Learning from NYC

The symposium Learning From in New York explored what it means to take cultural artifacts and inscribe them within a new context, whether by nineteenth century ethnographic museums, avant-garde artist, in teaching collections, or contemporary art projects. Specifically, the symposium looked at questions of appropriation and “learning from” in the work of Bauhaus émigrés and their students in the United States, who throughout their respective careers collected a wide range of materials indigenous to the Americas. We investigated these histories in terms of contemporary debates about indigeneity and appropriation, which have looked at the illegality of European collecting practices, investigated the terminology used in describing archiving and showing indigenous artifacts in museums, as well as being responsible for pushing questions of restitution. 

Prior to the symposium, a group of artists, designers, curators and art historians—including Brenda Danilowitz, Cécile R. Ganteaume, Kathleen Mangan, Cecilia Vicuña, Erin Freedman, Sebastian de Line, Marion von Osten, Virginia Gardener Troy, Elissa Auther, Elvira Espejo, Annette Schryen, Luiza Poenca and myself—toured museums archives and studios around New York, examining and discussing a variety of materials, ranging from Mesoamerican artefacts to the work of the mid-century artists who found inspiration in these collections. Institutions visited included the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History, the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

Symposium bauhaus imaginista: Learning From, New York, © Daniel Albanese.

To consider practices of cultural appropriation at the Bauhaus, is not to point the finger at the Bauhauslers. While in the early twentieth century arguments against ethnographic exhibitions did indeed exist, including the charge of imperialism—such as a leftist critique of the Paris exhibition coloniale of 1931, the discourse and activism around questions of cultural appropriation and restitution were not as developed as today. While Bauhauslers admired works from outside the modernist mainstream, using these to contest European classicism and question the division between the “high” and “low” art, they neither expressed nor took into account the sometimes violent and illegitimate appropriation of cultural goods or the social, economic, and political disruption of European colonialism. The aims of Learning From focused on the gaps in histories of study and collecting, adopting the perspective of communities from whom such materials were sourced—including arguments for the repatriation of artifacts, discussions of the use and context of objects in their original setting, and the wider impacts of European colonialism.

From the beginning, the Bauhaus aligned itself with a broader modernist tendency to study cultural practice from outside the European mainstream. This included studying African sculpture, Indian temple architecture, Andean textiles, North American woodcarving and European folk tradition: intentions that can be gleaned from perusing the titles of books held by the Bauhaus library in Weimar, such as Cultures of the world: material and the cultural and art history of all people, by Ernst Fuhrmann, from 1922 a series as well as individual titles on the abovementioned topics. They also had access to the enormous holdings of ethnographic artefacts in German museum, such as the Berlin Museum Voelkerkunde, which at the time of the Bauhaus owned 7500 Andean textile pieces, many of which had been excavated in the 1850s by Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stuebel in the Ancón district of northern Lima province.

Virginia Gardne Troy at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

In her symposium presentation, Virginia Gardner Troy showed photographs of such expeditions, including one where archaeologists hold a mummy interred and hacked apart in order to salvage the most ornate elements of its textile wrappings. Trophies such as these ended up in European collections and, hence, into the orbit of the Bauhaus. As Gardner Troy pointed out, they were extremely important for the weaving workshop, which emerged from the “women’s class,” becoming one of the Bauhaus’s most productive and successful workshops, although what was drawn from these textiles shifted over time from the “woven pictures” of the early workshop, with their folkish use of Andean motifs—including geometric forms, fish and birds—to the more complex utilization of double and multi-ply woven structures based on Inca techniques and the simple modernity of geometric checkerboard designs influenced by Inca tunics of the late 1920s. What is perhaps most interesting about the relationship the women’s class created to ancient textiles was how the knowledge gleaned was integrated into processes of design innovation, retrieving something from the past for use in contemporary culture.

