Consider the Quilt

Conversation / November 2022

Consider the Quilt: A Conversation between Bhasha Chakrabarti and Jess Bailey

Quilting defies the normative division of art and craft. Culturally diverse and sublimely attune to functionality, quilters around the world offer us not only their material practice, but a new foundation from which to imagine different visual discourses. Quilts provide a visual and methodological rhetoric that unravels certain ingrained structural commitments in today’s artworld. Quilts ask us to reconsider how we define art, breaking with traditional lines of thought derived from Western patriarchal and capitalist systems. Artist Bhasha Chakrabarti’s recent quilts featured prominently in Heartbreak Picnic, an exhibition at Grove Collective in summer 2022. Dr. Jess Bailey (Associate Lecturer in the History of Art, University College London & the quilter behind @publiclibraryquilts) sat down with Chakrabarti to discuss the radicality, strangeness and intimacy of quilts, mending, and working with cloth.

Jess Bailey: I think the world is most familiar with you as a painter and yet looking at your body of work there is a continuity and sophistication around how you engage with cloth, so let’s start there: Can you tell me about your relationship with cloth?

Bhasha Chakrabarti: No, that’s true! I became a painter recently. The joke in my MFA class was that I applied to a painting program without a single painting in my portfolio. For the interview they said that you had to bring three works on paper, and I had sewn things on paper; glued cloth onto paper. I didn’t have the traditional drawing or painting medium experience. But I always knew that I was interested in painting for the same reason that I was interested in cloth, which is the proximity to skin.

I think that that’s why my painting practice is also primarily nudes: when I’m using cloth, I’m thinking about cloth as a stand in for skin, or as a material that interfaces with skin constantly. And so there’s two things: there’s the “skin/cloth” thing, and then there’s the “cloth/painting” thing. Painting is traditionally like a textile art. And it’s shocking to me how much distance it tries to put between itself and textiles, but there is a total dependency on cloth supports, like canvas or linen. There’s a whole negotiation of cloth that happens in painting. And so I remember when I first started making paintings at Yale, all my professors would be say “you’re not a painter.” And I was like, I’m just doing cloth. To be a painter you have to engage with cloth: you prime it. You are smoothing it out to remove the grain. You think about the direction of the grain. You think about the weft and warp of the canvas. You think about the weight of cloth.

JB: It seems like there is an intimacy for you in having an openly material and philosophical relationship with the support layers, the unseen layers of an artwork on which it depends for existence. This really fits with how the surfaces of your work then meditate between the world and the skin of the human body. This is something we usually encounter through how people cover their bodies in clothing and in cloth.

BC: Yes. And if you even just think about the vocabulary around painting—like the idea of support—a support is to painting what fabric is to life in general, right? Like as a support in the literal sense, and as something that covers the body to support you in a more metaphorical sense. And similarly, I think when we are thinking about painting terminology or textile terminology, many of the words point back to the body, which is the site of our touch or our intimacy. And we in turn use our touch to determine the value of cloth. The value of cloth is determined by how it feels against the skin, or how it performs in relation to the temperature of the body. Doesn’t that make sense? And so those things to me—the skin, the support, the painting, and the cloth—feel like such an obvious poetic.

JB: When I’m making a quilt, I think a lot about the surface of the human body and intimacy. For example, when I make a quilt for someone with emotionally significant fabric from their family or a lost loved one (as is quilt tradition), I put this cloth on the back of the quilt. Not necessarily because that’s the private part of a quilt, but because that is the part of a quilt you pull up over your body in bed. That cloth needs to touch your skin as the quilt conforms to the curves of your figure. Cloth is a very bodily medium of art.

BC: Exactly! The value of cloth is in the act of touching.

JB: I was looking through a project you did a few years ago titled Heirloom. There is a lot of intimacy in the quilts you made but also community; the communal making processes. Were these your first quilts?

BC: No, but I grew up around both Hawaiian quilting traditions and kantha quilts. I spent time in India helping groups of people make quilts from the old scraps of cloth and clothing. This is the tradition, the medium. You know in India, now that kantha has suddenly been recognised as an “art form,” and now that you can make money with it, men do the quilting. On the one hand we lament the fact that we don’t know the names and identities of the women who have made some of the beautiful quilts which are now in museums. And while I understand and feel that at times, I don’t know…there is a whole set of other values you are orienting towards when you start naming “the artists”  which are inherently opposed to what the form of the quilt is. Like many quilts are made by groups of people. It’s touched by lots of people. It’s not about the identity of a singular maker.

