Weaving is a Universal Language
The interview with Johanna Bramble was conducted during her stay at the Villa Romana in the course of the project SEEDS FOR FUTURE MEMORIES. Thirteen artists from Europe and Africa deal with the entanglements of both continents, and Senegal /Italy in particular, from different perspectives. The research project, which was conceived for a period of one year, will be accompanied on a blog. Results will be shown in exhibitions in Florence and Berlin in 2019.
audio file of the interview
Could you please introduce yourself shortly?
My name is Johanna Bramble and I am a textile designer. I have been based in Dakar, Senegal, for ten years now. I have a company and we mainly make handwoven textiles using the traditional Senegalese technique: a combination of two people, the weaver and an assistant working together, to make these beautiful patterns appear, it is like a work of complicity.
The fabrics we are making are for interior design, we make cushions and bedcovers, we work for professional customers and also for individuals who want to have their own handwoven fabrics for their interiors. We have also sometimes developed collaborations with fashion designers so that they can use our fabrics for their collections. All the fabrics are cotton-based but I like to add different materials. The cotton is from Senegal and the other fibers are from all over the world: we use viscose, copper, silk and paper, because I really like to play with the interaction between the patterns, the thread and the yarn I am using.
In this work I try to find a balance between traditional ways of weaving and all my different experiences. In Paris I used to work for haute couture, I used to work for industrial companies in France, with artists making huge tapestries, so in my work I try to find a balance between tradition and contemporary work.
You arrived in Florence during Pitti Filati – the international fair for the textile and knitwear industry – how did your work evolve since then?
This fair takes place twice a year, and it was amazing to see the colours, the spinnings for the new Spring season, I made different connections, collecting yarns, and I had a specific contact with an amazing company that is making yarn out of paper and they weave amazing fabrics with this yarn. I was interested in their technique and we finally got in touch and I was able to see the way they work. It was really inspiring.
What is the potentiality of paper yarn for you at this very moment?
Working with cotton, I can really add a new vision to the fabric, I mean, not only talking about the touch because you can feel this paper material, but also in visual terms. I think weaving is a language of its own and I really like to think of paper as a metaphor. In French there are many links between weaving and writing – la trame d'une énigme for instance – for me textiles are a language, a kind of clin d'oeil to use this material and to introduce it into weaving. Yes, it gave me many ideas for taking this technique to another level.
Talking about language, you talk about weaving as a universal language, beyond borders, can you elaborate on this?
You can find textiles all over the world, there are many different meanings depending on the country where the weaving is done and you can find the identity of a country and of different people in textiles. I used to work in India, and in every different region there is a specific textile tradition – it can be weaving, it can be embroidery – and for each identity there is a special language corresponding to the place where the fabric is made. If it is made in the desert or in a wet environment, the fibers will change and you can feel the difference. I always work with different weavers and I always tell them that weaving is the extension of their soul and they put a special energy into it some days, but sometimes you may not feel good and you can transmit this feeling into your weaving. Depending on this energy and on the fibers you use you can give a different identity to your weaving. This is true in Senegal but it is the same all over the world...
And we all have a special tie with textiles. We all wear clothes, and fabrics are close to our skin. I am talking about a direct and intimate relation with textiles. Sometimes it is fun because, when I introduce myself and talk about my work, people always give me feedback on their feelings about textiles; in their memory clothes remind them of old family stories which are very intimate for them. It is also this aspect of universalism that I am interested in, because we are all linked to textiles.
You said you are looking for a balance between tradition and contemporary so you work on this identity, on evolving this universal language in a special way, you modernize a tradition. How would you describe your role in bringing this forward?
