Fabric of History: Sonia Gomes

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Sonia Gomes, Untitled, from the “Torção” series, 2015; Fabric, wire, thread, and beads, 80 x 123 x 14 in.; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Sonia Gomes (b. 1948, Caetanópolis, Brazil)

After beginning her career at the age of 45, Sonia Gomes quickly gained recognition in the global art scene, participating in exhibitions around the world and influencing a younger generation of Brazilian artists. Gomes uses a range of fabrics, thread, and rope—often gifted or found—to create multi-dimensional sculptures. These structures twist, spiral, converge, and taper in organic and graceful ways that recall biological forms and sacred objects. Her use of fabrics carries collective and personal stories embedding the idea that something passed could be brought back to life again. Gomes’s works are inspired by her family, including her maternal grandmother, whose traditional dress and rituals as an indigenous spiritual healer and midwife influenced her, and her father’s family that worked in a textile factory.

The Artist’s Voice:

“Sometimes I think my work might look like my insides because it’s extremely visceral. . . . And I make art by necessity. I think if I haven’t been doing what I do, I would have gone crazy or I might have been in trouble because I can’t live without it…so I discovered life through art.”

“For me, art is about truth. I don’t get politically involved in Afro-Brazilian movements. I participate through my work and now that I’m starting to receive recognition I think it’s important to give my contribution.”—Sonia Gomes, in a video interview with Arterial

Sonia Gomes, Untitled from the series “Torção,” 2015; Fabric, wire, thread, and beads, 95 x 42 x 12 in.; Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Revival Highlight:

Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, four sculptures by Gomes are on display in Revival. These sculptures project from the wall, hang from the ceiling, and, in some cases, wander onto the floor. In an untitled work from 2015 from her series “Torção,” Gomes uses fabric, wire, thread, and beads. She binds, knots, and sews together opaque and shear fabrics that evoke the domestic realm while simultaneously forming symbolic re-creations of the body.

Gomes explores issues of identity and memory. Historically, black women have been at the bottom of Brazil’s social strata experiencing limited visibility. Addressing this subject figuratively, Gomes’s sculpture hangs from the ceiling, hovering before the viewer as an insistent placeholder for the absent or unseen body.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

NO MAN’S LAND: Follow the Threads

Contemporary large-scale paintings and sculptural hybrids are on view in NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection. The exhibition imagines a visual conversation between 37 women artists from 15 countries exploring images of the female body and the physical process of making. Works by Shinique Smith, Sonia Gomes, and Rosemarie Trockel make innovative use of textiles.

Shinique Smith, Menagerie, 2007; Mixed media on canvas; Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Shinique Smith, Menagerie, 2007; Mixed media on canvas; Rubell Family Collection, Miami

What’s On View?

Shinique Smith’s Menagerie, 2007

“I like dancing between restraint and chaos,” says Shinique Smith (b. 1971, Baltimore), who collaged secondhand fabric and clothing into this large-scale work along with script-covered papers and photographs. Smith’s complex, yet spontaneous-seeming art is inspired by our culture’s cycle of acquiring and discarding: “I think my work is very American, and the way we consume and cast off is unique to us.” She also cites a New York Times Magazine article that discussed how discarded clothing is baled and traded worldwide.

Collecting textiles from friends, family, thrift stores, and other sources is part of Smith’s creative process. Smith, whose grandmother had a talent for interior design and whose mother is a former fashion editor, taps into her personal associations—popular culture, graffiti and calligraphy, her family, and her hometown of Baltimore—to create eclectic and energetic work.

Sonia Gomes’s Made in America, 2015

Like Smith’s works, expressive hanging sculptures by Sonia Gomes (b. 1948, Caetanópolis, Brazil), use textiles to explore identity and memory. Three of her works are on view—two from a series of pieces titled Made in America, and Tantas Estorias (Many Histories).

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Installation view of Sonia Gomes’s two works from a series titled Made in America (2015)

Gomes creates these sculptures by wrapping, twisting, and stitching found or gifted textiles over wire armatures. Organic shapes evoke organs, outlines, or sacred objects. Gomes’s works are inspired by her family—her father’s family worked in a textile factory, and she was influenced by the traditional dress and rituals of her maternal grandmother, an indigenous spiritual healer and midwife.

Rosemarie Trockel’s untitled wool work, 1990

Textile works by Rosemarie Trockel (b. 1952, Schwerte, West Germany) also reflect the close relationship between her medium and meaning.

Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled, 1990; Wool; Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled, 1990; Wool; Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Featuring repeated patterns stitched by machine, Trockel’s “knitted pictures” are attached to wood frames like those used to stretch paintings on canvas.

Trockel questions the gendered connotations of materials, as well as the distinction between “fine” arts, such as painting, and craft. “I tried to take wool, which was viewed as a woman’s material, out of that context and to rework it in a neutral process of production,” she says. NO MAN’S LAND includes three of her knitted pieces—one with a pattern of skulls, another with stripes, and one that is a large, dark field of color.

Visit the museum and explore NO MAN’S LAND, on view through January 8, 2017.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.