles first began.

Tell us about your journey so far.

I am a textile artist, and my artistic practice is focused on creating narrative maps that explore place, history and belonging through stitch.

I grew up in India and have lived in the UK for the past 15 years. Living in diverse, vibrant cities like Edinburgh, Bath, Ahmedabad, Delhi and London has been a wonderful education in celebrating plurality of perspectives, imbibing a wide array of cultural influences and developing a creative voice rooted in the non-binary.

You grew up in India, studying at India’s premier design school The National Institute of Design (NID), what did this teach you?

Growing up in India, I was surrounded by beautiful heritage textiles. My mother’s deep appreciation of the handmade and respect for materials influenced me profoundly as did the wider culture of reuse and repurposing which is ingrained in the Indian way of life.

I trained at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. Education at NID was very much rooted in Bauhaus principles, with an emphasis on learning-by-doing; it was open and interdisciplinary. We were encouraged to question everything and everyone. It was here that I took a deep dive into the 5,000 year old textile traditions of India and also engaged with contemporary art and design. The emphasis on plurality of approaches was further augmented by the rich mix of tutors that included international artists, leading designers, academics who were pioneers in design thinking and Indian artisans who had been practicing their craft for generations. All of these influences have shaped my artistic voice.

Can you tell us about traditional kantha embroidery and how you draw on this craft in your own practice? 

The word Kantha means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, and refers to embroidered quilted textiles made from multiple layers of cast-off cloth. Kantha textiles originated in the Indian subcontinent and have a rich heritage rooted in storytelling and upcycling. Traditionally, women in Bengal layered discarded saris, using simple running stitches to embroider motifs drawn from folk tales, rituals and their daily lives. Used fabrics were layered, embroidered and repurposed into textiles for function or display and often given as gifts to celebrate special occasions.

I love the ethos of sustainability, storytelling and the simplicity that is central to Kantha. I love the simplicity and versatility of the running stitch and use this within my practice extensively. 

How did you find the shift coming to the UK to study a Masters in textiles?

My desire to explore textiles further led me to undertake an MA in the UK. I was fortunate to be awarded a full scholarship to study, which made the decision to move here to the UK an easy one. I loved my MA year at Heriot-Watt University spread between Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders - I explored traditional and non traditional methods including stitch, needle punching and digital printing. The added bonus of studying in Scotland was being immersed in its rich cultural history and proximity to the textile mills. I went on to set up my practice straight after graduation thanks to a very generous business development award from the Crafts Council which at the time was called ‘Next Move’.

What is it that draws you to working with textiles and fabric?

Making with meaning is the central tenet of my work. Textiles enable me to express myself through thread and fabric and to tell stories of place, history and belonging. Stitch connects me to my heritage, especially to my mother and ancestors who embroidered. My work is about narrating stories, connecting people across borders and generations. Beyond the pure joy of creativity, it offers me a contemplative space, comfort, community and connection. My textile practice is a powerful expression of all that I cherish and being able to practice it is a real privilege.

My love of textiles goes all the way back to my childhood. Textiles hold a special place in my family - I remember my mother lovingly looking after my grandmother’s heirloom saris so they could one day be passed on to me - she knitted and embroidered extensively. My grandmother and my aunts made quilts. Every winter, worn out clothes were given to the local rugmaker to weave them into rugs.

To me, textiles are receptacles of meaning, memories and connections.

What concepts and narratives drift into your work?

I focus on creating narrative maps that explore a sense of place, history and belonging through stitch. I am drawn to maps not only because they are beautiful objects in their own right but also because they are repositories for meaning. A pared down aesthetic coupled with a highly considered use of graphic marks and lines form the core elements of my work.

Does your stitching, embroidery and needlework require a lot of patience?

I love the slowness of the embroidery process. When I stitch, everything else melts away and I am completely absorbed in the flow of needle and thread. The contemplative space that stitch creates enables me to observe my thoughts more closely, something that is rare in our screen laden lives!

Can you tell us a little about the workshop you are hosting in the TOAST Creative Residency?

I am really excited about my Kantha workshop that I will be teaching in the TOAST Creative Residency. I will introduce the participants to the history and cultural context of Kantha and how this mindful, sustainable practice is especially relevant in our fast paced 21st century living. The participants will learn to embroider a dictionary of Kantha stitches. I hope the workshop will enable the participants to gain a deeper understanding of this under-celebrated technique and to use Kantha skills to pursue mindful making.

Where do you go in London to find inspiration?

Every corner of London is bursting with inspiration- the architecture, the history, the world class museums, beautiful parks and open spaces. Every project I undertake  commences with research which often includes visits to London museums and libraries. The Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern and The British Library are my favourites. Luckily they are not far from my studio. When I’m not in the studio, I love going for walks along the river to process my thoughts and ideate. 

What is the best advice you’ve been given that you could pass on?

My best advice is from Mary Oliver. 

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Images courtesy of Ekta Kaul.

Ekta is one of the artists who has been pivotal to the TOAST Creative Residency, a three-day programme of events, workshops and talks. You can find out more about Ekta's work and masterclasses here.

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