This is Columbian textile artist Olga de Amaral’s Cesta Lunar (1991/2017), a scintillating wall hanging made of linen, gesso, acrylic, platinum and gold-leaf. Loosely translated from the Spanish as ‘Moon Basket’, Cesta Lunar hints at the cosmic voyage Amaral takes us on. It encapsulates the astrophysical spaces, geological places and elemental traces her fibre art uncovers. While Cesta Lunar mesmerises with its moon-like incandescence and woven patina of silvers and golds, other textiles brood with the buried treasures of the Columbian earth, rescaling mineral-rich mountainous terrain in smaller though no less awe-inspiring sizes. Landscapes, whether of lunar light or subterranean strata, abound in this show, reconfiguring and landscaping the gallery space too.
Striking Gold with Olga de Amaral
Towards the far end of a room, bright light emerges. Glowing like a divine mystery or a will-o’-the-wisp, the light grows bolder, fuller, a luminous body towering over concrete and glass. From afar, this light has a ghostly quality, an apparitional appearance. On closer inspection, it is more skin than translucent skein; more fish scales or chain-mail than solar fire. Twisting restlessly under the beam of one’s gaze, it ripples and reverberates in response to other sources of light. Thickly encrusted with gold, the light flakes downward, shedding lambent layer upon lambent layer. Burnished though cold to touch, the light – moonlight specifically – is alchemically transmogrified, fluorescence grown hard, a glazed shell reflecting sun.
"a divine mystery or a will-o’-the-wisp"
That many of her textiles reclaim gold when replicating the Columbian landscape and its cultural history should come as no surprise. Strata XV (2009), a magnificent wall hanging akin to Cesta Lunar, shimmers and shimmies into golden stratifications that wrap and swirl around one another as the Andean mountains do the Columbian city of Bogotá. Moving in its own gilded glory, Strata XV recalls not only the pre-Columbian geological formations, but the wider lands of South America: it summons visions of yellow maize fields tended and worshipped by indigenous hands, ochre edifices forming peerless peaks, and rolling valleys dense with spirits from alternate dimensions. Strata XV is, therefore, a map both to past and present worlds, lives and visions.
It also brings to the surface and literally reflects the most obvious history of Columbia: its gold-mining and trade in minerals and precious stones. Coated in gold-leaf, Strata XV lures you in with the very lucrative substance that once made Columbia the world’s largest producer and trader of the metal. Surrounded still by one of the main belts of mining in her hometown of Bogotá, Amaral’s work looks back to the pre-Columbian worship of gold to its colonial usurpation and the illegal and life-threatening mining practises of today. Tying the gold to the land and the land of her work to both, Amaral’s Strata XV becomes a striking visual and spatial commentary on cultural and colonial history. In each glimmering metallic wave, Amaral suggests both the source of and solution to the country’s problems lies in the fabric of its own land.
"textiles brood with the buried treasures of the Columbian earth"
To see the golden surfaces of Strata XV and Cesta Lunar purely as critical reflections on Columbia’s history, however, would be wrong. Glimpsing maize fields and ore deposits in her work is just one way of illuminating the meanings embedded deep within. As curator and scholar Susan Aberth highlights in the exhibition catalogue, Amaral’s gold- and silver-strewn tapestries evince visions of Columbian churches, Byzantine mosaics and stained-glass windows. The metallic works conjure other sanctified spaces of worship, other practises of spirituality and religious belief. In this light, the tapestries become portals, not only to sacrosanct sites, but transcendent spiritual states. Though initially we touch the works with our eyes, gradually we are touched by them, as acts of looking turn into forms of feeling and aesthetic anointing.
Moving into a smaller gallery, Amaral’s Bruma series (2016) takes transcendent sites and states to new heights. Translating as ‘mists’, the Bruma series transports us back to the Andean ridges of Amaral’s South America. Instead of using gold on flattish planes of gesso-lined weave, as with Strata XV and Cesta Lunar, Amaral suspends synthetic materials, such as acrylic and cotton, from wooden beams. Carving up the room with semi-transparent striations of air and string, Amaral creates an illusion, one where tapestry becomes sculpture and sculpture becomes paint. Moving around the series, circles and triangles of yellow and red appear and disappear depending on where one stands. At once mist-like and mystical, the Bruma series enhances our understanding of what tapestry entails and enacts the spatial potentiality of fibre art. Positioned in the centre of the works, where each gradient of cotton concentres into a composed shape, we are hypnotically hemmed in, enclosed and enwrapped by the hallucinatory waft of Amaral’s designs. Aberth describes Amaral’s work as ‘roving chapels of meditative and solemn beauty’ and the Bruma series certainly sets the scene for meditation and introspective states. Whether looking from within or without this sculpted site, one feels entranced – or entrapped.
Then again, not all chapels, churches or cathedrals stun us into silence or revered awe. Some of these sacred sites ask us to ponder the profane, the unholy, the sublunary matters and materials of life. Umbra Verde (2006), a silvery sheet that hangs like an excavated relic from a bygone era has a darker glimmer and tone than that of Strata XV or Cesta Lunar. Coated in palladium – a precious metal found in Columbia now worth more than gold and used in vehicles as a catalytic converter – Umbra Verde has a different hue to its gold counterparts. Low risks to health aside, the metal’s indirect impact on the environment through chemical waste and global demand reveals the murkier side to extracting precious metals from the earth. Meditating on this, Amaral takes the sheen off its coveted shine. Delving under the elemental layers, Amaral asks us to consider what may not be there, one day, due to our lust for lucrative metals and ores.
"semi-transparent striations of air and string"
These environmental concerns are, nevertheless, just one strand, one fibre, one clue in the cryptic composition of her work. Transmuting dross into gold, thread into light, a hanging into bodily sculpture is what Amaral the alchemist does best. Using her hands to weave, then paint, then embellish these linen surfaces, Amaral morphs the imperfect into the blazingly perfect; she elevates low materials into high coveted objects. It is here that she reflects back to us our own appetites and desires; our own lust for tactility and beauty; our own yearning for all that glitters and gold to be just that: pure, unadulterated perfection.
Yet like a magician she pours mud and metal together to do so much more; to conjure chapels and hills, ragged mountains and unmined mineral-rich straits. Taking us back and forth in time to other regions, cultures and indigenous practises, Amaral shows us not what textiles could be, but are. Shining down in peels of silver and gilt, her radiant skeins emanate this truth widely. They show us the light and in doing so make us appreciate the natural world even more.
Olga de Amaral will be showing at the Lisson Gallery from 23 September to 29 October 2022.