JB: Yes, what is the value of anonymity and what is the productive provocation of communal making? As much as, of course, we want everyone’s labour to be valued and want to name the sexist systems we live with, have we actually stopped to ask what is lost if we simply extract quilts from their cultural contexts and insert them into a binary, Renaissance-onwards and European-centric conception of the singular artist? What do we risk if we just talk about quilts like any other work of art with a capital A?

BC: Exactly! What is the value of collective making and anonymity, and how do we talk about that? This is one reason to protect textiles and quilts from being adopted into the art world discourse. And it’s so weird for me to be on the one hand saying, “people should recognise this as a way of art-making” and then on the other hand say “I’m an artist and I made a quilt.” But there is this inherent tension in the fact that I want to engage with a way of working with cloth that defies Art discourse with a capital A, and I don’t want to force it to be of the same system. Maybe quilts are just different.

JB: To me, it feels like the beauty in quilting is that disruption or discord; that refusal of the status quo. We can notice other modes of praxis. There are so many other ways to imagine an artist than the systems we currently happen to live and re-perform. As someone who researches premodern art, this make a lot of sense to me: this system we have of the singular artist with a name, replete with the pedestals of the art world, is just one way of speaking about art making. Quilts, so often communally made or made in orientation towards things other than the white wall of the normative gallery, defy these discursive habits. There are many ways of being in relationship with materials.

BC: Yeah, that’s why the idea of mending is so important for me, which is part of quilting, obviously. I think a lot about mending in my work.

JB: Yeah, mending is a concept executed through the work, right? It’s a concept that arises out of the process. It provides the theories that underwrite the quilt. The making, the doing is the theory of it. I think about mending as extending too in a way that is like relationships. You mend something to extend its reach into new negotiations of daily life and this is the work. The work doesn’t stop, or it isn’t contained. So the mending is making those negotiations visible…giving them space to breathe.

BC: Yes. Like seeing them as legitimate gestures of making itself. I think there’s a contradiction in the idea of repair versus creation. We are told Art is about making something new. Technically, if creativity is about making something new, then repair—mending—is not that. Mending is about working within something, a framework that already exists. But how do you fit this into our modern art world notion of creation or the artist? 

JB: Mmm…Can we talk about mending and your artwork Thin Blue Line?

BC: My mom really likes that piece! She’s always like “Why are you talking more about other work and not Thin Blue Line!”

But that came up because I was going through this period of flag art. I was living in India, and while I was getting to this place of comfort there, making art, it was 2016, so Trump was happening to America and here I was living a nice life in India. So I started asking myself “Do I have anything about me that connects to the US?” I mean, I’m from Hawai’i which already is separate from the discourse of identity and race in the mainland USA, right? And then Trump won the election. I remember suddenly feeling like “Holy shit, what am I doing here in this other faraway place? I have a responsibility to go home.” I had never felt that about the States, y’know? It was weird that that’s what it took, but I was like “Oh my God, it’s irresponsible of me to be living this ‘expat life.’”

That was the point I decided to start making a lot of work with the American flag. I began looking for American flags; I wanted it to be 100% cotton, but I could only find one cotton American flag on Amazon in India, and it was black and white. So I just ordered it, and in the process of opening it, I cut it! So I figured I’d start mending it, and I used a blue thread. At least I can add red and blue into it, I thought.

While I was mending this black and white American flag I suddenly came across the official “Thin Blue Line” flag, in which the blue line represents the police, apparently functioning to  separate chaos from order. I thought that was really interesting because that’s how the blue mending line is functioning in the black and white flag I was working on, right? At first glance, it’s the thing that’s holding the two pieces of the flag together. But on the other hand, it’s also like cutting through the flag, dividing. It’s like chaos in the flag itself.

JB: I like that there are these certain words around textiles and cloth—mending being one of them—where the word or process itself is doing theory. When I was looking at that artwork, I felt that it broke mending out of the untroubled space that you might first encounter it. Mending as repair, or mending as comfort, or mending as healing, y’know? It brought it into this space of mending as negotiation and that is really powerful. What is being mended? Who is mending? What can be mended? Who are certain kinds of amends for?

BC: Yes and I think that mending is negotiation, it is constant awareness that things are going to fall apart again. I’m super ambivalent about the discourses around care and around mending as something that one does lovingly. It feels really tied to notions of femininity that aren’t actually reflecting contemporary life. If you’re mending things, it’s because you’re doing it really fast and because you have to. You want it to function and you’re worried about longevity.

