The Immigrant Artist Biennial, In Dialogue

Thread and Fiber: Jovencio de la Paz, Juna Skënderi, and Lilian Shtereva

Lilian Shtereva. Samovila, 2023. Yarn, thread, batting, cochineal, and indigo dye on canvas. 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

As noted by Julia Halperin in a September T Magazine article, “[l]ong caught in the liminal space between craft and something more prestigious, works of thread and fabric are reaching newfound institutional recognition.” With the advent of AI spurring a complicated mix of overwhelm, anxiety, and curiosity, an increasing interest in fiber art seems to stem from its tactility and materiality, generating a contrasting tension with what’s available in the virtual world. Fiber art is also welcomed by the art-loving public as a medium supporting marginalized communities and their traditions. As participating artists of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023, Jovencio de la Paz, Juna Skënderi, and Lilian Shtereva discuss how their fiber-based practice relates to heritage, empowerment, technology, and dimensionality.

What led you to fiber art? What made you keep working with this medium?

JP: I began working with textiles as an undergraduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was introduced to the field and the processes by Diana Guerrero-Maciá, who remains a big influence on my thinking about the relationships between color, surface, and textiles intended to be displayed on the wall. Within that paradigm lies another discussion about the relationship between painting and textiles, which is another topic worthy of its own question. I had always intended to study painting, but I was dissatisfied with the conversation around painting amongst my peers. I was looking for a medium that could foster a more direct dialogue with issues of immigration, labor, and queer identity. It was through textiles that I found direct lines into these conversations, as textile production remains a field dominated by women, people of color, and queer folk.

Honestly, it was only in the last decade or so that I returned to conversations about painting, which felt like an important homecoming for me as an artist. I keep working in the media of weaving and textiles because I believe there is much to be said from the perspective of queer people of color connecting textiles with the history of painting. I am also compelled by demanding the real estate of the wall for narratives other than those prescribed by the Western canon. I love that cloth can slip between wall and floor, between different planes and bodies. That slippage keeps me in continual dialogue and uncomfortable readings of the work, which remains an ongoing challenge and joy of the medium.

JS: Fiber art has been a part of my life since before I was born. For years, the women in my family had been making clothing, curtains, tablecloths, and even diapers. I learned to sew by hand and to embroider as a young girl. I fell in love with the power to create something so beautiful that it can be worn, held, or useful in some way. I loved looking at these craftsmanship pieces, admiring the colors and textures as I ran my fingers through them.

This love never left me, and later, when my family and I immigrated to the United States from Albania, I began embroidering again as a young teenager, later experimenting with upcycling thrift clothing. But I didn’t realize the significance of the connection to my childhood and culture until later. As I came to understand my family’s undocumented status, I found myself drawn to fiber art again. I created a series of embroideries around the 2016 election and the subsequent administration. When I needed it most, textiles became a form of coping, helping me establish a connection to the culture and people I felt so disconnected from.

The abstract, black linework of my early embroideries was, at first, a continuation of the drawings I had done for years. Slowly, I began to add color, and inspiration started coming to me directly from my Albanian roots, especially from the traditional clothing of Northern Albania. I feel that the whole reason for making art is a search for something. In fiber art, I am always searching for a home.

LS: I was born and raised in Bulgaria. My mom and grandmother have always been involved in making clothing, and my culture has a great tradition of fabric-making and embroidery, a lot of which I inherited from the women in my family. Our traditional costumes and textiles have always been part of my life. Back when I first started considering myself as an artist, I made a lot of paintings, but they didn’t feel personal and had a sense of detachment. So I asked myself: what do I like to do? I liked to sew and work with textiles as well as three-dimensional objects. That was when I had my breakthrough, but at the time, I didn’t know that fabric work could be considered fine art because it was like a craft and was associated with domesticity—a woman’s job. But now it’s no longer like that; I feel that fabric art is finally having a well-deserved moment.

Since moving here seven years ago, I have wanted to keep this connection with home alive by carrying on with this tradition. I started off making quilts, referencing images from books. I keep in touch with my grandmother and learn from her. Being an immigrant here has allowed me to explore my heritage in a way I wouldn’t if I were back home because I would not have missed it. And I think that fabric itself gives me an opportunity to explore questions like how to navigate this dual identity as both an immigrant and inheritor of traditions.

Women are translating culture using their skills. My mom and grandmother taught me all the skills; they are probably better at working with fabrics than I am. But they are not considered artists because they don’t have the opportunity to be considered as artists. I moved here to be an artist and was given this privilege thanks to them. Historically, the legacies of a lot of women got lost in domestic work. They were and still are mending, sewing, caring for children, and caring for their husbands or the household, but their work is never appreciated.

