May 21, 2014

Textiles, Women's Liberation, Ugly and Nice - An Interview with Elisabeth Haarr

Textiles, Women's Liberation, Ugly and Nice - An Interview with Elisabeth Haarr


Hold Stenhårdt Fast På Greia Di - Norwegian Art and Feminism 1968-89 closed on April 27, but the themes of the exhibition live on. We talked to Elisabeth Haarr, one of the artists in the show, about the history of textile art, women's rights, and her works Frustrasjonsteppe (Frustration Rug) and Trendsetter. As an artist, Elisabeth Haarr has been emphasising that the production and the understanding of textile works has been based on craft and materiality rather than the profoundly pictorial. In keeping with early weavers, she continues to regard textile art as a mistreated art form lacking recognition, given limited space in museums and of which the experimental methods are, all but omitted from art teaching.

At Kunsthall Stavanger, you gave a very interesting lecture about the history of textile art, and its important role throughout history. It is a fact that textile work as art and craft has been looked down upon, as "women's work", both in general and in the art world. This is something that you explore in your art. Could you say something about this?

Women have played an important role as textile manufacturers from the very beginning. How would we as a species have been able to survive if the hunters had no clothes on their bodies? How would we have found shelter if Bedouin women had not woven tents? Leiv Eriksson had not made it to America without the women's sails. The fishermen could never have survived at sea in open boats without «båtryer» (boatrugs). And what ingenuity! Consider the discovery of silk fiber, linen, and fig bark. Or the use of wool. The story is infinitely large and long. It is actually as long as human history, from the time we got up to stand on two legs - and textile work has always been women's work.

Textiles also represent a universal language, because we have always been doing the same type of textile work across geography, culture and time. Thus textiles speak directly to us, and in a different way than, say, a painting. In this sense one can say that the textile is similar to music; it goes right in. This is interesting when working as a contemporary textile artist, but also when you consider that textile works have been overlooked by the art world. This has to do with its feminine associations, of course. It may also have something to do with exclusivity, because tapestries have the ability to be modern and experimental - and still be popular. Which is a problem since in the visual arts, art objects are expected to be exclusive. But this is another story.

In relation to this it is interesting to look at how textile has been treated in the arts - and in arts education. The story about your rug with the yellow stripe is a good example.

When I started at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oslo, our headmaster Håkon Stenstadvold held a speech where he told us that only 2% of us were going to succeed as artists. He was therefore very happy for us students in the Textile Department, as it meant that there would at least be many beautiful homes. It literally made me enraged - and I promised myself to never give up.

Kjellaug Hølaas, my dear textile professor, was a strong and knowing lady. She started the Textile Department after the war, partly financed with her private funds. Crafts and history were in focus, and there were many rules to follow, including the rule of the harmonic. To create something provocative or ugly was prohibited. I made a floor rug that was going to be in an exhibition in Gothenburg. The rug was dark and yellow - the middle section was a broad lemon yellow stripe. We had big discussions about this yellow stripe. Mrs. Hølaas insisted that if the rug was to be included in the exhibition the stripe had to be shortened so it didn't divide the rug into two halves, as this was not harmonic. Eventually I gave in. The next day I went on a school trip to Italy, and while I was away Mrs. Hølaas and our weaving teacher shortened the stripe. A volatile job! They worked day and night to split the tightly woven floor rug in half, remove the stripe and knock the carpet together again. On the trip I regretted the decision, and wrote to Mrs. Hølaas, but the carpet was already changed and she became very upset.

We had many great discussions while I was in school. One of the discussions was about precisely this – if we were to be allowed to create textiles that were ugly. When Mrs. Hølaas turned 75, an exhibition was organized with her and her students. For the exhibition I made a paraphrase over the rug with the yellow stripe. This time, I used woven plastic, with a narrow yellow stripe made from silk. In addition, I wove big letters across the rug: Ugly Ugly .

Elisabeth Haarr, Frustrasjonsteppe (Frustration Rug), 1982. Strings, diaper bags, grocery bags. Courtesy the artist and Kunsthall Stavanger. Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen.

