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Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women

From the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection.

Cotton, wool, polyester, silk — fiber is felt in nearly every aspect of our lives. The artists in Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women mastered and subverted the everyday material throughout the twentieth century. This new exhibition is at the Renwick Gallery from May 31, 2024 through January 5, 2025. 

The thirty-three selected artworks piece together an alternative history of American art. Accessible and familiar, fiber handicrafts have long provided a source of inspiration for women. Their ingenuity with cloth, threads, and yarn was dismissed by many art critics as menial labor. The artists in this exhibition took up fiber to complicate this historic marginalization and also revolutionize its import to contemporary art. They drew on personal experiences, particularly their vantage points as women, and intergenerational skills to transform humble threads into resonant and intricate artworks.

Several themes place artworks in conversation with an emphasis on the artist’s own words: the complex (often contradictory) influence of domestic life; feminist strategies for upending the art world status quo; shared knowledge of traditional and experimental techniques; and pushing boundaries of the perception and possibilities of fiber art. A dedicated gallery space of archival materials provides a window into the artist’s studio, deepening insight into their creative processes with sketches, mail art, and photographs. Together, these categories illuminate how artists have invited moments of contemplation about the interplay between material and message.

The artworks are as diverse as the women who made them. Among the artists included in this exhibition are Adela Akers, Neda Al-Hilali, Emma Amos, Lia Cook, Olga de Amaral, Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Sheila Hicks, Agueda Martínez, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Scott, Judith Scott, Kay Sekimachi, Lenore Tawney, Katherine Westphal, Claire Zeisler, and Marguerite Zorach.

The artists expressed themselves in the form of sewn quilts, woven tapestries and rugs, beaded and embroidered ornamentation, twisted and bound sculptures, and multi-media assemblages. Each artwork carries the story of its maker, manifesting—stitch by stitch—the profound and personal politics of the hand.

All of the artworks are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection; archival materials and interviews are selected from collections of the Archives of American Art. To further amplify the voices of the artists, SAAM will produce a narrative podcast. The audio program will highlight some of the most compelling backstories that are woven into the exhibition. The project is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator; Mary Savig, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft; and Laura Augustin Fox, curatorial collections coordinator.