an essay by Jill Magi accompanying the exhibition “The Weft in Pencil” at Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi
If painting and the desire for color crushes.
I wrote this noticeably incomplete sentence in my book SPEECH. Published in 2019, the book tumbles over continents, through imagined cities, through ideas of freedom and belonging, and toward a conclusion that yearns for a space beyond words. Feeling “logos over-/valued” I turned away from my writing desk toward painting and color. The works in this exhibition come from the “then” that is the exploration of a resolution to the conditional “if.”
As I went further into painting, I indulged in the pleasure of color and the viscosities of paint, conducting material research with as much rigor as I would research texts and language-based concepts. I charted out paint colors, how paints spread, and how they interacted with substrates of different kinds. With Tim Ingold’s essay “The textility of making” ringing in my ears, I set out to see if I could regard materials not as other to “idea,” but as entities with histories to learn from, and forces, as Ingold calls them, to join up with. What if painting was as much a system of knowledge as a corpus of texts and acts of interpretation?
But as I went further, I also found confusion.
What would my works, in the end, communicate to others? This question emerged with notable force as exhibition dates came closer. And as socio-political worlds of my own and those adjacent to me spun on axes of crisis, distrust, greed, illness, violence both subtle and overt, what would I communicate in these paintings—work perhaps made from a place of “inner rest,” as Etel Adnan has called her painting practice? I found myself in a state Cecilia Vicuña refers to as “the bright light of confusion and doubt.”
In the face of this, I continuously turned back to my studio in an attempt to trust the metabolism of artmaking, as painter Amy Sillman has called it: that research, confidence, doubt, intuition, pleasure, materials, actions, and the events of life are digested by the artwork. Energy emanates from this process, and from the work itself.
So far I have not talked about warp
and weft because they continue
to stun me. At the intersection
I pause, basking in the aura
of the grid.
These lines are from a poem I wrote in 2017, a year after learning how to weave. As I have explained elsewhere, weaving began, for me, after a terrible loss in my family. I sensed that sitting at the loom would soothe. And as I have also written before, my interest in weaving sprang from this one image I found one day while wandering through the university library stacks—of a North African indigo textile, anonymously made, likely woven as a sufi meditation, and constructed out of three strips of woven cloth where “allah” is repeated as a float weave.
When I randomly opened the book to this page, I found one of the most beautiful images I had ever seen. I wondered if weaving words was for me. From my writing practice I was familiar with the power of repetitive action: hand in motion, moving across the notebook, letting language emerge without necessarily knowing what it would become.
I had been living and working in Abu Dhabi for three years, and had written on the city as “textilic”—where repetition in the built landscape and in life ways seemed to regulate flows of tradition and innovation. I studied the city plan and its deviations, how pedestrians and mosques established a diagonal across this grid. I was thinking not only of Michel de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” but also of textile scholar Victoria Mitchell who describes spinning—pulling thread up and across the body in a diagonal motion—as the first act of marking space. I studied Bedouin weaving traditions and methods, and in Abu Dhabi architecture, I saw an echo of weaving’s geometric embellishments and stripes. The stripe of tent divider and stripe of apartment stories came together in my sense of what it meant to live here—where a line of poetry is also known, in Arabic, as a house, and where the storyteller pitches their tent at the start of the story.
Yet I wondered what to do with the cloth I made. I missed the structure of a strong edge: of page, of stretched canvas. So I came to embrace weaving as an action, an architecture. The cloth I wove was not an end in itself as the grid of warp and weft became the inspiration for a stack of quickly-made paintings on paper: pencil-drawn grids filled in with a cacophony of colors and stained to signal everyday use.
I then spread these grids out into the space of larger canvases stained with watercolors, as if embedding city blocks, paragraphs, and computer circuitry within the lively flows of people incapable of adhering to an official narrative of place.
Weaving taught me about an “other” grid—not the grid that western-world art historian Rosalind Kraus has famously articulated as the primary declaration of modernism in the arts. Rather, I became more keenly aware of an ancient and fundamental grid that was generative and that had asserted its aesthetic influence prior to the 20th century. I found, not surprisingly, that Bauhaus artists were inspired by West African and South American weaving. Drawn to these expandable grids of carefully-calculated weaves that also contain deviations, mis-alignments, and subtle breaks in pattern, I delved more deeply into a study of West African strip-weaving, where strips of cloth are sewn together, selvage to selvage.
This type of weaving practice revised what has been, for me, a seminal idea in the work of radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In the essay “1440: The Smooth and the Striated” they present textile models for thought and social organization, defining “striated space” as the space of the law, mapping, and regulations. It is also the space of weaving, where a surface is made through right angle intersections of thread and the cloth cannot extend beyond the width of the loom. In contrast, “smooth space” is the nomad’s space, the space of wildness, invention, vectors, and is modeled by felted cloth, where a surface is made by the agitation of fibers until they adhere and the surface spreads out in any direction.
I think of African strip-weaving as a hybrid space—both smooth and striated—where the limitations in the width of the loom become integral to a “smooth” design: narrow strips, when sewn together, make a distinct patterning. It continues on as long as there are strips to sew together. The loom’s width does not determine boundedness, and the weaver’s plan, no matter how hylomorphic or pre-planned, is revised by materials asserting themselves to make a syncopated, regular irregularity. As a poet, this hybridity appeals to me—I think of language as material and writing a poem as constructing a text that will always exceed the blueprint of the prose sentence. As literary scholar Kofi Anyidoho has pointed out, there is a long-standing relationship between drumming, singing, poetry, and weaving: a Ghanian poet is often called “weaver of words.”
