Knowing very little about Shelia Hick’s range of style and technique, as this is her first retrospective in the US, I was immediately drawn to her enormous work May I Have this Dance? 2002-2003 at the ICA Philadelphia (top image) that the New York Times referred to as a “…20 by 30 ft spiraling-linen and cork fantasy.” Her ability to capture and confront the viewer calmly and securely in her mixture of minimalist sculpture and archaic artistry is sheer pristine beauty. Hicks, an ex-pat who has lived in France since the 1960’s, has exhibited this work previously at the Centre George Pompidou. Hicks’ technique takes traditional everyday Pre-Columbian weaving techniques and turns them into monumental sculptures of contemporary art. This fascination with the “primitive” has been a emerging recently all over galleries in Philadelphia.
After viewing Hicks’ retrospective it brought to mind an exhibition held in 2010 at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Cai Guo Qiang: Fallen Blossoms and Time Flies Like a Weaving Shuttle, which combined floral-shaped explosives with the participation of five weavers from the Tu Family clan of the Xiangxi region in Hunan province, China. The weavers who resided in Philadelphia for three months at FWM’s artist apartments, worked daily in the galleries on a series of tapestries inspired by the memory of the former director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Anne d’ Harnoncourt. The exhibition press release stated “Over the course of the exhibition, the weavers will create five tapestries to illustrate the accumulation of memories and the endurance of friendship, weaving at a speed of approximately 35 cm per day. Visitors are invited to watch the process as it takes place in the gallery.” As can be presumed I found certain aspects of the fascination with the “other” juxtaposed with the large-scale nature and hype surrounding this project a bit questionable? When I visited the exhibition in March 2010 on opening night, I watched as a colleague of mine, who was an official translator for the weavers for the duration of their stay in “China Town” Philadelphia, asked them many second-hand questions by visitors attempting to understand the context in which this tradition originated. I left with my head spinning as I was transported into a land I only briefly could imagine through mere photographic images and reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.
“I wouldn’t use the word Primitive to refer to people with a richness of life. I would use the word Primitive to refer to myself and my contemporaries, with our progressive poverty of life.”
– Fredy Perlman, Against His Story Against-Levithan! (1983)
Endnotes: Katherine Shattuck,”In the Woof and Warf of Miniatures, Interlocking Metaphors and Journeys.”New York Times, Sept 4th, 2006.