Elissa Auther at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

In the aftermath of the school’s closure, Bauhaus émigrés to the United States included the weavers Anni Albers, Marli Ehrman and Trude Guermonprez (who had studied with Benita Otte in Germany and later worked with Albers at Black Mountain College). Between 1935 and 1967 Albers traveled extensively in Central and South America with husband Josef Albers, studying and collecting both ancient artifacts and contemporary crafts. Now able to make more direct contact with Pre-Columbian culture than that afforded by library books and museum collections, the pair entered a context in which enthusiasm for Mesoamerican artifacts was well established. Elsewhere her article “Andean Weaving and the Appropriation of the Ancient Past in Modern Fibre Art” in this Online Journal, Elissa Auther has noted that far from being spontaneous, this interest was promoted by inter-governmental programs, sponsored archaeological digs, increased tourism to Latin America and, critically, the work of the American Museum of Natural History (AMHA), which, beginning in 1915, promoted its historic textiles collections as part of a concerted program of design reform, using study rooms, exhibitions, lectures and publications detailing textile traditions of the Americas.

Famously, Anni Albers dedicated her book On weaving “to my great teachers the weavers of ancient Peru.” Among the works Albers’ chose as representative of world weaving cultures is Dark River (1961) by American artist Lenore Tawney: the inclusion of Tawney’s spare, minimal wall hanging in the book is evidence of the link between émigré Bauhaus weavers and American fiber art movement, which emerged out of the tapestry scene in the in early 1960s as a challenge to preconceptions and prejudice contemporary fine art evinced towards textile art. Bauhaus weavers had struggled to dignify their medium in the face of gendered prejudice at the school and this younger generation was able to build on their achievements. Fiber artists in the United States had privileged access to this legacy thanks to the many Bauhaus weavers teaching in American schools, as well as the extensive Bauhaus collections housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. As Mildred Constantine and Jack Lennor Larson point out in their seminal book Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric (1973), while Bauhaus weavers were oriented towards utility, at the same time they “glorified the expression of material and structure,”1 both of which were privileged attributes of 1960s fiber art. (T'ai Smith has argued that photographs used to promote Bauhaus textiles, which magnify structure and texture, helped to emphasize this aspect of the school’s textile tradition. Along with a well-formulated philosophy of weaving and organized system of teaching—including a balance between aesthetic and technical instruction and creative experimentation—in their published writings, Bauhaus weavers also created a textile discourse, possibly for the first time in European history. Talking about his personal collection of historic books on textiles and work with the Centre for Social Research on Old Textiles (CSROT), Seth Seigelaub noted that until the twentieth century such books, while beautiful and often elaborate, were essentially illustrated instruction manuals.)

A central objective for Constantine and Larson, was to elevate the status of textiles within the arts. An important precedent here was the notional equality at the Bauhaus between fine art and craft, and the authors quote Walter Gropius—who was of the opinion that theoretically weaving enjoyed parity with the other disciplines—to this effect. In this respect, more than simply providing prototype forms and techniques, Bauhaus weavers’ inspiration from Andean textiles imbued weaving with an aura of gravitas handed down, as it were, from the past. The reading of Inca culture offered by Albers and others afforded weaving a high status; for its symbolic role in uniforms, sacrificial offerings and mummy wrappings, as well as its communicative function in a society without written language. Aside from the Albers, both Lenore Tawney, and Sheila Hicks made the pilgrimage to Latin America to reorient their practice and to some extent invent a new kind of mid-twentieth century textile art. Like her teacher Josef Albers, Hicks took along her camera, while Tawney produced diaries, sketchbooks and photographs, and collected a range of textile fragments, dolls, pots, small figures, feathers and beads. We saw these as a group at the Tawney Foundation, alongside Raoul d’ Harcourt’s Textiles of Ancient Peru and their Techniques (1934), which was required reading for weavers. The foundation’s Executive Director, Kathleen Mangan, showed us this book, along with the collection of materials Tawney brought back from Latin America.

Elvira Espejo at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

In the Andean Science of Weaving, Elvira Espejo and Denise Y. Arnold cite the importance of d’ Harcourt’s Textiles of Ancient Peru and their Techniques, along with other books produced in Europe and the United States that provide a scholarly account of different aspects of textile production found in the Andes, including Irene Emery’s The Primary Structure of Fabrics (1966) and Anne Pollard Rowe’s Double Warp Patterned Weaves (1977). Both authors point out that a feature of these and other studies dating from the late nineteenth century forward was, being predominantly in French and English, they brought to bear textile terminology from those cultures and traditions rather than the terms and the ethos of Andean weaving communities who have maintained and developed their textile traditions into the present day. (In conversation with our researcher from Sao Paulo, Luiza Proença, Espejo described these textile cultures in detail as part of our public symposium.) In The Andean Science of Weaving the authors distinguish between two different ways to understand textiles: a museological approach that alongside historical context and formal characteristics emphasizes ancient textiles’ status as objects of care and custodianship (stressing preservation requirements and placement within classificatory systems); the other predominating viewpoint is to see them, as Tim Ingold does, as “things” entangled in social practices.

