Australian textile expert, art curator and author Maggie Baxter’s latest book on textiles, Unfolding, brings 27 Indian fashion designers and artists together. It was launched at the Australian High Commission in Delhi last week. In an interview, Baxter talks about how she found inspiration in India, the lessons she learnt while working on the book and her observation of the crafts sector in the country. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about your India connection.
Back home in Australia in the ’80s, I started my own line of home-ware — bed linens and such — and met Kirit Dave, a designer. I was planning a trip to India to figure out designers and weavers I could work with for my business. It was then that Dave suggested that I visit Kutch. I did, in 1990. I was fascinated by block printing. I like the idea of being able to draw with block, it’s an unusual layout every time. I realised that the business plan was not going to work, so I dropped that idea, and started working with the artisans in Kutch, doing my own art productions in collaboration with them.
How do you bring art and fashion together in your work?
My art work is rather minimalistic in nature, and is influenced by the work of artists of the late ’20s. I work with Kutch artisans for wall hangings. I have been fortunate enough to work with someone like Ismail Mohammad Khatri, a master craftsman in Kutch who specialises in Ajrakh technique of block printing. In recent years, I find myself working more with his son, Sufiyan, as he is more open to innovative work. I do these pieces for art galleries and have exhibited in Delhi four times, as well as in Australia, the UK and Japan. I also use very light embroidery in my work, almost like a pencil drawing, in keeping with the minimalistic nature of the work. I am also very fond of Pakko embroidery, which is mostly done by the women of the Sodha community. It is very light and subtle.
You have been working with Indian artisans and craftsmen for more than two decades. What is your opinion on the current condition of these art forms?
If you are born into art, it’s not necessary that you like doing it. Some traditional art forms will take a backseat. Then again, there are enough artisans and weavers who are passionate about keeping them alive. They are willing to take chances with their craft. It’s through them that art will thrive and stay alive. It will, however, be expensive because it will be niche.
With your book Unfolding, you are bringing together artists and fashion designers who work extensively with textile. Tell us about this journey.
The idea of Unfolding was planted in my head by historian Rahul Jain. He knew about my work in Kutch and, in the past, I had written about Indian contemporary art, so he suggested I work on a book on Indian textiles. I have been at it for two-and-a-half years now. The book is titled Unfolding because, literally, you fold and unfold a fabric. But here, I also mean that this is a book that unfolds the story of textiles in India.
I spoke to 27 artists and designers about it, some I knew while others were recommended. I went to their studios and galleries, interviewed them and then compiled this. There’s Pero, Abraham & Thakore, 11.11/eleven eleven and Mithu Sen, among others, in the book. There’s not a lot of material available on this topic so I had to use informal ways to research, such as shopping. (Laughs) Also, I attended two weddings and an engagement party, and there I met people who set me on the trail.
What did you learn while working on this book?
I didn’t know a lot about weaving, especially Bengali weaving techniques. It was interesting to make notes on topics I had little knowledge on. Abraham & Thakore helped me out with this one in particular.