Frustrasjonsteppe (Frustration Rug) from 1982 was included in Stenhårdt Hold Fast På Greia Di. You were a mother of three young children at the time, and wove the carpet from what you had available at home, such as twine, diaper bags and shopping bags. The following big lettered words are woven across the rug; HOUSE - HOME - CHILDREN - CLEAN - ALONE – ALONE. Your frustration is still very much present in the work. 

The carpet is my frustration with being a housewife; the isolation, and being unable to work. The fight to get away from the kitchen sink was something we fought for during many years. The right to work, earn money and to take advantage of the talents one might have. In 1982, with three small children, I experienced this struggle myself. I have always had children while working as an artist - it is a good thing - but there and then I experienced it as an obstacle, like most other women at the time.

Creating a housewife's frustration rug and not a poster entails several things. There is textile and there is rug - which are women's stuff. If I had made a poster, it would not have been such a strong expression. Since the work is woven, the time spent making it will forever be present in the work. It emphasizes the importance of my story. That's that.

Elisabeth Haarr, Portrett av en Trendsetter (Portrait of a Trendsetter), 1986, fabrics, mirrors, strings, rods. 400 x 600 cm. Courtesy the artist and Kunsthall Stavanger. Photo by Erik Sæter Jørgensen.

The installation Trendsetter from 1986 was also included in the exhibition – this work holds a very different story.

That's right. The 80's led to major changes in what people were concerned about. Politically, the 80's were Thatcher and Reagan's years. Words like solidarity and we were replaced by me and my. Even selfishness. Stock speculation. Soap operas took over our television screens. There were big changes at work - professions like typography were virtually wiped out and we had high unemployment. We wore clothes that were long, wide and with huge shoulder pads - and poodle hairstyles! The TV presenters went from being pretty discreet to become protagonists. Feminism became very uncool.

Trendsetter is my reaction to the self-infatuation and fakery that the 80's brought with it. It is a portrait of an actual TV presenter who led a popular TV entertainment program in Norway. She had previously been a very prolific feminist, but now she was talking nonsense in an empty TV program filled with glitter and gloss. Ugh! Therefore, all materials in the work are artificial, and I put mirrors underneath to emphasize the self-infatuation.

What are your thoughts about Hold Stenhårdt Fast På Greia Di, and all the positive interest the exhibition and artworks have received in 2013-14?

It's amazing! I'm especially thrilled about the many young people who have visited the show. It is proof that there is fresh interest for women's rights and social issues in general. For us old folks it has been incredibly inspiring to put a spotlight on all the great work that was done during the period the exhibition is about. I believe that the exhibition has been encouraging to both artists and visitors of our generation, because it is a reminder of all the fun and important work that was done.

Every generation must do things their own way. But it is important to pay attention to the history, to realize that you are part of a long chain. It is also important to remember that this exhibition is only a tiny piece of what was made by female artists at the time, which is something that the curators Eline Mugaas and Elise Storsveen empathize when talking about the project. That these two young artists chose to focus on us old folks has been a whole separate recognition.

For me personally it has been a great pleasure to be treated properly as an artist, which is not always the case. It has also given me courage to continue my work and hopefully continue to be brave. For this is what it is about: courage. Speaking with my own voice, raising the issues that I think are interesting, and expanding on ways to express myself.

Thank you Elisabeth! Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes! About Kunsthall Stavanger. I am under the impression that Kunsthall Stavanger works systematically to include a wide and diverse audience. I very much appreciate this - it is very positive and down to earth. You have created a low threshold, without making the place populistic, which is exemplary!

Elisabeth Haarr is an artist born in 1945 in Hamar, Norway. She attended the SHKS (now the Oslo National Academy of the Arts). Haarr was a lecturer at The Art Academy in Bergen and the Sogn og Fjordane University College. She has been a board member of Bildende Kunstneres Forening Bergen, The Art Academy in Bergen, The National Jury of Høstutstillingen and Utsmykkingsfondet. Her work has been exhibited extensively in Norway; at UKS, Gallery F15, Oslo Kunstforening, and Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, among others.

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