Exhibition review: A Soft Touch, 4A

A rich and nuanced exhibition that looks at the medium of contemporary textiles within an Asian diaspora and cultural heritage.

Textiles are having a moment. Well, it’s not as though they slipped totally out of mind; rather it’s more a case of a recent synchronicity of exhibitions that has led to a groundswell of thinking about textiles with a renewed contemporary lens.

Among those exhibitions is A Soft Touch, curated by Sophia Cai for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. It is a really great fit with the organisation, given the richness and depth of the medium within an Asian diaspora and cultural heritage. It is a fabulous reminder of the material’s origins, but also its capacity for reinvention as an agent for today’s most pressing topics.

‘I wanted to bring together a group of artists whose works challenge Eurocentric art, historical narratives and traditions of textiles,’ writes Cai, adding the two ‘Us’ – “underappreciated” and “undervalued” – are still very real when considering the textile medium.

Case in point, visitors are greeted by Wadawurrung woman, Kait James’ piece, Life’s pretty shitty without a Treaty (2020) before entering the upper gallery. In a twist (literally) on the favoured snack, James uses a needling technique to punch into souvenir tea towels that usurp Aboriginal motifs and imagery. It is a smart, fun and pointy piece. Deeper into the exhibition space, Invaders, game over (2019) and Lucky Country (2021) continue James’ conversation; she’s an interesting artist to watch.

Detail Kait James, ‘Life’s pretty shitty without a Treaty’ (2020). Photo: ArtsHub.

James’ work is positioned alongside a newly commissioned textile work of scale by Anney Bounpraseuth. The Garden of Life and Living (2023) is a whopping 427 x 300 centimetres narrative work created from salvaged fabrics. An ex-Jehovah’s witness of Laotian heritage, Bounpraseuth creates work that configures a present day paradise of “crappliques” – a term she uses to describe a post-traumatic response to spiritual abuse. She layers that with her own style of cultural aesthetic clashings – ‘Cabracadabra’ – to describe growing up in the Asian neighbourhood of Cabramatta (in Sydney’s west) where inexpensive fabric shops rub shoulders with discount stores and cheap eats.

Her work dismantles hierarchies, and uses its everyday connection to create pathways for new thinking. What I love about it is its scope to reimagine paradise in our times, finding its own nuances and complexities that speak of Australia in this century.

The exhibition moves from wall-based works like those of James and Bounpraseuth, to exploring textiles within space, most obviously in a reference to garments and the histories they carry – such as with Andrew Chan’s mohair and alpaca dress-cum-armour, It’s you Miss Hua. We also see that shift with Siying Zhou Untitled (a double sided flag), 2020, which points to emblematic heraldry and its unique symbolism.

Many of the artists, like Zhou, work across mediums, deconstructing the silos within which textiles sit. All artists exhibited speak to the complexities of identity, be they gender-based, diasporic or just rooted in materials’ heritage. Seeing them side-by-side in a contemporary context underscores their richness.

Zhou’s piece on one side is an Australian national flag made from silk with Chinese ornamental patterns and with the other implying the assimilation process imposed on the Chinese. She has two other wall-based works in the exhibition, which sit alongside Haneen Mahmood Martin, a Malay-Saudi artist whose works speak about the precarity of memory.

Another great example of this is Yasbelle Kerkow’s pandanus work, Our inheritance, 2019. While sitting ajar slightly in terms of aesthetic, it draws on her Fijian heritage and activist interests around climate change and Melanesian solidarity.

Her woven mats are wall-mounted and bear veiqia – Fijian women’s tattoo designs that connect clan to the environment. Culturally rich, another eye-catching work in this exhibition is that of Paula do Prado, who draws on her African Bantu-Kongo, Iberian and Charruan ancestral heritage. She is a first generation migrant, and describes herself as ‘a non-Indigenous brown woman navigating Australian society and its ongoing and problematic colonial history’.

Installation view Soraya Abidin, ‘Guardians of Wellbeing’ (2020), 4A Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: ArtsHub.

Although her work is highly personal and autobiographical, it oscillates between playful and tragic ambiguity to reference universal human preoccupations with belonging, as well as cultural and gender identity. It has a nice connection with the work in the downstairs gallery window by Soraya Abidin, titled Guardians of Wellbeing (2020). In this, Abidin combines Peranakan glass beads with Swiss straw and Asian silks. It material use speaks to her interest in ‘what bicultural identity might look like’, calling on textiles traditions across geographies and cultures as a unifying space for storytelling and cultural expression.

Read: Exhibition review: Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Wollongong Art Gallery

Abidin describes this piece as a shamanic headdress, referencing her Malaysian heritage and animist traditions of spiritual healers – ‘its two faces allowing it to switch identities across cultural boundaries’. Similarly, we could hold textiles in that same revered space that allows multiple, while simultaneous, dialogues speaking both to the past and the present in renewed and fresh ways.

This is a great exhibition, and should not be missed.

A Soft Touch
1 July – 13 August 2023
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina