Form and Fusion

Taking a step backward, putting aside message and meaning, the art "only you can make," I find moments where examining formal artistic concerns is refreshing and interesting. Perhaps this is the left brain side of artmaking. By formal concerns I mean color, shape, line, where the eye travels, background and foreground, and sensitivity to materials. These are a heck of a lot more objective, and maybe that is why they are taught in an academic environment; you can list them with checkboxes and grade them more easily. That said, line, color, materials, and shape are also easy to work with as you have no message other than making something pleasing and, dare I say, even beautiful. At a certain point you can intuit how to put the work together. This intuition happens after much play and practice, exploring and learning from the world.

Arranging colored blocks. Scribbling with colored crayons on paper. These are things we do naturally as children (assuming we have access to blocks, crayons, and paper). We don't think too hard about it. We experiment with the tools and explore. In daily life it's about choosing clothes or arranging our meals on a plate. We get ideas from the world around us, and that world, thanks to the internet, is enormous.

This experimentation doesn't just apply to the visual arts. In the 1980s, I had a professor who said that World Music or World Beat would become the music of the world. Musicians were traveling, exchanging music from their cultures. In the SF Bay area we had groups like Mapenzi, Zulu Spear, and the Looters. Western musician Paul Simon included South African music on his album, Graceland and brought mainstream U.S. attention to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. David Byrne integrated African music into the Talking Heads' album, Remain in Light;  and in 2018, for a wonderful switchback, Beninese, African-born musician Angélique Kidjo made a fantastic cover album of it. Music back then felt like it was reaching out to be global, rather than regional or national. This exchange added complexity to ways of making music, listening, hearing, seeing. 

But "World Music" became a marketing term, a catch-all for anything non-Western, which infuriated David Byrne (see his article here and another interesting article documenting the history here), and sadly changed the designation of all-inclusive to us/them or anything non-western. Thirty years later there is the concern about cultural appropriation in all forms of art. (Well, there has always been concern about this, but it is more in the foreground today.)

We use spices from around the world in our food. Our clothes are manufactured internationally. Free trade opens doors and opportunities. Yet, these items are not considered appropriated, perhaps because they are made for trade. The objection to appropriation comes when it is close to a particular religion, a lifestyle, a custom or, more importantly I think, an area that has intense emotional or spiritual significance. It can also be a source of tension when the borrower has absolutely no idea of the history of an object, or uses a language in a work "for texture" without knowing what it means. I remember in the 1980s when milagros, Mexican religious folk charms, were made into earrings and sold in Berkeley. They looked neat. I stopped wearing mine fairly soon after I learned what they were.

Which brings us back to art. When is it appropriate to use something from another culture, not your own, in your art? I'm interested in the Gond people of India (previous blog post here), and the patterning used in the art. I might use the idea of the patterning, but create my own patterns, not use one from another artist. I'm interested in the Japanese sewing patterns of sashiko (blog post here), and do use the patterns, made freely available in textiles books, in my work. I'm attracted to Brazilian woodblock carving of cordel and made a set of books that nodded to it (blog post here). The context and interpretation, I think, is important.

Which, like the labyrinth we're in, has us double back to form. It may be that appropriating, borrowing, using the form, scaffolding, structure, colors, the formal issues, can work. But only then if the artist integrates her own voice, transforms the form.

A friend of mine is very interested in Indian culture, has been to India many times. She also likes Korean bojagi, traditional wrapping cloth, which is like a little quilt. For a birthday gift, I went to Ahlishan, an Indian fabric store, and bought several remnants, with the intention of making a patchwork bojagi (jogak bo) out of them.

I did not have a message or meaning in mind, I simply wanted to play with the form, with colors and shapes and continue practicing the flat seams the form employs. Eventually, I added some of the dyed silk organza I used in my quilt/curtain, There Goes the Neighborhood. Typically, the bojagi are 35 cm square, about 13.75 inches, and wrapping things, according to wikipedia, is considered good luck and shows respect for the object and the recipient. (You can see a couple at the Asian Art Museum website.) I sewed a sleeve on the back of this one for the curtain option, and it  is a little larger, at eighteen inches, a fusion of form and Korean, Indian, and North American cultures. Good luck is a universal wish. I hope it works.

on the table

in the window


viv davy said…
hi Alisa, thanks for this interesting post. I have started making some open book type quilts since following your posts - thank you so much for the depth you go into.
Alisa said…
thanks for writing, viv. good luck with all!