In light of this, I asked: What if paintings, made through the same process of applying paint in stripes and checks, were placed next to each other allowing for alignments and deviations in pattern, both. The sequence could continue on and on! And yet another translation from African strip-weaving occurred in my work. I noticed many examples of cloth with unique patterns or colors in the center, framed by the grid around it. So I returned to the first canvases that came out of this investigation, and in the center of their assemblages, I placed an indecipherable word from my notebook—illegible, a mistake, yet carefully rendered and settled into the stability of the surrounding grid.
Not to decide
what is next to say
only recopy existing texts
to transmit the distance between
speech and power.
The above lines are also from SPEECH and refer to my writing practice of using lots of found text—to sneak up on myself and get out of my habits of expression, and to unsettle the ideas of singular authorship and literary talent. I am also interested in scribing-as-writing and have filmed myself copying out archival material by hand. What could it mean to apply this way of working to painting?
In the fall of 2021, I was looking for more ways to break the grids I had been working with. One day, daydreaming in my studio, I pulled a large-format book off of my shelf: Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book 1764. An illicit merchant’s book, confiscated at the English border because of trade protectionism and the luxury market’s disregard for those laws, I was completely taken by each double-page spread. It was a bounded space, and yet the combination of shapes and colors within was impossible to predict. I found it simultaneously repetitive and inventive. For years I had admired at old sample books, drawn to their yellowed pages and small bits of fabrics, feeling an affinity for such pages as a poet: blocks of color like stanzas, where “to read” is to touch and imagine fabric unfurled as yardage or shaped into a piece of clothing. So much potential!
This particular sample book would help me answer a question I had been asking: Where do abstract paintings come from? Unsatisfied with the psychological and expressive approaches of the American Abstract Expressionists, and thinking of BMPT painters—a 1960s Paris group, who worked with methods over expression—as well as non-western aesthetic traditions where intensification of image and abstract patterning had long been a respected mode, I decided to treat the book’s pages as templates for paintings. I enlarged its unruly grids, recreating the pages as abstractions, intensifications. I began by “drawing” lines in painter’s tape, finding ways to gently bend the tape just as a cloth merchant’s scissors never cut a perfectly straight line. I then filled these marked-off spaces with colors that approximated the fabrics pictured. I enjoyed working large and at a quick tempo. At the edges, I stained the canvases with watercolor in sepia tones, referring to the stained pages of an old book. Each painting became a facsimile of an ageing process, but I liked that they also felt brand new.
I continued working with the book and as I did, the handwritten notations that run up and down the edges of the pages began to ask for my attention. I wondered about the politics and ethics of my commitment to abstraction which included removing the book’s inscriptions. Unsure, I went further into study, and words like chiné, damask, persanne, Batavia, taffeta, and satin became legible to me. These words for types of fabric lead me, through etymological research, away from France and into China, Damascus, Persia, Indonesia, and through the Arabic-speaking world where textile practices had, for centuries, been far advanced of Europe. I scanned these words, enlarged them, traced them out with carbon paper onto stained canvases. Carefully painting each word, slowly, I felt I was inhabiting the hand of those merchants as well as the geographies and contours of trade, colonialism, commerce. Pried from the fabric pieces, the inscriptions were no longer footnotes, but marks claiming their own space.
There is something about handwriting—even in an archive of trade protectionism and colonial extraction—that, as Tim Ingold explains in his book Lines, keeps some of the truth of wayfaring, journeying, exchange, and relation alive. Ingold contrasts the handwritten line with typeset words, and, especially “the epitome of modern bureaucracy, the dotted line . . .” Within the series “A Textile Lexicon,” two works render a copy of this dotted line, marking the moment that the book became housed in a museum: the ultimate end of the line for a lively object. In the name of progress and education, modernity stamps the book, cataloguing it as an artifact of history as if contemporary neo-liberal violence does not continually flow from and return to our readings of this 18th century book.
As the exhibition-making process moved forward, questions on the “aboutness” of my work emerged during studio visits and accumulated in my notebook. Looking for a way to think through what I had made, but without over-thinking it, I turned to poetry. This time, to the work of Marjorie Welish, a poet and painter for whom textiles have always been important. I found . . .
“The Annotated ‘Here’”
The here of actual space, addressed
in face, to face
proximally yet aesthetically in pencil
like an eyelash
an eyelash addressing the canvas
And so forth.
“And so forth,” meaning “setting out”
reiteratively from the heartland.
The here throughout actual space addressing
your face essentially in pencil
like an eyelash acquainted with the canvas’s
And so forth.
“And so forth,” meaning “setting out”
reiteratively from the heartland.
The throughout weave
of face essentially
the weft in pencil
abstaining from canvas.
of focus and of setting out
permitted us this facility.
An exhibition does not want to be summarized. An artist hopes that what they have made exceeds an essay, an interpretation, and even the story of the works’ making. But if words can be an invitation to take another look, then this poem, embedded inside the story of my studio practice over the last year, is just that: an invitation to a disposition of openness.
If living life is like drawing a weft across the warp of the world we are born into, then Marjorie Welish’s poem suggests a “weft in pencil.” A delicate mark that may be erased, drawn again, re-fashioned. Not altogether permanent except for its motion back and forth, again and again, which feels like sitting at the loom: a “focus” that zooms in as cloth comes into being, “setting out” a brand new surface in front of the weaver. When I read this poem, I see the face of another, perhaps an exhibition visitor, who has left something of themselves behind—an eyelash shaped like a tiny comma. The canvas, a woven thing, now contains a remnant of the person who stops and looks, moves on, “and so forth.”
“The Annotated ‘Here’” appears in The Annotated “Here” and Selected Poems by Marjorie Welish, published by Coffee House Press in 2000. Gratitude to the publishers and to the poet for permission to reprint the poem in its entirety.