embroidered artwork

embroidered artwork

In 2019, German embroidery artist Jess de Wahls had her works removed from the Royal Academy gift shop after a blogpost – in which she outlined her views on gender identity politics – was deemed transphobic. The Royal Academy has since apologised, emphasising the importance of freedom of speech. Here, Candice Tucker speaks to the artist about the experience, her practice and future collaborations

1. You’ve established yourself as an ‘enfant terrible’. Can you explain what that means exactly?

I was branded that, rather, by Hand and Lock, which is this old-fashioned embroidery house in the West End – it’s over 250 years old, I think. I did a bit of work with them over a period of years and I guess it’s because I’m not your average dolly embroiderer. They did a story on me and that’s what it was called and I thought I’ll run with it, it works! I’ve done a lot of vulva embroidery and I’ve got the Big Swinging Ovaries label and I think that’s where it came from and I thought well I guess that’s true because I kind of go against the grain of what people perceive as embroidery.

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

2. Your work explores themes such as the environment, contemporary feminism and female liberation. Do you think there is a natural link between these interests?

There has always been a natural link for me. It wasn’t something I set out to do and embroidery wasn’t something I set out to do either – I just fell into it, naturally.

Traditionally, embroidery and needle work have been seen as women’s work. The recycling bit, for me, is connected in the sense that I am a big fan of trying to reuse things so I almost exclusively work with recycled materials. I embroider onto old fabrics, usually old clothes or bed linen or anything I can get my hands on. When I used to do the Retex sculptures (short for recycled-textile-sculpture) it was purely from donated clothes from friends and family and people that like my work which I cut apart, so that links together with the whole textile aspect.

Feminism was always something I was curious to explore through my work. As mentioned before, embroidery or textile art in general has always been sidelined as women’s work, and regarded as somehow less than mainstream art. I’ve been taking quite a stand over the years now to make a point that embroidery is just as much art as any other medium, but it wasn’t that I thought “I’m a feminist and therefore, I have to choose textile art”, it all just kind of connected. There’s no ulterior motive behind it.

3. How were you first introduced to textile art and embroidery?

I used to paint and draw storyboards, but I sort of fell into textile art when my goddaughter was born and I wanted to make something tactile for so I used some of my old clothes. The last time I had sewn something before that was when I was in primary school. I made a little soft toy for her and I really loved the process of stitching, so much so that I thought, “Why haven’t I done this before?”

After that, I did a lot of sewing which ended up turning into my Retex sculptures that became more and more intricate the more I went with the fabric and the textile. I never studied it so I just found my way through what medium I wanted to work with next. Embroidery happened naturally because the backgrounds got tinier and tinier, and more and more detailed. Now, I pretty much only do embroidery. I find it addictive.

I’ve always been fascinated by meticulous, tiny works of art where there’s lots of repetition, and really, there’s nothing more repetitive than stitching because you get into this flow state and you can go for hours and also do something else whilst you’re doing it. I have a Zoom stitch group – we meet every other day and for 2 hours, we just chat while everybody works on their own projects. It’s kind of like back in the day when women used to meet to stitch. There’s something really soothing about it.

4. How do you think art manages to act as a platform in raising awareness for issues such as equality and the environment?

In a way, I think art has always [raised awareness], it’s just now that the mainstream is taking more notice. Artists have always expressed their worries, concerns, likes, dislikes and fears through their work, but with social media, and the internet, we have much more exposure to [both art and these issues]. Look at Frida Kahlo and her work: she was expressing very similar things early on.

Read more: Helga Piaget on educating the next generation

I do find it a little difficult now because there is so much political art that it becomes a bit like propaganda where I’m not sure how good it is and how much it takes away from the quality of the art. There is also such an incessant need for labels for everyone and everything, which is interesting to me because I’ve sort of become a feminist artist and although the majority of my work is about feminism, it’s also only one of many things that I’m exploring. At the moment, there are a lot of feminist issues that that I’m looking at through my art, criticising or applauding, but that’s not to say that’s what I’ll be focusing on next year when there might be something else that’s more on my radar. There are some really good things about the internet, it allows people to reach broader audiences that they wouldn’t have been able to access before, but [the overload of information and content] can be difficult to navigate.

5. What was the importance of the Royal Academy’s apology with regards to freedom of expression?

Obviously, I welcome the apology. Sadly, over the last two years, I had become almost used to that kind of behaviour. People were really shocked to see what had happened because it was the first time this had happened so publicly, other than what happened with JK Rowling, but that’s a different story because she’s at a different level to me. It was shocking to see that an art institution like the RA would go along with the social media pressure because ultimately that is what it is, and there is a danger in that. I think we should be able to look at art and separate it, to a certain extent, from the artist.

Of course, people are free to disagree with me. They said it’s not freedom of speech if you don’t let people voice their concerns about your views and I’ve never said that they shouldn’t be able to voice them. It’s not freedom of speech if the consequence is that I have to worry about my livelihood and that of my partner and friends. Within art, I think, there are guidelines for hate speech, which I haven’t broken: I don’t hate anyone. So, yes I am glad they apologised publicly. A lot of people were hoping I was going to court, but it’s much more important to have a public stand on this, and I know there are a lot people who disagree with that too, but then, what do you want from art?

textile artwork

Ideas don’t go away just because they are prohibited: they go underground and they fester when they are not being examined. I, as an artist, should be able to say something that isn’t hate speech, and people should be free to say, “That’s rubbish”, or “I agree with you.” To me, that’s what art is about. The way [this whole thing] has been misrepresented as if I am trying to punch down a minority is nonsense: in my opinion, I’m standing up for women. I’ve been open for conversations about my thoughts on this for a long time and they have only every been met with dogma.

