The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is known for many things: the beautiful Venetian palazzo-inspired architecture, the unconventional way it displays its pieces of art, the largest and still-unsolved art heist in history, and Isabella Stewart Gardner’s wide taste in art — from Italian renaissance and medieval European to Asian and Islamic art; from paintings and sculptures to rare books and textiles — to name a few.
Keeping in tradition with her love of textiles, “Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time,” is on view through January 13. The exhibition features work from contemporary artists who are continuing the tradition of conveying stories and histories in their works while pushing the boundaries of textile art and distorting the line around what can be defined as a tapestry. Their works are housed in both the Hostetter Gallery as well as the Tapestry Room.
Walking into the New Wing, where the Hostetter Gallery is located, gives the viewer a much more modern-day museum feel than the palace that Gardner had designed. It is a contemporary gallery space with light wooden floors and white walls.
The first piece you see walking into the space, is “Many Came Back,” by El Anatsui. Constructed with copper wire and flattened, recycled liquor-bottle caps, the piece forms a sculptural tapestry to which photos cannot do justice. A Ghana-born and Nigeria-based artist, El Anatsui’s piece has a dark allusion to African history; the tops of liquor bottles are directly connected to the history of alcohol in Africa, specifically drawing ties to the manufacturing process of rum.
During the transatlantic slave trade, New Englanders manufactured rum and shipped it to Africa in exchange for slaves, who were then traded for molasses in the West Indies which, in turn, was brought back to New England to produce more rum and repeat the cycle. Combine this with the rich history of African textiles, and one sees a bittersweet relationship between colonial oppression and traditional culture in his contemporary reinterpretation of tapestry art.
Another historically-rich reinterpretation of textiles was done by Nevet Yitzhak with her three-piece installation, “WarCraft.” Originating with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and surging again after the United States-led invasion after 9/11, Afghan rug makers began weaving war motifs into their customary textile patterns. Inspired by Afghan war rugs, Yitzhak created a three-paneled video installation depicting her own collection of war rugs.
Displayed in a small, dimly-lit room behind the wall that hangs Anatsui’s “Many Came Back,” “WarCraft” has three distinct digital tapestries taking up the majority of three walls. When one walks into the room, it’s as if one has walked inside a violent video game: helicopters travel from one screen to the next, crashing into buildings; bombs are dropped, creating fiery holes in the textiles; tanks shoot bullets from one wall hanging, puncturing another across the room.
The vicious action surrounds the viewer, giving them a much more intimate view of war, while the eight-minute looped video evokes the overwhelming folly of war’s repetitious nature.