Textile art has long been a vehicle for storytelling. Much like ceramic art, it has long trodden the foggy and hotly-contested line between art and craft. It comes dressed in many forms: fibre art, tapestry, weaving, embroidery, knitting, and often spreads beyond the borders of art into fashion, design, science and technology. 

The last century has seen a renaissance in thread-based art. It was only during the Bauhaus years in the early 20th century that textiles began to enter the vocabulary of modern art, a move indebted to textile masters like Anni Albers, who turned her weaving loom into vehicle for innovation. Albers saw the potential of textiles beyond a ‘women’s craft’ and has since influenced swathes of creatives including Sheila Hicks, who studied under both Anni and Josef Albers and myriad fashion designers including Paul Smith, Hermès and Roksanda. Other artists who took textiles to new heights in the 20th century include Sonia Delaunay, Judith Scott, and Louise Bourgeois.

In the 1970s, coinciding with the women’s liberation movement, and the rise of feminist art, textiles underwent its own revolution. Fibre art was born: textiles was catapulted beyond the domestic space and unshackled from veiled art world snobbery. The medium took on a life beyond functional craft; it became textiles for textiles’ sake. 

From immersive site-specific installations to work that reinterprets the codes of history, contemporary textile art is a conceptual and political tool, fuelled by postmodernist ideals and the experimental spirit of those who command it. 

Sheila Hicks

 Giulia Noni, part of the most pioneering textile artists
Portrait of Sheila Hicks, 2011. Photography: Giulia Noni 

Sheila Hicks’ name is almost synonymous with fibre art. Over more than half a century, she has removed the seams between art, architecture and design with bold, groundbreaking work, often dominating public spaces. The American artists’ extensive travels across several continents and studies of vernacular textile traditions informed an expansive, yet unmistakable practice that ranges from intricate wall hangings (or ‘minimes’) to cascades of vibrant fabric balls and maximal site-specific installations which envelop viewers and overwhelm senses. Hicks’ work draws on everything from Peruvian and Bolivian archaeological sites to pre-Columbian textiles. She was also deeply inspired by her former Yale tutor Josef Albers’ approach to colour and the pioneering structures in the work of his wife, Anni Albers. American design firm Knoll became one of Hicks’s first major commercial clients; together they created Inca, inspired by Andean patterns. In Hicks’ work, textile art is sculpture, painting, architecture and an independent discipline in its own right. The artist’s major exhibition, ‘Off Grid’, will open at the Hepworth Wakefield on 7 April 2022. sheilahicks.com

Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota, Circulation, 2018, part of Wallpaper’s pick of the most pioneering textile artists
Chiharu Shiota, Circulation, 2018. Installation: metal rings, red wool Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture, Valletta, Malta. Photography: by Daniel Mifsud Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021 and the artist

Chiharu Shiota’s elaborate entanglements are difficult to forget and easy to get lost in. Her labyrinthine installations are vast, surreal waves of blood-red, black or white threads, and appear almost as though humans could weave webs. Within these environments, the Japanese, Berlin-based artist often traps objects of personal significance such as clothes, keys, boats, suitcases, and even herself. Shiota’s work is deeply rooted in performance art; the artist studied under Marina and holds a deep affinity with late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Her textile installations are both performative and painterly; as the artist told us last year, ‘The single line of thread is like a line in a painting. With the thread, I am drawing in the air, in an unlimited space. With the material, I can create new spaces. They might be deconstructed after the exhibition, but they will live in the memory of the visitors forever.’ On 3 April, Konig Galerie will open its new Seoul space with a group show including works by Shiota. chiharu-shiota.com

Billie Zangewa

Billie Zangewa, An Angel at My Bedside, 2020, part of Wallpaper’s pick of the most pioneering textile artists
Billie Zangewa, An Angel at My Bedside, 2020, Hand-stitched silk collage. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

South African–Malawian artist Billie Zangewa is well known for creating moving stories of femininity, domesticity, motherhood and the exploitation of the Black female body rendered in delicate hand-stitched fragments of raw silk. Within these scenes, often figurative, urban and referencing themes of everyday life, Zangewa explores gender stereotypes and socio-political notions around the undervaluing of women’s labour. Through self-portraiture, the artist also critically confronts the male gaze, and conversely, explores what a female gaze on womanhood might look like. This year is a busy one for Zangewa. In October, she will open her first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of African Diaspora, San Francisco. In November, the artist will have solo exhibitions across Lehmann Maupin’s Seoul and London galleries. lehmannmaupin.com

Gabriel Dawe 

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 31, 2015, Site-specific installation at the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, part of Wallpaper’s pick of the most pioneering textile artists
Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 31, 2015, Site-specific installation at the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ

Best known for his dazzling Plexus series, Mexican artist Gabriel Dawe is well versed in pushing textile art to its extremities. His vast installations explore the intersection of fashion, architecture and optical illusion. Dawe takes the core component of clothing, and augments it on an architectural scale, creating hypnotic work which seems to make the tangible appear intangible. The artist uses ordinary polyester embroidery threads to create extraordinary illusions which resemble something close to vivid, laser projections. Beneath his work’s obvious aesthetic appeal, Dawe speaks to something deeper: the human need for shelter and protection, and the hyper-masculine ideals prevalent in Mexican culture. gabrieldawe.com

Anna Ray

Anna Ray, Capture, textile wall piece, part of the most innovative textile artists
Anna Ray, Capture. Image courtesy of Anna Ray and House on Mars Gallery. Photography: Alun Callender

Anna Ray has a knack for harnessing the emotive power of her materials. Through large-scale, handmade work and avid experimenting, she blurs the boundaries between the two- and three-dimensional with wall-based pieces that almost assume the quality of sculptural reliefs. Predominantly fibre-based, the artist’s work spans silk, cotton, velvet, wool and paper, often using humble, domestic materials such as a sewing machine, scissors, pliers and a needle. Earlier this year, Ray became the second recipient of the Brookfield Properties Crafts Council Collection Award at Collect 2021. The artist charmed the judges with her ability to exude joy, optimism and energy through her sculptural works. As part of the award, her striking pieces, Capture and Weave (made during and directly after the first UK Covid-19 lockdown) will be exhibited at 99 Bishopsgate and Aldgate Tower in Summer and Autumn 2021. annaray.co.ukbrookfieldproperties.com

Diedrick Brackens

Diedrick Brackens, summer somewhere 2020, woven, part of the most mind-blowing textile artists
Diedrick Brackens, summer somewhere, 2020, woven cotton and acrylic yarn. © Diedrick Brackens. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles

Texas-born Diedrick Brackens’ rich tapestries interweave personal stories, American history and narratives of African American and queer identities. Fusing techniques and traditions from West African weaving, quilting from the American South and European tapestry-making, he creates intricate, often vibrantly-coloured visions of history, folklore and contemporary American life. Created in hand-dyed cotton, his pieces are charged with a consciousness of the material’s complex and barbaric history. Since receiving the revered Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Prize in 2018 (an honour previously awarded to the likes of Simone Leigh, Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon), the artist has become a pivotal figure in the contemporary fibre art renaissance. On 24 June 2021, he will open his first solo New York gallery show at Jack Shainman, debuting a new body of work. Brackens will also exhibit in the group show, ‘Feedback’ at Jack Shainman Gallery: The School in Kinderhook, New York in June 2021. diedrickbrackens.comjackshainman.com §