The fabric of society: How contemporary textile artists are weaving today's cultural movements into their work

Artist and designer Aditi Patwari, who lives in Dubai, talks about the history of textiles, contemporary practices and her own work

Powered by automated translation

“Textiles carry with them lots of stories,” Aditi Patwari, a textile artist and designer who has been living in Dubai since 2016, says.

“They tell of the hands that made them, the time they were made in, the purpose they were made for and how they have been passed down through generations.”

They can also be a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiency.

'Universal Truth', part of Aditi Patwari's Dubai Darbaar collection

The founder of Dea, a textile company in Dubai that makes bespoke art pieces, gives the example of khadi, a fabric made out of hand-spun cotton in India.

How the art of khadi shaped Indian society

Khadi gained prominence in India during the late 1800s, when the country was still under British colonial rule. "Mass-produced fabrics made in Britain were taking over the market, replacing Indian fabrics and leaving Indian spinners and weavers unemployed," Patwari tells The National.

Textiles, which had once been used as a way to control and exploit the Indian population, became the symbol of independence

As the Swadeshi movement – part of the Indian independence movement – gained traction, Indians began to boycott British textiles and produce their own cotton and fabrics.

“Textiles, which had once been used as a way to control and exploit the Indian population, became the symbol of independence, and when India become a republic, the spinning wheel became part of the Indian flag," Patwari says, adding that the textile industry in India still remains one of its biggest industries today, second only to agriculture.

When tradition meets modernity

But it's not just traditional forms of textile that are laden with meaning. Contemporary works are also rich in stories, albeit with a more personal touch than their traditional counterparts.

“Let’s look at our current situation; not only are we faced with the pandemic, but also the countless movements for human rights and equality around the world. The textile artists of today are recording these stories in their work just like khadi weavers and Persian carpet makers.”

It is usually difficult to ascertain an individual craftsperson behind a classic textile work, such as a Persian carpet or a khadi. That’s not the case with modern pieces. That's because many of today’s textile artists have developed a more individual approach to working with textiles, Patwari explains.

“They have personal brands and unique voices and experiences." She says contemporary artists create an echo of their individual beliefs and experiences in their textiles, rather than reworking a rendition of a popular design.

Patwari uses as an example the works of US artist Bisa Butler, whose large, colourful, quilted portraits often celebrate famous figures in black history.

“Her work has her signature quilting style with Kool-Aid colours that reflect her unique creative voice and style. In the past, textiles were seen as general crafts that can be found anywhere, with not much distinguishing one supplier from another. Today, I think artists are using textiles as a medium of self-expression, moving from craft and design to an art form.”

How Aditi Patwari's practice came to be

Charting the development of her own work, Patwari says she was drawn to the world of textiles from an early age. Growing up in India, surrounded by bright colours and patterns, she recalls being excited by the textures and fabrics in the markets and street shops.

But it was inside her own home where she was first exposed to the craft.

“I learned many sewing techniques from my mother and grandmother growing up,” the Kolkata-born artist says. “At that time, it was just a fun hobby and a way of spending quality time with family.”

Patwari began seeing textiles as a medium of expression after moving to the UK in 2014 to study art at Bournemouth University. Her intention, at first, was to become an illustrator, but during her foundation year she found out there was an entire specialisation in textiles. "And I never looked back,” she says.

Her style is fairly singular in its approach, as she prefers to use a mix of traditional techniques, including hand embroidery and paper-cutting, with modern technology, such as digital printing, laser cutting and etching.

“A work might use only one of these techniques or all of them,” she says. “It usually depends on the artwork and collection, as each one tells a different story and requires different levels of complexity.”

Much of Patwari’s textiles are inspired by her travels and the culture of the cities she visits, often exploring the juxtaposing ideas of history and modern-day.

“This constant play between the past and the present is reflected in the techniques I use. By weaving traditional and modern techniques together, I hope to be creating a new textile visual language that is reflective of today.”

A celebration of Dubai and Asia

During Ramadan this year, Patwari worked on a series of textile artworks inspired by the history and culture of Dubai, which eventually became part of her Dubai Darbaar collection. "It felt like the perfect time to show them, as the collection celebrates the cultural heritage as well as the innovative side of Dubai."

'Divine Harmony', part of Aditi Patwari's Dubai Darbaar collection

Though she made a considerable amount of these new works during the holy month, she began working on the initial pieces in the collection when she first moved to Dubai in 2016.

"I wanted to understand how to find my place in the city, so I began exploring it. I found myself in Old Dubai and was fascinated with the traditional architecture there. I was especially drawn to Al Fahidi, which remains one of my favourite places in the city.”

Patwari says that since Dubai is in continuous development, she is always finding new sources of inspiration around the city.

Meanwhile, her Bali Bohemia collection was inspired by a two-month solo backpacking trip she took last year across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

“I learned about many traditional textile techniques during my trip, such as batik, which is used in all three countries but in different ways. When I got back to Dubai, I channelled the experience into the collection.”

The artworks that comprise this collection are inspired by Balinese temple architecture and the Hindu philosophies behind them.

'Circle of Life 4', part of Aditi Patwari's Bali Bohemia collection

"[The collection] has a completely different look and feel to Dubai Darbaar, with new colours and forms. Instead of motifs, I am now playing with shapes and layers, which are an important part of architecture and interiors in Indonesian temples.

"The circle, for example, is a symbol of cyclic existence and rebirth, and it can be seen layered and repeated to create beautiful decorations around temples in Indonesia. This inspired the artwork Circle of Life in which I've layered circles in different colours and stitched them together to show the various cycles and events we go through in a single lifetime."

While the coronavirus pandemic has not greatly altered Patwari’s life, she has been doing more hand-embroidered work than usual.

“The repetitive motions are calming and meditative," she admits. "This has been a great source of comfort for me, mentally and spiritually, and I hope other creatives are also using their sources of self-expression at this time."

She has also been taking the time to promote and support other artists and designers, coaching them and featuring them on her blog, Dea Dubai.