Vatanajyankur constructs human-size structures, such as looms, which she then becomes a part of. In the video Shuttle (2018), an aqua-colored metal structure supports a purple skein of fiber across its arms. Vatanajyankur launches herself through the narrow gap between the threads and slips through to the other side. She wears a pale apricot leotard with bright red strands of wool encircling her lower torso, which unwind behind her and then cross the purple fibers. As the title Shuttle suggests, Vatanajyankur is herself the shuttle, who produces, with each dive through the warp and weft, another line of a woven textile. Her moves are carefully choreographed, and she practiced for weeks or months in advance of filming, as the sequences she performs are physically demanding, frequently tugging at the limits of endurance. Vatanajyankur draws on the positive effects of meditation, such as enhanced focus, to assist her stamina and, importantly, to channel her abilities to become, in this instance, the shuttle. (Pickens R.,Performing Textiles, Art Asia Pacific)
Shuttle is in The National Collection of Thailand (Ministry of Culture) and Dib Contemporary Art Museum
HD Video Still, 2018
Dunedin Public Art Gallery Commission
Edition of 4+3 AP
Textiles are linked symbolically to birth, fertility and reproduction. The practice of working with materials connects women’s bodies to the earth. It is a symbol of life and power. There is a poetic parallel which exists between the creation of new thread and new life. In Greek mythology, The Three Fates were destined to control the ‘mother thread’ of life of every mortal from birth to death, and Athena was considered the goddess of wisdom and weaving.
Vatanajyankur’s Dye both explores and subverts this feminine mythology and history. Her body is pushed to the brink of pain and exhaustion—her hair a mop of woollen thread. It is here that the words of Luise Guest resonate. She states: “A woman’s hair is imbued with contradictory meanings—a ‘crowning glory’ that is also abject, a sexual fetish that is also terrifying, a source of power that also signifies vulnerability and subservience”.
The historical relationship between textiles and war are clearly explored in Vatanajyankur’s work. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women used textiles as political commentary to protest violence. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, women wove rugs to cope with the violence surrounding their everyday lives. This provided a source of income for families devastated by warfare—and brought women into a male sphere—giving back power through tools of domesticity.
Vatanajyankur’s experience visiting Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin, and the exhibition Women’s War, also influenced her practice. Here, thousands of women sewed and knitted necessities for soldiers during the first world war. As such, textile mediums themselves cannot help but carry a deep tension of conflict. It is a violent history, soaked into the very threads of female life.
Over the last century, women have taken this feminine craft from a private to public space. Textiles have been reinterpreted, and their power reclaimed by women exploited through the associated practice. No longer confined to a domestic space, the value of textiles has been subverted. Its place within performance art can be seen in the pioneering works of Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama and Shigeko Kubota. The very essence of Performing Textiles pays homage to this history of performative identity, and continues to grow in the contemporary practice of other female endurance artists.
A savagely beautiful collision between domestic labour and the feminine body, the Performing Textiles exhibition offers a platform for Vatanajyankur to undertake physical experiments that playfully, and often painfully, test her body’s limits. The lurid, cotton-candy colour palette is merely a guise—a spectre that exists at the place where the physical and invisible meet. The videos are a challenge to the viewer, both unavoidably compelling and uncomfortable to watch.
Vatanajyankur transforms her body into various textile process tools. Her physical form becomes the embodiment of a spinning wheel or weaving shuttle. As the works progress, her body struggles to compete as the material tool, and thus her form undergoes both psychological and physical metamorphosis. The draining repetition of movement is symbolic of labour’s endless totality and the materialism behind human consumption.
As a video artist first and foremost, Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work presents her body, not alongside, but as the machines and processes used within the manufacturing of textiles. Subsequently, this presents a striking incongruence that lives at the intersection between physicality and performativity. Poetic and savage, Performing Textiles explores the cultural significance of the female form—successfully bringing universality and contemporaneity to the value of women and their historical trajectory in feminist art.