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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013

A Provocative Gestalt of the Garment Industry

MOWA presents ‘Portrait of a Textile Worker’

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Through Jan. 17, the Museum of Wisconsin Art features Terese Agnew’s monumental quilt artwork Portrait of a Textile Worker (2005). MOWA borrowed the piece from the Museum of Arts and Design in New York following the collapse of a garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, this past April, which killed 1,127 workers and injured 2,500. The building was structurally unsound and parts of it were illegally constructed. The tragedy has brought international awareness to the inhuman conditions under which many laborers in the third world work.

Sewn together from 30,000 clothing labels from diverse name brands common in the United States, Agnew’s quilt forms the gestalt image of a Nicaraguan woman hard at work over a sewing machine. Step close to the quilt, and the individual brands are clearly visible; step back, and the striking image of the human face behind the manufacturing industry comes into focus.

In a video accompanying the artwork, Agnew describes the particular benefits of her medium: “The cutting and pasting of quilting allowed me to put these perspectives together.” Many of the artist’s works deal with issues of social justice and threats to the natural environment, and she notes how the “familiarity associated with a craft [such as quilting]” creates a common ground with the viewers that eases them into the very serious subject matter.

Agnew put out a call for labels when she began the project and was met by an enormous response—as she puts it, “a chorus of voices of people who are concerned about what’s happening.” Meticulous and unsettling as the implications of Portrait of a Textile Worker are, the history and ideology of this artwork also suggest hope that travesties such as the one in Bangladesh will not be swept under the rug.

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