JB: There is grit in mending for you?

BC: In the sense that it’s not sweet and decorative. And I don’t want to say it can’t be that as well. I’m really interested in how you have to learn about cloth in order to mend it. In Hindi, it’s called rafoo, which is darning. You have to know how the original material was made. Like, what type of fiber? What type of weave? You have to follow the original structure and think about why the breakage happened in the first place. Is there a way to alter the structure so that it doesn’t happen again? There’s a constant interfacing with the breakage and with what’s not working.

JB: I really enjoyed walking into your recent gallery show and seeing one of your quilts set up as a picnic. I am always having conversations with other quilters about this. A lot of quilters see use as fundamental to what we are putting into the world.

BC: Even in one of my critiques at Yale, I had just brought a whole bed into the space and put a quilt on it. There was a quilt on the wall. There was a quilt on the bed. They were folded. They were on the floor. What do you do with quilts in the gallery space? I’m all for someone buying my quilts and putting them on their bed or in their linen cabinet. It’s a quilt!

JB: I appreciate that. I think that brings us back to this issue of what quilts refuse about the systems we have gotten perhaps too comfortable within.

BC: Yeah, it’s like quilts can lend something to my paintings and my paintings can lend something to my quilts, but we don’t have to pretend they are the same, right? Quilts don’t have to behave like paintings…it’s not their nature.

JB: I was also really struck by your recent polaroid work which has images of people picnicking on your quilts. I love picnicking. There is a tenderness there and also a kind of yearning that I think a lot of people have for this idea of the communal space of the quilt, or of making the quilt together in a quilting bee.

BC: You know the quilts were the things finished first for Grove Collective and then came the title of the exhibition—Heartbreak Picnic—because myself and Matt (also featured in the exhibition) had both just gotten our hearts broken, and I grabbed a blanket and decided the best thing to do was to have a picnic! We played hooky from school and sat and drank champagne, and were heartbroken on a quilt in the quad! The quilt then stayed in the back of my car for future picnics. Then, when we were working on the show, I was thinking about how I’m really interested in how with modes of making—painting or quilting—fifty percent of meaning only comes about due to the “thingness” of the object. Does a quilt only become a quilt when someone uses it? Likewise, a dialogical relationship with the viewer is part of what separates fine art from, say, painting a house. It’s not just the artist intending a meaning for something, it’s about the viewer engaging with it and making that meaning with the art or with the object.

Even in the most individualistic art practice, there is that element of collaboration in order for anything to function. I think that’s the irony of everyone seeking out communal things, because, it’s like, there’s nothing to seek out. It already exists. Even if you think you’re doing it by yourself, you’re not. You’re doing it with a network of support and a network of care. I’m a lot more interested in uncovering those, rather than making ‘a quilting circle.’ Even if I make a quilt by myself, it’s still like a communal quilt. Look at us, picnicking together on this quilt, all heartbroken, but with a quilt.

JB: Why polaroids?

BC: When you take a polaroid it starts developing instantly in the same environment that you took the picture in. And so there’s this relationship, and skin of the photograph is like a body, it is extremely sensitive to light and heat and temperature and humidity.

The subject of your photo is in the same environment that’s affecting the development of the photographic image. This is like touch. There’s a touch intimacy in how the Polaroid, in its image, holds a memory of how it felt to occupy that specific space. And to that extent, I think it’s the closest thing—or maybe it is even more close to life—than a life painting. It’s a document of a moment. Both in its image and in its material. To me, that’s how it comes back to skin and intimacy, meaning and environment.

JB: I feel like this reverberates a lot with art history and how we talk about the culturally situated meanings of materials which is so evident in your work, especially your work with cloth.

BC: I’m interested in the material and the processes not just being an illustration, or a tool, or a means to illustrate. Rather, in it being a carrier of knowledge. The material itself holds knowledge. And it’s not just something through which we demonstrate knowledge. The breakdown of an epistemological hierarchy is essential to my practice. I think my work is about “what is considered knowledge” and “who gets to know,” and “who gets to be a knower.” I think mending is the ideal starting point to think about a breakdown of propositional knowledge, because you have to negotiate an emotional knowledge, a skill knowledge, a material knowledge, and a social knowledge. All of those things are functioning at once.

JB: Many quilters today quilt by machine. But you and I are both the old fashioned kind, I guess. We both quilt by hand. Why do you quilt by hand?

