Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Artist and writer Indira Allegra weaves words, videos and performance into tapestries both physical and metaphorical. It's almost impossible to succinctly describe Allegra’s practice, but in this and many other arenas, she’s the best one for the job: “I explore themes of tension and intimacy through text/ile performance,” she says.
The slash in “text/ile” is important for Allegra -- texts are built upon layers of words, textiles are built upon layers of thread. The loom is, for her, a writing tool. In Allegra’s Blackout, a digital weaving installation featured in the 2016 YBCA exhibition Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, she investigated the material of twill -- commonly used in police uniforms -- and its inherent ability to censor other narratives. In the projected videos, the twill pattern physically obscures text she gathered from family members who have lost loved ones to police violence.
For Allegra, tension is a material she doesn’t shy away from, whether that’s the tension of the loom, the tension in a body, or the unspoken social tensions that surround us daily. I talked to her about her work, her new Open Casket series, and her inspirations.
Had you done any textile work before you came to California College of the Arts for your BFA in 2009?
I came to CCA as a writer and as a performance artist. One of the things that occurred to me when I encountered the loom for the first time -- well, first I felt panicked -- but then I immediately understood that it was a writing device. There’s not a lot of difference in my mind between laying down pieces of thread and laying down stanzas or stacking video and audio information into Adobe Premiere.
I think that we borrow from the architecture of weaving to know how to tell story -- when scrolling and scanning on our computers, we're always following the weft line or the warp line. When we use the word "text" we're invoking the Latin verb "texere" which means to weave.
Part of textile work is also thinking about how things are made in a hypercapitalist environment where few people understand how many things are even produced anymore. That labor is outsourced to marginalized communities worldwide. Similarly, as a writer, thinking about etymology -- or word origins -- is also about understanding how things are made, understanding the underlying structure of the world we live in.
What are you currently working or have you been involved with recently that you’re excited about?
A couple different things. One is the Open Casket series. This is an outgrowth from the Blackout series. In this case I’m looking at crepe, a material used to line the interior of caskets. Each pixel is someone actually speaking about a loved one that they’ve lost to police violence. I focused on crepe not only because of its longstanding relationship to mourning, but because it’s a cheaper alternative for casket lining. If you weren’t prepared to cover funeral expenses for someone who was unexpectedly gunned down, you would use crepe. Velvet would be the more expensive material.
And then I’m working on a Body Warp series which I’m showing teasers of on social media. And that’s going to be the work exhibited at The Alice gallery in Seattle in January. It explores my body as weaving material -- or warp -- and the tools and accoutrements associated with weaving.
I’m embodying all sort of marginalized identities, so how can I use that tension on the loom? Instead of putting thread on the loom, what if I put my body on the loom? What kind of fabric results?
What sustains you and your practice?
That morning time where I get a chance to take time out to read and listen to the news, which for me starts at 9am. And I think the relationships that I have in my very inner circle are also really important because I’m constantly staring into the unknown. It’s not like I know what a project is going to look like in the end. I don’t have that kind of certainty, it’s not actually mapped out. And living with that uncertainty actually requires a lot of emotional support from people who have a lot of empathy around how demanding this work is. There’s no way I could do this work alone emotionally.
Do you have any “women you watch”?
The Black Salt Collective. I don’t know how you could not be watching them, if you’re in the Bay Area and you’re breathing!
The work they’re doing as a collective and individually is really important, and not only in terms of the strategies they’re using to make work. It’s very difficult to survive as an artist here working solo. It’s definitely something I know I have contended with in my own practice. I appreciate the way that they get to each have their distinct individual practice, but they can work in support of each other, which I think is a really good model if artists are going to continue to work in big metropolitan areas, where the engine of gentrification continues to be in play.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
My ideal future for women artists in the Bay Area is that our objects, our writings our performances are actually understood as scholarship. That we be conceived as thinkers with the ability to contribute a lot to solving social problems that exist here and nationally. As an artist you have to have a comfort with the unknown, being able to solve problems in a non-linear way. There’s a certain literacy you have to have about what cloth can say, how poetry can speak to the elusiveness of memory and how trauma is inherited. There’s a power in images, composition or performance -- they can move people to experience things they might not be able to access on a daily basis.
All of that in my mind is scholarship. It’s not just something cool to buy to put on my wall. All these works are actually something the public can learn from and continue to be in dialogue with the artists about. It’s really about understanding the intellectual brilliance of women and also that scholarship can look really broad. It doesn’t have to be a 50-page thesis on something, a three minute dance can actually act as a dissertation as well.
I actually want to live in a society that recognizes that.