Swapnaa Tamhane at Hamilton Artists Inc.

By Stephanie Vegh

Textiles generate their own subtle musicality, from the natural flow of cloth to the rhythm of its making. The latter is translated into a compelling beat emanating from the back corners of Hamilton Artists Inc. via Workshop, a sound work that captures the distant flutter of birdsong beneath percussive machinery marked by the unmistakable irregularity of human hands.

Swapnaa Tamhane, DROP CLOTH, 2023, installation view (photo: Eli Nolet)

Swapnaa Tamhane’s DROP CLOTH draws the marginalia of our lives to the centre of attention with poetic precision. While chirping birds and hidden machinery tease the ear, the eye takes in the cumulative traces of the labours that produce Ajrakh, block-printed textiles in the Kutch district of Gujarat, India. Broad sweeps of cotton soaked with indigo dye are draped among aluminum tubes suspended from steel cables that evoke the flow of the factory loom. Many past patterns bleed together, from thick blocks of indigo dye to areas that preserve more intricate ribbons of decorative flourishes.

These are achadiya, the drop cloths referenced in the exhibition’s title that functionally exist to soak up excess dye in the printing process. Tamhane honours these humble remnants as a palimpsest of material production with the delicate addition of small mirror fragments that punctuate the layered surfaces with light. One segment of cloth, shadowed by a close wall, is marked by long narrow shards that cast a splintered light on the gallery floor. On another, clusters of small round mirrors swirl and expand around each other like a galaxy.

Swapnaa Tamhane, DROP CLOTH, 2023, installation detail (photo: Eli Nolet)

More light in the form of a glittering weaving beckons from the back corner with black block letters: “KABIR WAS BOTH KORI AND JALAHA.” Rendered among gold and silver threads that prove to be biscuit wrappers, this modestly small tapestry is charged with a transformative magic that transcends its somewhat cryptic message. A verse inscribed in pencil on a nearby wall introduces the viewer to Kabir, a 15th century poet and saint identified as a weaver in kinship with those workers whose labours are accumulated in these achadiya. In Tamhane’s scratched letters, Kabir is “an unarchivable myth. He belongs to everyone. He is a chorus of authors.”

I return to those mirrored fragments that pierce the surfaces of the achadiya with reflections of the gallery, of my own body moving through space. They create pools of depth beyond the cloth that capture and absorb all who pause to admire these cumulative efforts. There is kinship to be found here: a gesture of solidarity that localizes the seemingly remote, and brings the blue indigo of India and the blue collar of Hamilton into fleeting alignment.

Swapnaa Tamhane, DROP CLOTH, 2023, installation detail (photo: Eli Nolet)

One more element calls for attention in this beautifully attuned exhibition. Two pencil drawings depict the private home altars of weavers, rendered in intimate strokes of fine lines and graphite smudges. Their frames are suspended well above eye level, urging the head to crane back in an upward gaze of quiet divinity. In this physical response, maker, viewer, and worshipper alike are all drawn tellingly together.

Swapnaa Tamhane: DROP CLOTH continues until May 13.
Hamilton Artists Inc.: http://www.theinc.ca/exhibitions/swapnaa-tamhane-drop-cloth/
The gallery is accessible.

Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist, writer and arts worker focused on communications and advocacy. Her drawings, installations and book-based works investigate cyclical histories and human impacts on the natural world. She can be followed on Instagram @stephanievegh