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Weaving the Fabrics of Feminism: Louise Bourgeois’ Woven Child

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

By Emma Louise Donnelly

@emmasugarlouise


Installation view of 'Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child' at Hayward Gallery, 2022. © The Easton Foundation/DACS, London and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mark Blower/© The Hayward Gallery.

If you are someone who has not yet come across Louise Bourgeois and her artistic practice, you are in for a treat. I am sure those of you who are more familiar with her work will agree that Bourgeois is one of those artists whom you wish you could experience for the first time over and over again. Encountering her artwork through a fresh perspective is something truly special, however confronting her practice through a more familiar lens, with an established understanding of her practice and life, takes the value of her work to another level. Either way, I am yet to meet someone who does not respect her work in some measure. She was an impressive artist, to say the least.


Notoriously multifaceted, the late Louise Bourgeois’ artwork never fails to tackle confrontational narratives with a very straightforward approach.

Her practice was confessional, autobiographical, honest, and timeless, all of these qualities were in abundance in her latest exhibition, ‘The Woven Child’. The Hayward Gallery in London focussed exclusively on Bourgeois’ fabric and textile works, and the collection was the first major retrospective of its kind to be on display. The exhibition ran from 9th February until 15th May, 2022.


The textile pieces, also referred to as ‘fibre art’, featured within ‘Woven Child’ allows us to discuss Bourgeois’ feminist impulses. To put it simply, bigoted ideologies of femininity have long confined women artists to private domestic spheres like the ‘home’. This excluded women from access to institutional training and the grand narrative of Western art, amongst a whole plethora of other things. Therefore, utilitarian and domestic crafts like quilting, embroidery, tapestry, and needlework, were often considered to be inherently ‘feminine’. Needlework especially held great significance in the historical relationship between women and the domestic sphere, as it has long been used as a means of indoctrinating women and girls into the European feminine ideal, upholding the ideology of femininity and domesticity.

That being said, it is important to mention that the private domestic spaces in which women created needlework art pieces were primarily separated from male presence.


Installation view of 'Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child' at Hayward Gallery, 2022. © The Easton Foundation/DACS, London and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mark Blower/© The Hayward Gallery.


This makes it an ideal subject matter for feminist enquiry into women’s lived experience, giving us a true insight into what it means to be a woman artist.

So, although textiles can be a reminder of women’s oppression under patriarchal systems, fibre art also carries its own rich culture, one specific to the artistic her-story of womanhood. Supported by this powerful reclamation and defiance, fabric work also brings attention to the domestic as a site of creativity and renovation. Once ridiculed and undervalued within male-dominated visual arts, fibre art has been reimagined and cultivated by feminist creatives since the 1970s. Textiles have opened up new avenues for artists to experiment with formerly neglected materials, artists such as Louise Bourgeois.



Installation view of 'Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child' at Hayward Gallery, 2022. © The Easton Foundation/DACS, London and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mark Blower/© The Hayward Gallery.


From her monumental fabric installations to her delicate needlework, Bourgeois has certainly reclaimed these materials. Not only that, I think she has developed fibre art in a way to use it to her advantage, almost weaponising it with even more meaning.


Bourgeois has represented women’s resistance to and subversion of male dominance through domestic textiles, furthering the feminist tenet ‘the personal is political’ by making visible connections between personal lived experience and the political sphere through her artistic practice.

Bourgeois often used her own belongings, like clothes, to create artistic architectural forms from personal experiences. This was a way to introduce items from her life, enhancing the ideas of the personal becoming political, and the embracing of domestic spaces. By building her own architecture, she created her own scale. So, even if the sculptures were displayed in a large space like at the Hayward Gallery, the viewer would still enter a closed, personal world where everything is confined. The ‘Woven Child’ exhibition brought to light that she was a very formally inventive artist and her vision is consistent, regardless of scale, imagery or material.



Installation view of 'Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child' at Hayward Gallery, 2022. © The Easton Foundation/DACS, London and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mark Blower/© The Hayward Gallery.


It is said that Bourgeois was not particularly interested in the exhibition process. Her assistant and life-long friend Jerry Gorovoy has said that she made what she wanted to and expressed what she wanted to express, without caring too much about how people viewed her work, as other perceptions were out of her control. I think this is what gave her work unimpressionable access to her unconscious and is what made the exhibition so honest. Her aim was never to preach, she was purely focused on trying to understand herself and portray her experience through her work. I believe this is why her practice resonates with so many people, especially women, because we have a sort of shared experience and understanding of what it means to be a woman; a bond of sisterhood and trauma.


Louise Bourgeois was an artist who was genuinely unapologetic, confrontational, notoriously honest, and had an unflinching willingness to admit her vulnerabilities. I think we could learn a thing or two from her philosophies, to be less afraid of how others perceive us and live authentically as ourselves without judgement.


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