“Translating culture using their skills” is such an interesting phrase.

LS: I think about words and language a lot. I minored in English. I love writing and explain a lot of my work through writing. If I didn’t have writing and words, just relying on the visuals would make things much harder. I just wrote a research paper about cultural bereavement—the idea of losing your culture. In writings like this, I use humor to navigate the heaviness of the subject because an added comical element could help others enter the space of cross-cultural discussion.

Jovencio de la Paz. Uneven Mound, 2022. Handwoven, Jacquard textile and cotton. 72 x 84 x 1.5 in. Courtesy of the artist and Chris Sharp Gallery.

Jovencio, by introducing the element of code into weaving, which is typically considered a human-centered handicraft, do you think it changes the essence of weaving? Are human hands machines in a way?

JP: I certainly did not introduce code into weaving. Weaving and codification have always been inseparable. Predictable numerical events that describe some legible output (music is a code, the patterns in basketry are codes, the rings of a tree are a code) are deep within the dawn of our species. Yet, we tend to think of the language of the digital as a recent invention. But the ones and zeros that have come to govern contemporary life did not appear at the advent of modernity. Ancient peoples from tens of thousands of years ago already understood highly complex methods of codifying threads in binary operations, the “over and under” of every woven textile. Their outputs were not computer screens or smartphones but patterned cloth. If you study weaving, you can begin to read this code in every upholstered airline seat, every plaid shirt, and every piece of denim; all these are simply strings of numbers taking material and tangible form.

I am not sure what is meant by “human-centered craft” because that implies there are non-human-centered crafts. This is possibly a very interesting turn of phrase, and I want to think about that more. I struggle to think of a craft that is not human-centered. Even Artificial Intelligence, which for better or for worse dominates a superficial discussion of technology, remains a “human-centered” craft, that is, designed, trained, and executed for and by humans. Programmers and coders are just as many craftspeople as basket weavers or knitters, and knitters and basket weavers are equally programmers and coders. I sometimes wonder if my work is only of interest at the moment because of a collective amnesia of this fact. Both groups of people manipulate numerical events, orchestrating them to yield some kind of predictable, repeatable output. It is pernicious racial, gendered, and economic disenfranchisement and bias that causes us to place these ways of knowing numbers and materials in a hierarchy or at odds with each other.

The grid of the pixel and the grid of woven cloth are also inexorably linked. The issue of aspect ratio, for example, which many modern people relate to screen and lens-based media, actually has its origins first in weaving. Images and patterns stretch or squish depending on the ratio of thickness between warp and weft threads. This was a conundrum already clearly articulated by Joseph Marie Jacquard in the 18th century, whose loom operated by punched cards went on to inspire the first punched-card-operated IBM computers and, before him, countless unnamed weavers in India and China. I would like to reverse your words and make a claim that the essence of weaving, this binary language, has changed the course of code in the modern day.

In Uneven Mound (2022), a strip of flat weave is juxtaposed with a rectangular, dimensional weave. Can you speak more about how dimensionality plays into your art?

JP: I am interested in physicality and the different effects that tension has on the viewer. By tension, I mean literal, physical tension. My textiles are always displayed under the tension of the surface of the painting, and I take this both as a physical reality of the work and a historical and ideological one. The two different areas in Uneven Mound are woven in contrasting kinds of tension: the flat areas are woven in a “serape” style of weaving, which was brought all over the world from Mexico to my native Philippines as a result of Spanish colonialism. The more sculptural areas are woven digitally by hand on a TC2 jacquard loom, which I have programmed to generate “waffle” weaves, a popular western weaving structure associated with domestic, utilitarian textiles used especially in colonial American and European kitchens and bathrooms. The raised and sinking textures of the waffle weave make it highly absorbent and excellent for washing and drying. The confluence of these structures is primarily intended to force a disparity of tensions across the visual field of the work. If one wants to read more deeply into the colonial tensions, rifts, and histories embedded in the histories of these structures, I think that is a highly appropriate reading of the work as well.

Juna Skënderi. Left: How to Weave 1, 2019. Dyed cotton. 9 x 4 in. Right: How to Weave 4, 2019. Dyed cotton. 9 x 5 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Juna, many of your works extend into the space as sculptures or installations. Can you also speak about ideas of dimensionality and spatial relationships?

JS: Beyond being narrative vessels of memory, my sculptures pay direct homage to traditional forms of basketry, weaving, and assemblage. I explore the domestic space through the third dimension—the gender roles that define it and its connection to the decorative. By expanding and taking up more space, the sculptures demand to be seen, heard, and respected in their feminine energy.