Candice Hopkins at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

Cecilia Vicuña at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

Espejo and Arnold describe how in Andean terminology textiles are considered corporeal—three-dimensional living beings with the capacity to animate relations between people and groups. Treating textiles as a living element can be seen in the installations and performances of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, going back to the late 1960s. Her approach, a combination of poetic, conceptual and crafted elements, is steeped in the study of indigenous textiles and women’s handicraft traditions, and has often deployed textiles as an intervention into politically charged spaces, where through haptic, allegorical and spatial implications they suggest possible new forms of association. When she spoke of “the event of the thread,” Anni Albers was similarly describing textile’s living element, of the weft moving in an and out of the warp, and the contingent decision-making instantiated in woven fabric. Like Albers, Vicuña’s work deals with textiles as a form of writing, with reference to their communicative role in Andean culture, and a recurring motif for her is the Quipu (as shows an Interview of Sabrina Gschwandtner with Cecilia Vicuña in this Online Journal)—a system of knotted colored threads with a semantic function that were used for inventory, record-keeping as well as possibly serving as a method of storytelling.

For her contribution to the symposium Vicuña connected the audience using long strands of felted material, draped, recounting histories of European colonial conquest and extraction/expropriation in the Americas while doing so—including the collecting of ancient artifacts we had discussed earlier that day (earlier in the day, the previous day, etc.). Sometimes this took the form of barter, at other times belongings were taken by force. A North American example of the latter was recounted in Candice Hopkins’ article “The Golden Potlatch. Study in Mimesis and Capitalist Desire” in this Online Journal, who described how the potlach ceremonial practice found among Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest was adopted between 1911 and 1914 by the city of Seattle as a marketing tool. The inconvenient backstory to these events is that they occurred while under the assimilationist policies of the United States and Canada such ceremonies were being banned (until respectively in 1934 and 1951)—with works seized from potlach ceremonies broken up by the authorities found their way into the ethnographic collections of both private individuals and state institutions.

Sebastian de Line and Erin Freedman at the symposium in New York, © Daniel Albanese.

Following our visit to the archives of the American Museum of Natural History, I walked with Sebastian de Line through the galleries. In the Hall of the Eastern Woodlands, he pointed out several of the objects on display, noting instances of misrepresentation or labeling. As de Line recounts in his article “Weaving Refelctions” in this journal, more disturbing than these curatorial oversights was the fact that the galleries dedicated to the belonging of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples were situated next to to display cabinets exhibiting stuffed primates. For him this only reinforces the urgency of the need for Indigenous histories to be told from an “Indigenous perspectives, thus correcting an ethnographic methodology which continues to exhibit the cultures of people of color as objects without self-determination, agency or subjecthood.”2 In the bauhaus imaginista, catalogue the art historian Susanne Leeb makes something of a similar point, describing the cultural appropriations practiced at the Bauhaus as “an ambivalent affair to say the least,”3 because, while it prompted an interest in the arts and artifacts of other societies, it did so using an approach privileging form over materiality, object-ness over social context, aesthetics over historicity. She goes on to identify how this kind of framing has since been disrupted by Indigenous and decolonizing movements who demand restitution and institutional restructuring, so that today discussions around native histories are compelled to take such movements into account.

  • 1 Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, Beyond Craft: the Arts Fibre, Kodansha International, Tokyo 1986, p. 20.
  • 2 Sebastian de Line, „Weaving Reflections. On Museology and the Rematriation of Indigenous Beings from Ethnological Collections, article in this Online Journal: (accessed 25 February 2019).
  • 3 Susanne Leeb, "Books on World Art from the 1920s: On the Ambivalence of a Discursive Awakening", in: Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, bauhaus imaginista, Thames and Hudson, London 2019, p. 110.
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