BC: It’s this body/knowledge connection, right? The knowledge that’s stored in the body: a physical memory of how that weave structure falls on the shoulder of the shirt that needs mending, or the weight of the quilt on your legs as you hand quilt. This is the primary reason that I am committed to quilting by hand. But it’s also the slowness. I move too fast, I need slowness and then I also want my body involved. I’m also all about touch, right? The more time I spend touching something, the better.

JB: I find it really interesting how handwork registers the body. Like a weaver’s tension changing when they are tired, or a quilter’s stitch length being altered by a hand cramping at the end of the day or an anxious thought being embedded in the surface of the work with a stitch that is too tight. The hand-quilted work becomes a landscape of what was pulsating through your body as you worked in repetition, stitch after tiny stitch.

BC: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to negotiate.

JB: Are you working on any quilts right now?

BC: I just went on this marathon quilting session and finished a quilt that is on exhibition at Hales Gallery in New York. What you were saying about materiality reminds me of this big project I did about indigo last year. It was really research intensive and I was thinking about indigo as a material, historical trade routes, and the ways that indigenous indigo traditions in many different parts of the world were coopted by imperial powers towards protocapitalist or capitalist ends. I was looking at records about how much indigo could fit on ships and I felt I needed to make quilts dyed with indigo to engage with this really complex materiality. So then I almost lost my hands making all these quilts; I have awful arthritis in my wrists now, and so I’m never doing that again. And yet here we are, more quilts! I am also working on a quilt for a friend’s baby.

JB: I really resonated with what you said about not needing to create more communal networks artificially, but instead to look at the networks that already support our making and looking. We crave community, and maybe that’s why quilts are having a moment of intense popularity again, but we all are actually already in community—it’s just often pretty messy or not as poetic as we might want it to be. But maybe a picnic quilt can hold a lot of different kinds of community, and a lot of different kinds of heartbreak: personal and historical like with your indigo research. But I think there is something really pleasurable and precious about making quilts—a quilt for the gallery and a quilt for your friend’s baby, a quilt can be appropriate for both.

BC: I vaguely remember women in my dad’s family who would make quilts and it was very much a free time activity. Everyone would sit around between chores and start by taking apart the edges of the worn out saris to make the thread for the quilting. So I always think of that: they purposefully extended the time of making partly because they found it pleasurable. They spent months just breaking down the borders and making thread. And there was no designated deadline for this making.

JB: That makes so much sense around women’s roles in a household and how when women do get to have control of their labor, they make these defiant choices about it because it is labor for themselves. Quilts are a quilter’s business.

BC: Obviously there are also histories of class here, as well as with enslaved women making quilts, which is totally different. But in another context, I was really interested to read an article that argued that needlework and handwork can hold this interesting place for women, simply because men don’t know enough about it to regulate it. In other words, if someone doesn’t know how long it actually takes you to make a quilt, then you can hang out with your friends, lovers, and quilt in peace, right? That’s a certain kind of value in cloth. It’s considered safe and not important and so it can be valuable to the women as a creator of autonomy.

JB: That brings us back to what we risk when we try to conceptually make a quilt into a painting, or what we miss when we try to force quilts into art world systems of value. What subversive power do you hold when the power structures at large don’t value you in their terms?

BC: Exactly. There’s a whole system, there’s a whole group of people that have made space for themselves against all odds sometimes, and this can be how textiles function. The moment you start bringing quilting into a formal discourse, you change things. It’s important to me to think really carefully about this.

JB: Perhaps we have to stop and ask what quilts ask of the art world and be ready for the answer to be pretty disruptive to the status quo. I think this is what is so exciting and fruitful about this medium. Are quilts a new method, or rather a really old method we are finally paying attention to?

Image Credits:

Image 1: Mango (Detail), 2018 - 2022, Used clothing, fabric scraps, and thread. Made in collaboration with Anuradha Dalmiya & Rashmi Varma. 202 x 240 cm. Photo by Ben Deakin. Courtesy of Grove Collective.

Image 2: Heirloom (I), 2017, Used saris, embroidery thread, 69 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Bhasha Chakrabarti.

Image 3: Thin Blue Line, 2018, Cotton flag, embroidery thread, 85 x 55 inches. Courtesy of Bhasha Chakrabarti.

Images 4 + 5: Heartbreak Picnic Installation Shot, 2022. Photo by Ben Deakin. Courtesy of Grove Collective.