It’s Not a Tapestry, Part One

Before my husband and I travel to New York City, I pay special attention to reviews of gallery and museum exhibits. I had a flicker of excitement as I opened the New York Times art section the Sunday before our early February trip — a tapestry show, the teaser read. But even before I flipped to the page, I suspected this would be another case of an arts writer calling any sort of textile hanging on a wall a tapestry.

A tapestry?

[To any readers who might be thinking, “Isn’t every textile hanging on a wall a tapestry?,” this definition and video from the American Tapestry Alliance will help you understand the traditional meaning of tapestry as a specific weaving technique.]

This was the article: “An Artist Who Blends Secular and Sacred (With Sequins): Myrlande Constant’s tapestries, drawn from Haitian Vodou traditions, take textile art to new heights with exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles.

Constant’s work is amazing — vibrant, shiny, huge, sequin-filled, image-crammed, steeped in history and mystery. The reviewer, Siddhartha Mitter, describes the historical inspiration for her works well, banners unfurled at ceremonies.

Constant, 54, is a rigorist whose every action accords with Vodou knowledge and cosmology. But she is equally a trailblazer who has taken the drapo tradition — an image of an icon or a symbolic drawing (vèvè) unfurled at the start of ceremonies — and blown it open into a narrative art, at an ever larger scale. Her works have the centrifugal storytelling of, say, a Bruegel painting.

See the full review for many tempting photos.

He describes the techniques she uses to create the huge banners:

But when she tried her hand at drapo, which traditionally involved only sequins, she found that tambour and beadwork opened new possibilities in contour, depth and detail.

Each piece starts with a line drawing that she formulates, during a meditative process, on the back of the cloth fabric, which is then stretched across a frame and worked upside-down‌‌. She reaches underneath the fabric and stitches the sequins and tassels, following the drawing. She can’t see them, she can only feel them, and witnesses the progress of the work only when she turns it over.

Mitter does a fabulous job of combining information about the artist’s life, her current importance in contemporary art, specific information about the works, and the artist’s techniques. I recommend Mitter’s thorough review and am sad I wasn’t able to get to the show of Myrlande Constant’s works.

So should we care if he mislabeled Constant’s works as tapestries? A few references: “anchoring the center of this bustling tapestry;” “There is so much activity in Myrlande Constant’s tapestries;” “her tapestries have evolved; and “Constant’s tapestry devoted to the devastating 2010 earthquake.” And of course the tagline, “Myrlande Constant’s tapestries, drawn from Haitian Vodou traditions…” Does it matter?

The whole issue of calling every pictorial textile a tapestry makes me a bit sad and fatigued. I feel like it is a battle that has been lost.

But Wait!

When the new issue of the New Yorker arrived the next day, I turned to the art pages. Amazingly, there was a small review by Andrea Scott on Myrlande Constant’s work without one instance of the word tapestry! (Scroll down in the linked column for Scott’s review.) She used “astonishing textiles,” “compositions,” “painting with beads,” and “epic pieces.” Does the New Yorker have a better art technique style manual? Better editors? Or is Andrea Scott super knowledgeable about tapestry? Whatever the answer, the review made me happy. And I hope I get to see these amazing works in the future.