Additionally, I am drawn to the culinary traditions of different cultures, which are somewhat related to three-dimensional spatial relationships: for instance, how are plates arranged and why? Baskets, bowls, lamps, knives, spoons—we are constantly grappling with their best possible arrangements in ways that suit us. Drawing from many aspects of traditional craftwork, I weave, sew, knit, paint, and decorate. Really, I’m just having fun and learning. Creating dimensional objects is exciting.

In addition to fiber work, you also work with videos/films – does this digital medium somehow connect with or inform your fiber work?

JS: As a filmmaker, I document what I know while exploring nostalgia, memory, a longing for home, and an elusive need to build a new one. I have replayed memories of my childhood to the point of unreliability, forming a language around this concept through my video work. When working on an experimental documentary called The Gravity Experiment, I leaned hard into nostalgia and clothing in particular. To set the stage for this two-channel experimental documentary, I invite the audience inside a replica of my childhood bedroom in Albania, a home I have not visited for over 27 years. Alongside the video are some of our toys, the curtains my mother embroidered, and my family’s clothing, which I have recreated from photos, videos, and memory. A visual representation of my immigrant experience is told through the video and the fabrics worn by my family members.

In one particular video filmed in 2016, we see a video of me dancing to Vivaldi’s “Spring.” It shows a reunion with my two aunts after twenty years, who gladly put on the clothing I recreated for them and stepped back to 1995. Exploring the distortion of memories further, the same aunts are then played by my close friends in 2018, wearing the same clothing and faithfully re-creating the gestures of my family members as the four different timelines interlace into each other, fiber work and video conflate to distort concepts of memory, home, and family.

How do you grapple with the process of hand-making things? What do you think of the idea of craftsmanship?

JS: For me, craft refers to a learned skill or technique, and art (among other things) is about expression. Therefore, things can be both craft and fine art at the same time. I choose to embroider by hand, always. It’s a slow process that allows for more space to make decisions as I go, and the meditative moments are what I look forward to as I work. There is also a historical quality to embroidery, sewing, and weaving by hand reminiscent of an earlier era, to a feminine ancestry, and the history of labor that is important for me to connect with.

For example, one of my pieces titled Two Years, Three Years, and Twenty-Three was made over the course of two years, three years into Trump’s administration, and twenty-three years into living as an undocumented American. Methodically, meditatively, obsessively, carefully, and at times carelessly, I attached over 200 used blades and other sharp objects alongside thread and ribbon on canvas. In a way, I tracked time as a way to understand my reality, to have some sort of proof that I was surviving something while also ruminating on the history of immigrant labor, particularly immigrant women’s work in factories. I included a subtle image of eagle wings as a tribute to both the American eagle and the two-headed eagle in the Albanian flag; the work’s overall style is a nod to vintage military uniforms and war memorabilia, hearkening back to a time when women became an important part of the workforce. This piece is a direct product of slow making; this extended thought process allowed craftwork’s artistic capabilities to come to fruition.

LS: I am a big believer in “my hands are my tools.” There is nothing more I can rely on. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the iconography of hands keeps coming up in my work. Working by hand allows me to reflect deeply and connect with myself. I believe that work needs to happen in the physical world and create space for a conversation. During the pandemic, it was especially hard to show my work online because you can’t experience the texture of fiber work when everything is flattened. Considering the nature of my practice, I don’t believe that AI can replace artists. I just rather believe in preserving the handicraft traditions of my ancestors, sustainably passing them down through generations, and using them as vessels for innovation.

What’s the role of mythology and spirituality in your work?

LS: I reference a lot of pagan, folkloric, and mystical stories that predated the advent of Christianity in Bulgaria. These are stories passed down through oral traditions, and they come from the people at a time when humans were very in tune with nature. This is why many of the embroideries on traditional costumes use colors related to different seasons and patterns of flowers or leaves. For instance, I think of Samovila (2023) as a spirit and mystical guardian. I wanted to give a shape to a female character in a positive and unique way. Samovilas are connected to water, hence the braids and tentacle-like structures. The red thread in this piece of work is very important as well. A lot of people in Bulgaria wear red threads, as it symbolizes blood and health.

About the writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. She is currently working on a research project focusing on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuse, Art Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.

Jovencio de la Paz, Juna Skënderi, and Lilian Shtereva are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here .

For more information about the 2023 edition of the Immigrant Artist Biennial: Contact Zone, please find the program here. Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this review series is published as part of TIAB’s writer’s residency generously supported by Lesley Bodzy Studio and Fraser Birrell Grier, Esq.