Weaving Stories by Dr. Harriet Hawkins

This is Dr. Harriet Hawkins’s text for my exhibition Hacking Antiques at the Gallery at Plymouth College of Art, 3rd March to 23rd April 2011.

Weaving Stories

What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling and writing have in common? The answer, anthropologist Tim Ingold proposes is that they all proceed along lines1. Such an imagination in which everyone and everything consists of proliferating connections, lives enmeshed, entangled in inter-connections of humans and non-humans, is a useful mode through which to address the work of Amy Houghton. Across Houghton’s work, paths of connections are woven between past and present, proximate and distant, threading together people and places across time and space and enmeshing us firmly in relations with things and technology. Taking up the theme of making connections I want to explore the ways in which Houghton’s practices work together woven threads and written traces. In the body of work that forms this exhibition we find not only particular stories about the early twentieth century female explorer Gertrude Benham, but also broader critical narratives about the processes and practices of craft and its materialities, and about the crafting of stories that question the very status of our histories and our modes of knowledge production.

Making connections: Animating lives

1931, just outside of the ‘realm of eternal snow’ in the Himalayas Miss Gertrude Benham sat peacefully knitting in her tent2. Benham’s outwardly eccentric practice of knitting and embroidering in some of the most inhospitable climes of the British Empire was both a pleasure and an economic necessity. Women travelers, especially independent ones like Benham, have always occupied complex locations, and like other women of the era, Benham would have experienced her gender as one of the most significant categories in terms of her access to the world, to education and to employment, and as vital in the conditions of the production and reception of her work3.

Benham’s making practices enabled her travels, sales of her work financed at least 7 circumnavigations of the globe and extended expeditions across the globe including, Europe, Canada, and later Africa, where she was the first white woman to climb Mt Kilimanjaro (in 1909)4.

Benham’s is a story that is difficult to tell. For a long time women’s knowledge, practices and achievements were missing from the history of geography: with scientific and colonial exploits framing the male, the metropolitan and the celebrated5. Despite recognition of the value of her topographic paintings by the Royal Geographical Society and her collection of botanic specimens for what is now the Natural History Museum, Benham is largely missing from the archives. The fragmentary evidence of her life requires less the recovery of an otherwise overlooked biography, rather, hers is a story that has, quite literally, to be made. Houghton’s work animates Benham’s life, fabricating biography through making material and imaginative connections between objects and the written traces of her notebooks, newspaper clippings, letters and articles.

Whilst the titles of Houghton’s works map the geographic expanse of Benham’s travels, it is another Benham that Houghton embroiders for us: Benham the maker and collector. Houghton, and so us, get to know Gertrude through a painstaking engagement with Benham’s personal objects and the objects of the ethnographic collection that she amassed during her travels and donated to Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Piecing together written traces it appears likely that Benham’s practices as a maker both enabled her collecting practices and conditioned the qualities of the collection. It was in part through selling and trading her finished pieces, as well as tools, calico and threads that Benham was able to amass her collection. Further, the materialities and practices of Houghton’s works witness Benham’s own interest in material cultures and attentiveness to materialities and modes of making of the crafted objects she collected. Working with objects from this collection, from pictures to fabrics and note-books, Houghton weaves together the threads of Benham’s life. Connecting material objects with written traces that criss-cross the globe Houghton tracks these objects through Benham’s records. In drawing our attention to the qualities of the ethnographic and aesthetic Houghton installs the everyday, embodied, situated making practices that Benham’s collection celebrates. This is a getting to know Gertrude that is also about the creation of a space for ‘smaller stories’, embodied and situated ways of knowing the world that exist alongside and in the midst of modes of colonial rationality, sober science and sensational discovery 6.

