Above Photos: Sue Blackburn
Opening images by Lucinda Clutterbuck
Conversation between Lesley Giovanelli and Margaret Roberts about Lesley's installation at Articulate project space, Cottage Industry, June 2014
How did you come to have collected all these fabrics, why are they from Asia and why those particular fabrics?
Some were bought and some were given to me. I started collecting them when I first went to Asia in 1971. When I arrived in Baucau which is on the southern side of East Timor, we went to the local market and the women were selling fabulous fabrics. I had never seen such fabrics, so I was immediately interested. We bought quite a few others with friends and with Pip, my brother, quite a few really nice pieces in Timor from various islands, collectors items really, some of them. I have one or two pieces still.
And then when we got to Bali we kind of gathered up pieces. For some reason we decided we liked the old pieces that people had worn, because they were faded. It was very early days for the backpacking scene and it was quite easy to buy these things, people were wearing them or had worn them—that was what they wore, there was nothing special about them. I think at that time I also bought at least one Indonesian sarong that I actually I wore, a couple of pieces of old temple hangings that had been faded, and a few more pieces along the way. But I was travelling so it was not easy to carry.
And over the years every now and then I would find myself with other fabric, that other people had bought back from, say, Thailand—they were going through their stuff and throwing stuff out so I would add it to my collection, or probably more appropriate, to my conglomeration or gathering of materials, because in fact I am not a collector.
And when I was deciding to use fabric and I opened up my box, out came all these pieces. The ones that seemed to work best I realised were the ones that came from Indonesia, South east Asia and Japan, and then I realised that that was the journey I had done in 1971 and '72. So I decided to limit myself to those countries. Vietnam got in because we touched down there. In Laos you could only go up to as far as Vientiane then things got pretty tricky because of the war, which had spread across from Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos. I, being very naive, was not at all interested in what was going on politically. I flew over the top of it but we did touch down in Saigon at the airport and I saw the camouflaged planes sitting there. You couldn't go to China either at that time.
It was a realisation that those fabrics that seemed to work together also came from those countries that I had already visited on that initial journey, though subsequently I added Taiwan - there is one little piece of Taiwanese fabric there. When I tried to add fabrics from other places they didn't work, so there must be something about the tonal quality or the imagery or the lack of imagery that made those fabrics work together. I was fortunate that Eva's dad had collected a lot of fabric as well, and she gave me his material, so quite a lot of the batiks come from his collection. I have lost things along the way, I don't know where they have gone.
Once I decided to do the show I asked Chrissie to go back and get some more of the material. The blue piece at the front we had collected a couple of years back when went to Laos together and we went on a trip across the Mekong to a little island and went for a walk through the rice paddies to a little village and there we found some women weaving, sitting under their houses and weaving, and we bought a piece each. That is where the blue piece comes from. I asked her if she would she get some more when she was in Vientiane earlier this year. And she kept writing back saying I cant find anything, and I said well everyone is wearing nice fabrics so you must be able to find something. And she said they are all sewn up into skirts. But eventually she found a great pile of these, obviously machine -made because they are very complex and quite cheap, but nevertheless I was appreciative and one piece is in this show.
And I asked Michael Fay to bring back some perang design batik because I decided that I would put that on the bottom of each house because it is rather reserved and I could use the more flamboyant pieces on the tops of the houses He very kindly went to the big shop in the middle of Jakarta and sought out some perang design. Another of the perang design came from Newtown - I went to Eastern Flair and asked the man behind the counter if he had any perang design and he said yes but it is mine and it is at home and you are welcome to have it—come back on Monday, which I did and he handed it over and I said do you think anyone would mind if I used it in an exhibition he said no I think they'd be honoured. It turns out to be a special piece and in fact it has a label on the back with the name of the piece and the name of the artist who made it. I couldn't invite him because I don't know how to get in touch with him. He said he was going to live in Java.
So that was how they were collected. None of them was expensive, they came second hand or swapped for pair of jeans in the old days, markets, the previous owners, donations, sometimes like the blue roof piece directly from the woman who was making it. There is a piece I call Yogya I bought that directly from in the workshops in Yogyakarta where they do woodblock printing and wore it and wore it and wore it. It's pretty worn out.
Did you include any of the East Timor fabrics in the end?
I don't know what happened to the East Timor fabrics. I have fabric from Sumbar from that period, but the Sumbar fabric is too pictorial, too striking so I didn't use any of that, and I still have the piece from Flores but it is a collectors' item it is too glamorous or something its beautiful. So I was kind of keen to just use the everyday pieces that I acquired that didn't have a museum-like quality, and really I was thinking about Asia at all when I was playing with them . I was just putting them together as pattern and texture and colour, realising they worked better on a flat surface rather than a draped surface because that's actually how they are meant o be worn, as tubes or as flat planes on a kimono. The Japanese fabric I came by here mostly - either the Balmain markets or Edo arts, somebody gave me an old kimono, my mother had an old piece she used as a tablecloth. There's a lot of Japanese pieces in the show - one piece that friends kept recognising as I had hung it as a curtain in my old house. Some of the Japanese pieces I think are quite fine - silk, probably tie-dyed, hand-dyed, others are machine-made copies of tie-dyed fabric. Its the same with all of them, some of the batik is machine-made, some block-printed, and some of it's traditional to this batik pen and natural dye.
Do you think that if you had of taken a trip to Africa and come back with a lot of amazing African fabric, you would have made the same work even though it would look different?
No, because I have a lot of fabric from India and in fact the way they use that fabric is that the women drape it around them so it floats and flows, I think you probably have to look at the way it is meant to be used in order to understand it. I was really interested in the piece by Yinke Shonibare in the Art Gallery of NSW. It is discs on the wall, and it is the way he uses African fabric for its pattern and colour that I was drawn to. It was looking at that really that made me realise that it was not enough to just have the houses, I needed to have something in amongst the colour and that is how the columns came about.
Are the columns made up or from actual columns?
The tops of two of them are taken very loosely based on the tops of columns based on a rather small building in Pakse in the south of Laos and that would have been part of Indochina, so under the French influence, which probably explains why one has a more European look to it. And going to India recently was interesting because there are so many fabulous columns you can take one photo after another, all beautifully decorated.
Why are you using houses?
(more to come)