25th January 2020 – 19th April 2020

Textiles and costume give us a beautiful and intensely human insight into our history. Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textilescelebrates seven pioneering women who saw beyond the purely functional, to reveal the extraordinary artistic, social and cultural importance of textiles. From the exquisite anthropological collections of traditional Balkan costume by Edith Durham, to the ground-breaking contemporary South Asian collection of Nima Poovaya-Smith, these women defied the ‘traditional’ concept of collecting – an activity still more often associated with men – and forged the way for textiles as crucial documents of social history as well as works of art in their own right.

This major collaborative project explores the innovative approaches of Edith Durham (1863 –1944), Louisa Pesel (1870 – 1947), Olive Matthews (1887 – 1979), Muriel Rose (1897 – 1986), Enid Marx (1902 – 1998), Jennifer Harris (working 1982-2016 at the Whitworth, University of Manchester) and Nima Poovaya-Smith (Senior Keeper International Arts 1985-1998,  Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford), and presents the objects from a previously unexplored perspective: that of the female collector, rather than exclusively as the maker.

Unbound includes sculptural 18th-century costume, intricately embroidered Balkan towels, headdresses and waistcoats, the 1920 and 1930s block printed fabrics of Barron and Larcher, as well as contemporary works: Alice Kettle’s huge machine embroidered panels Three Caryatids (1989-91), Yinka Shonibare’s 2007 model of the last slave ship The Wanderer reimagined with ‘African’ batik fabric sails and Sarbjit Natt’s 1996 geometric patterned silk sari. These sit alongside archival photographs, sketchbooks and letters, many of which have never been shown in public. The exhibition looks at how these collections continue to influence us today and asks why textiles still have to fight for their place amongst the more established visual arts.

Unbound is created in partnership with seven museums and galleries: Bankfield Museum, Halifax; Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford; Chertsey Museum; Compton Verney; Crafts Study Centre, Farnham; the Leeds University Library Special Collections and Galleries and the Whitworth, University of Manchester.

The exhibition is curated by leading textiles expert June Hill and emerging curator Lotte Crawford, with support from modern craft curator and writer Amanda Game and Jennifer Hallam, an arts policy specialist.