Presencing making

Moving the beater back and forth on the loom installed in the gallery simultaneously slowly unravels images of a mat made in Madagascar, and the tattoo on the face of a women from the Atayal tribe, a tattoo that marks her coming-of-age as a weaver and so as a women. The typology of objects (sewing machines, film viewers and printing presses) that Houghton harnesses to power her animations harks back to a previous eras of making and mending. Through her own making practices Houghton, draws our attention to what she describes as the ‘stitched’ and crafted nature of Benham’s objects, an aesthetic that forms the ‘logic’ of both Benham’s collection and Houghton’s own work. As we work these machines-of-making, connections spool across the gallery floor, entangling our own embodied practices with those of Houghton and Benham, and those of the women in the lands Benham travelled through, and the previous owners of the objects Houghton collected. This threading together of connections is also a telling of stories of making itself, for enmeshed within Benham’s biography are Houghton’s ongoing mediations on the practices and materialities of craft.

Sitting at the heart of the methods through which Houghton connects with Gertrude is a tension between the processes of making that the exhibition implicates and a suite of artistic practices that, in contrast could perhaps best be described as processes of ‘unmaking’. Across the exhibition, as with her practice more generally, we see Houghton engaged in painstaking practices of unpicking, dissolving, etching away and unraveling. Presenting the dematerialization of the objects draws our attention to their materiality and the practices of their making. This is enhanced by Houghton’s working as she describes ‘at one remove’ from her objects, deploying photographs and stop-frame animations is to already work with destabilized representations, traces of objects that call into question any sense of a stable ‘excavation’ of meaning. To take things apart, to break things down, is, it must be understood, not here to devalue, to neglect or in any way destroy them, rather it is to explore them, to get to know them in a materially intimate manner. In her ‘unmaking’ Houghton not only makes present Benham as both a crafts-women and collector, but also brings into the exhibition a sense of the materialities and practices through which both these objects, and Houghton’s works were made.

Making meaning

Houghton’s lyrical mediations on making form a materially intimate engagement with the embodied situated practices of craft. These material intimacies are however not only a study of making practices, but also a making of meaning, in this case telling the story of Gertrude Benham, maker, collector and explorer. It is through an attention to the practices of ‘making’ that Houghton strings the richest of the connections around Benham’s life, a weaving of evidence that interlaces people, places and practices to flesh out and animate life.

The embodied, situated practices of craft that Houghton’s work centralizes creates an imaginary of knowledge as a manifold, woven from countless threads, an entanglement of relations between humans, things, and technologies that enmesh us in the worldv7. The work’s endlessly proliferating connections points us towards the partiality and contingency of all our ways of knowing. The imaginative encounter the exhibition forms is not so much an attempt to fill in the gaps in Benham’s story rather Houghton offers us something much more compelling: the texturing and animation of a life.

The simultaneity of making and unmaking within the works disturbs any sense of a stable story. The documentation of processes of unraveling and unpicking bring out the partiality and fragility of the connections made. Further, for every link made and thread tracked, there are those left unexplored, but this is not a failing, rather it is to lay a path of open invitations and creative proliferation. Houghton’s works form a critical commentary on our storying of the past, her practices supplement the official ‘record’ with an imaginative and creative working over of the evidence to make connections. In doing so her work forms endlessly proliferating sets of connections that we as audience can engage, enjoy and take up in our own way to ponder as fiction, imagination and speculation, and in so doing can pause to reflect on the instability of our narratives of history and memory and our hierarchies of knowledge.

  1. Ingold T 2007 Lines: a brief history London Routledge []
  2. Howgego RJ 2009 A ‘very quiet and harmless traveller’ Gertrude Emily Benham 1867-1938. A Biography’ Plymouth, Plymouth City Art Gallery. []
  3. Maddrell A 2009 Complex Locations: Women’s Geographical Work in the UK 1850-1970 Oxford, Blackwell; Blunt A 1994 Travel, Gender and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa. New York. []
  4. Howgego Quiet and harmless Traveller; Hessell Tiltman M 1934 Knitting seven times round the World. Women In Modern Adventure, London; Birkett D 2004 Off the Beaten track: three centuries of women explorers London. []
  5. Domosh M 1991 Towards of feminist historiography of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 16 95-104; Driver F 2001 Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire Oxford []
  6. Driver, Geography Militant; Lorimer H 2003 Telling small stories: spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 197-217 []
  7. Ingold, Lines. []
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