I work with many weavers – men and women – and they are very respectful towards tradition, but there is a gap between this traditional weaving and their own identity. So when I work with them, the main thing is to try to figure out how the weaving can also reflect who they are today. It is a work of sensibility and emotion to understand how – while respecting tradition – you can add your own identity to it, in such a way that the work makes connections between you and your ancestors and your actual knowledge. And that is important because sometimes the weavers do not feel proud of what they are doing, it is something very old and does not reflect the present: they do it because they have to do it but there is no meaning involved. On the contrary, when I work with them I want them to be proud of what they have, as knowledge, but also to figure out how they can change this knowledge in a respectful way. By combining these two things, they can make their own fabric reflect their current identity.
How do you work with the weavers?
For the training, I give them some keys in order to let them open the doors they want to open. Each weaver has his /her own identity and sensibility. I can give them technical solutions and teach them different aspects of weaving, I am just a guide and they will find out how to do it on their own. You can see this when one weaver likes shiny threads, or likes to mix different colors, while others will prefer something more discreet or more intricate works. It comes out different every time, and you can guess which weaver made which textile.
There is a kind of movement of people and African designers being educated in Europe, grown up in Europe and going back to the countries of their parents, and they do so with a kind of passion to develop their home countries, to make them stronger, to bring back education, traditions, techniques... In Dakar one can see your beautiful handwoven tradition-based fabrics and then in the markets there are these masses of second-hand clothes coming from Europe mainly. Do you also see your role as to weave against it, to awake tradition, to preserve this knowledge, to build an opposition to this European influence?
The world we live in is completely crazy about consuming objects and textiles and yes, when people buy our fabric they will really feel all the work behind it and all the intimate features of people's work. They come to the studio and they see how it is made but maybe when they buy a throw they really can feel the difference between an industrial one and the fabrics made by hand, with all the stories of the teams and families and the ancestors linked to it. It is a choice and to me it is important to make people aware of what they are consuming, to have a kind of feedback about what they are going to wear or put in their homes so it can reflect their sensibility.
Can we talk a little bit about your research on sound in relation to weaving, where does it come from? You have already woven audio tapes in other fabrics [using old audio tapes belonging to your father's collection] but now this interest is evolving in another direction…
Mainly it is because of the loom: When you weave, the loom itself is a kind of instrument so the first link with music is right there: when you weave you follow a special rhythm depending on the pattern and the shuttle you use. The project I am doing now in Villa Romana is related to the migratory phenomenon we are facing. Many people in Africa, in Senegal, do not know how to write or how to read but there is this strong bond with the oral tradition. The testimonies that you can get through the voices of people would be impossible to have in writing, so I wanted to use this relation with paper to create a new language out of sound weaving and paper.
You are talking about misunderstanding and misreading due to miseducation or absence of education, but it seems to me that your approach to sound in textiles has to do more with poetics than with a documentary interest. You are approaching the many voices of migration in a very poetical way through the weaving...
I want to collect the testimonies of different people – the women I work with in Senegal, other people living in Italy – and yes I am talking in metaphorical terms and I would like to imagine a fabric that would reflect certain emotions, concerns, and maybe some solutions, but in a poetical way: weaving is a metaphor.
Can you elaborate more on the idea of translating the voice into a pattern?
When I went to Prato to this company that makes threads and textiles out of paper, I saw these looms that are a kind of instrument. And once I saw this big roll of paper, I started thinking of possible uses and I wondered if people could write on it. But a lot of people cannot write so I tried to figure out how to make interviews with people, so it would be an idea to take the sound of these interviews and materialize the voice and put it down on paper. From that we could create special effects, adding other materials to the paper threads...
Let us follow up on the project here in Florence. You are almost at the end of your residency in Villa Romana and I would like to hear from you what other experiences will now evolve in your next works, besides this artistic project you just described...
Many links came out of this residency, it was quite intense in many different ways. And, as I said, the most important thing to me is the link between humans, the complicity, also the emotional part and in Florence we met Italians and migrants sharing emotions about the way the world and the mentality are changing. I met artists involved with migration issues and, based on this, I will put new, more focused emotion in my works concerning migration. I could even organize workshops and conversations with people in Dakar to make them aware about what is happening here and, concerning the textiles, I will add new approaches to my work.
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