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How textiles create
connections across cultures

Lesley Millar MBE, Director of UCA’s International Textile Research Centre at UCA, discusses her work bringing together textiles from across the globe.

09 Apr 2021

Textural space by Kyoko Kumai (exhibition by Lesley Millar)

Maker to curator

During her career, Millar has curated 14 exhibitions that have attracted an estimated 820,000 visitors across six countries. She made the step from maker to curator in 1996, when she was invited to present and talk about her work at the Maidstone Gallery. She ended up presenting not only her own work but that of contemporaries who were unable to attend on the day. Through this unplanned exercise, she discovered that she had a talent for bringing textile works to life through her words, and was subsequently invited by the gallery to create an exhibition of issue-based textiles by an international cohort of artists.

A portrait of Lesley Millar MBE

Crossing cultures and eras

Millar’s ability to place contemporary and historic textile works in dialogue with each other has become a distinguishing mark of her work that has influenced and enhanced curatorial and critical practice. In Erotic Cloth, a three-year research project by Millar and fellow textile professor Alice Kettle from Manchester Metropolitan University, cloth is explored as an erotic substrate and surface. The research sees Millar and Kettle act as detectives, examining the use of cloth in sculpture and paintings, and using it to reveal additional layers of information about the subjects’ statuses and stories. “For instance,” Millar explains, “in Titian’s 16th-century oil painting Bacchus and Ariadne, the textiles help form the narrative. Bacchus leaps from his chariot, pulling away from the cloth wrapping around him, leaving it only partially covering his hips, drawing attention to his genitals. At the same time, Ariadne’s silk falls from her upper torso — in both cases, the cloth indicates the erotic encounter that is about to unfold.”

A Vivienne Westwood suit

Vivienne Westwood: Fabric Touch and Identity © Compton Verney, photography Jamie Woodley

The project resulted in a book of the same name, and later developed into a playful and provocative exhibition at Compton Verney entitled Fabric: Touch & Identity. Featuring important historical works as well as newly commissioned textile works by artists from several cultures — including an oil painting by Joshua Reynolds from 1782 and a Vivienne Westwood suit made in 1980 — the showcase invited visitors to ponder the use of cloth and the way it can seduce, conceal and reveal.

Exploring space

Exploring textiles as architectural interventions is another strand that ties Millar’s work together. She works very closely with venues, often asking artists to respond to the physical spaces that the work is displayed in. For her seminal 2001 show Textural Space, 13 exceptional textile artists from Japan explored the link between art, design and architecture through monumental site-specific works made from unexpected materials such as woven steel, fishing wire and polypropylene. Each piece was developed as a personal response to a particular place.

Building communities

Consistently praised for her unique ability to bring together textile artists from diverse cultures and enable them to exchange ideas, Millar says that people are at the heart of everything that she does. Her favourite aspect of the job is the interaction with the artists and the various communities that form around her work. “Although I’m always looking for new artists, I do have a group that I have worked with more than once who I’ve built up very strong relationships with,” she explains. “I also really believe in involving students in all the things that I do, whether it’s by showcasing their work in an exhibition or working with them to put books together. It’s really important.”

Weaving new narratives

Tying all of the various strands of her work together, Millar is currently working on a book proposal called For the Record: Cloth and the threads of communication. Working with Alice Kettle, she hopes to explore how textiles cross cultures, boundaries, borders and disciplines.