If the big art organisations start examining every artist, they won’t have any art on their walls anymore and if only certain thoughts are allowed to be expressed, then we will have a very narrow view of art and life.

6. Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’ve done a couple of webinars with Baroness Nicholson. She wants to get me involved with the Yazidi women in the war camp and bring embroidery there, which I would love to do because in South Africa there are a lot of women who were raped in the war and they work through their trauma with embroidery, which can be super healing and soothing.

There’s also a group of women artists that I’m working with in the background and a couple of curators, we are trying to put on an exhibition about ‘cancelled’ artists, particularly women artists. Who knows, maybe I can convince the Royal Academy to give us a space!

Find out more: jessdewahls.com

Reading time: 7 min
luxury hotel bar
hotel bar with mountains in the distance

Lauber’s Hotel CERVO uses recycled materials and geothermal heat. Photograph by Darius Sanai

As COP26 brings together world leaders to discuss climate change, Daniel Lauber, owner of the CERVO Mountain Resort in Zermatt, gives us his six guiding principles on how to create a truly sustainable luxury hotel. No greenwash included

Walk into the CERVO Mountain Resort in Zermatt, Switzerland, and you know you are in game-changing sustainable luxury. All the fixtures, fittings, furniture and decorations inside and outside the main Bazaar restaurant are of found, recycled or second-hand/vintage materials, down to the cloth screens separating tables for Covid-19 security. In the rooms, there are no disposable plastic bottles, either in the bathrooms or minibar; no disposable plastic at all, in fact, as even the bedroom slippers are made of recycled felt (they are then recycled again).

And there’s no greenwashing; Lauber knows the difference between offsetting and zero carbon. His aim is for the hotel to have a zero-carbon footprint or better, an immense challenge.

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

Deep boreholes mean all the hotel’s heating is geothermal; electricity is all renewable; produce in the restaurants and bars is discernibly local, sourced from within a 150km radius. All of this is even more challenging in a remote ski resort at 1650m altitude, ringed by some of the highest peaks in the Alps, than in most places.

It’s also one of the funkiest hotels in the Alps; its bar and terrace at the bottom of the Sunnegga mountain piste are the place to be seen at the end of the ski day in Zermatt.

1. Do your homework, set targets and become your own expert

The (geothermal) heating is installed. Now we are trying more and more to go zero footprint or at least a compensated footprint. That’s the next goal, and we are aiming to get to zero waste, maybe by 2024/25.

We work together with myclimate, a Swiss organisation. We are evaluating how big our footprint is. So, the first step is to evaluate and the second step, by the end of 2022, is to try and minimise it with actual plans for things we can change, and what we can’t change then definitely to compensate for it. The end goal is to be zero footprint and then even positive, so we don’t produce a negative footprint at all. As a hotel, that’s quite a challenge, especially as we take into account construction, which always has a negative impact.

2. Make your clients your ambassadors

Doing all this is sometimes (though not always!) more expensive. Then it’s up to us to tell the story to the customer. If they understand it and appreciate it, and most of them do, then we can try to compensate the higher cost of buying with a slightly higher price; and we are lucky that our customers are able to pay that.

3. Go local, but also support family business, and be realistic

The social aspect is very important, as is the economic aspect, because you can be very social and very environmental, but if the business doesn’t work you’re going to lose.

We can work with suppliers who are smaller family businesses to find new ways of being sustainable. I really like that. And I like to give those smaller companies a platform.

For example, most of our ice cream is home-made, but in the summers we have ice cream stands and we sell ice cream from Basel. We could find ice cream that’s closer, but the people producing the one from Basel have a social work space for people who have some health issues or other disabilities and I think that’s nice. It might be 100km further away than other producers, but the mindset they have is so great, it’s worth it.

Read more: Professor Peter Newell on climate responsibility

4. Make a virtue out of your ethical sourcing

Generally, we try to use furniture that also has a sustainable approach. For example, the beds are handmade with organic materials. With whatever furniture we created ourselves, we tried to use local carpenters. In the Bazaar restaurant it was a bit different, it’s more themed, so in that instance we tried to work with young designers and companies in Morocco to support emerging designers or the all-women enterprises there. The chairs, the cushions, the carpets were made for us by small enterprises and that’s nice. It’s different to just ordering a fake Moroccan-style cushion produced anywhere.

5. The hard work is on what clients can’t see

It was quite an easy change to be plastic free in the amenities and rooms. It’s good that the customers see that. The bigger challenge to being plastic free is when it comes to the supply chain. Some stuff we need to order comes shipped stupidly wrapped up. And now that’s the second goal. We can’t do it alone, but we try to talk with those companies and ask if they can ship it differently, to see if they can use multi-reusable packaging, for example.

6. Create a virtuous circle and inspire, but don’t proselytise

We have a lot of feedback when customers say, “Ah this is a good idea”, so we do what we can to inspire customers and staff. If you inspire 10 people, it’s already worth it, and if those 10 each also inspire another 10, then it quickly escalates.

To be inspiring is very important for a hotel but it should never pushy. It’s great to inspire guests but if they don’t care that’s fine, too. Inspiring people can also be a bit educational, but I don’t think it’s our job as a hotel to educate.

Find out more: cervo.swiss

Reading time: 4 min