Tangled Art: Point of Origin

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Point of Origin is the second show to grace the walls at Toronto’s new disability-focused Tangled Art Gallery. Sandra Alland explores artist and poet melannie g campbell’s complex and accessible multimedia textile exhibition.

photo of multi-coloured textile hanging on a wall

‘self portrait, present’, melannie g campbell. Photo by Sandra Alland)

Point of Origin, melannie g campbell‘s stellar new exhibition, features eleven new textile works and a small shrine. Campbell melds the personal and political, literally displaying how the two are inextricably interwoven. Through both abstract patterns and concrete images, the artist deeply and playfully examines their intersecting black, disabled, chronically ill, genderqueer and queer identities.

They ask questions about family, unchosen and chosen. They trace the connections and disconnection between the stars we are born under, the decisions we make, and the decisions made for us by trauma, capitalism and Western medicine. Campbell responds, in multiple and fascinating ways, to the idea that every pain has a direct source.

True to its disability mandate, Tangled Art Gallery provides step-free access via ramp, automatic doors into the space, all pieces hung at accessible height, audio description on mp3 players, a scent-free environment, American Sign Language interpreting at live events, relaxed hours, and a large-print sign of campbell’s artist statement. Campbell also contributes two touchable artworks and a booklet of printed poetry.

Campbell’s form and style range from embroidered tapestry to woven multimedia portrait, from traditional to contemporary and afro-futuristic. The six-piece portrait series, ‘ancestors’, evokes the personality of the artist and their chosen lineage through colour, texture, pattern and the occasional idiosyncratic accent note subtly woven into the fibre of each portrait: Audre Lorde has a pair of spectacles, Jean-Michel Basquiat has pieces of a miniature police car, June Jordan has three broken pencils. The portraits are 3D by nature of their materials (wool, cotton, wood), and in the case of two self-portraits, touchable. These aspects create a sense of intimacy and approachability.

photo of multi-coloured textile work hanging against a white painted brick wall

‘self portrait, as ancestor’, melannie g campbell, gallery still of work while in progress on loom

There are many striking elements: the sheer skill of campbell’s weaving and stitching; the manner in which they use colour, texture and stitched words to evoke emotion; their subtle examination of the complexity of non-binary gender and ‘craft practices and fem-gendered histories’; and, perhaps most notably, the way the works speak directly to their intended audiences without explanation for those not part of one or several of the artist’s communities.

With ‘black. matter. excellence.’, you have to approach closely to discover the many embroidered names that accompany small, bright, geometric patterns. The names are stitched in black floss into the blackish-purple tapestry: Sandra Bland, Philandro Castle, Alton Sterling. Campbell does not explain who the people are, or why they are personally important. Similarly, in the gorgeous tapestry ‘Running Late’, the artist does not give a lesson in Spoon Theory for those who might not know it.

Instead, campbell leaves it to each visitor to make connections to Black Lives Matter, research names of black people who have died at the hands of police, or interpret a brown and gold tapestry into which they have sewn wooden spoons in the shape of clock faces. Some people will get the references immediately; others will miss them or feel compelled to seek further knowledge.

These are not impenetrable pieces. They resonate on many levels, and any audience can create meaning for their rich textures. Yet campbell also speaks directly to the intended black, genderqueer, ‘spoonie’ and/or crip audience in a caring and sometimes secret way, offering a sense of communion despite not being physically present. It doesn’t matter if others don’t understand the full meaning. In fact, it matters that they don’t. Campbell forefronts the lives of queer, black, disabled people in a rare and deeply moving way.

If you want to dig deeper, printed text of poems written by campbell in response to the textiles are available onsite. Their trademark style of evocative wordsmithery adds another level to the works that embrace you on all sides – inviting you to contemplate them anew, to feel their scratchy softness again, and to reconsider your impressions armed with more backstory.

Campbell is an artist to follow, and these are pieces to spend time with. They convey a balance of urgency and fun that’s unusual in textile work, and it’s a privilege to dwell among their beautifully complex constellations. Ask the gallery volunteers for a chair if you want one. Sit or stand in the open space and breathe in the smell of natural fibres, touch the contours of these unique works, drink them in while you can.

Continues until September 15th at Tangled Art Gallery, 401 Richmond Street West, Toronto, Ground Floor, Studio 122. Free.