Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Michael James and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga at Southwest School of Art


Michael James, Controlled Release, 2012, digitally-printed cotton - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Michael James, Controlled Release, 2012, digitally-printed cotton

The twin exhibitions now on view at the Navarro campus of the Southwest School of Art could serve as a self-portrait of the school that began as a crafts center, but grew to become one of the foremost advocates of contemporary art in San Antonio. Michael James and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga are both innovaters in the field of fiber arts, considered until recently a terrain occupied more often by hobbiests than proffessionals.

James explores the tensions between nature and the built environment within another pairing — quilt work and digital photography. Images of water, branches, and indeterminate shapes are printed on tufted cotton fabric machine-sewn through in patterns of thread that echo the contours of the images, or limn other forms in swirling rows. On pieces exhibiting the saturated tones of foliage, blocks of images or dark splatter shapes are organized like exemplars of forgotten categories. Overlays of leaves and other organic forms soften the compositions, which, to the casual viewer might recall odd riffs on 1970s fabrics. Other starker works in cooler tones are less rambunctious, displaying expanses of waves, and the splatters are diminished to textures. But regardless of the plethora of nature images, in neither set are easy listening pieces. They quiver between balance and the queasy.

James, a nationally recognized leader in surface design, is a professor in the Department of Textiles at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and has pioneered developments in fiber arts for over 35 years. His works are in numerous collections, including the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

The granddaughter of a basket maker, Wanjiku has been working with strings, ropes, and recyled materials since she was a child in Kenya. Since completeing graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, she has remained in the U.S., and now resides in San Antonio. Her present collection includes wall hangings and sculpture in the round. The works pull from her family’s craft tradition and extend the vocubulary of contemporary fiber arts to include pieces made of metal sheets, stainless steel wire, and tin cans.

Though having some approximate similarities with James’ work in her use of repeating rectangles and organic patterns, the emotional notes of Wanjiku’s pieces are warmer, and rather than discord, harmony with the past is celebrated.

Explaining that her work celebrates “the aesthetic of string,” Wanjiku is inspired by kiondo, baskets woven of sisal that her grandmother made that were used in East Africa as carryalls. They were also an important tool during harvest time; used to carry food that was shared by friends working the fields, kiondo became known as symbols of community and fellowship.

Where James focuses on rational judgment in his patternmaking, Wanjiku utilizes aleatory methods, chance, as part of her process. Organic flows of rust-like hues recollect geologic strata and the coursing of rivers. These she makes by patinating rolls of steel sheets with a mix of water and salt. The rolls are uncoiled, then cut into rectangles that are woven together with metal wire, forming variegated patterns, sometimes enhanced with blue fabric dye. Other pieces, made of wire mesh, form three-dimesional sculptures that recall traditional African coiffures and container-like forms.

Some of the most effective works utilize tin cans. When the British left Kenya after independence was acheived in 1963, they took much of the economic infrastructure with them. Men in rural districts flowed into Nairobi, the capitol, to find work. Women, left to their own in the villages, had to take on tasks traditionally held by men, and had little time to make traditional crafts. Wanjiku recalls that her grandmother kept a large tin can, with a big string handle, as a bucket to pull water from the well.

Though Wanjiku’s work recalls memories of postcolonialism, there is a lack of bitterness. Instead, one feels confidence, as if remembering the past ensured the future.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga: A Tradition of Strings
Michael James: Organizing Nature

Southwest School of Art,
Navarro Campus
1201 Navarro
(210) 224-1848
Through July 7


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