The Textile Museum of Canada (the Museum) presents Simone Elizabeth Saunders: u.n.i.t.y., an exhibition of works by Simone Elizabeth Saunders, evoking personal history, Afro diaspora, and Black sisterhood through portraits created with bold, colourful textiles. Saunders’ dramatic tufted works incorporate motifs from her Jamaican heritage and engage with sociocultural factors to reclaim power from oppressive ideologies. Saunders’ background in theatre arts informs her practice as she integrates dramatism and story-telling within her singular creations. Organized by Contemporary Calgary Senior Curator Ryan Doherty, the exhibition will be on view in Toronto from October 12, 2022, to January 29, 2023.
Borrowing iconography from her Jamaican heritage, art history, literature, music, and current events, Saunders depicts single female figures, each a montage of powerful, inspirational Black bodies that collectively surface as a strong and resilient community. As much as these eloquent portraits connote Black joy and perseverance, it is when they are presented together that they become narratives of connection that, for Saunders, offers herself and others a potent sense of belonging.
“We are thrilled to launch our fall season with such an uplifting exhibition that presents the power, confidence and beauty of Black lives with an artistry that mesmerizes,” said Kirsten Kamper, Director and CEO of the Textile Museum of Canada. “Simone Elizabeth Saunders: u.n.i.t.y. builds on years of Museum exhibitions and partnerships celebrating textile techniques that are being reinterpreted by a new generation of artists, revealing and sharing stories of the people who continue to shape and innovate textile practices today.”
The exhibition includes pieces from Saunders’ Ancestral Bodies series (begun in 2021) honouring her ancestors, and her Protect Black Women series (2020-2021) featuring Four Queens (2021) inspired by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau work Precious Stones (1900), which shows iconic figures and gestures amidst decorative botanical motifs. In Four Queens, Black women take similar poses, but gaze directly at viewers as embodiments of Black Power, Black Dreams, Black Magic, and Black Love. Saunders emulates Mucha’s turn-of-the-last-century artwork in her own style, championing Black womanhood and creating what she calls “Black Nouveau.”
“Saunders work manifests a compelling tension between the powerful connotations of her imagery and colour palette with the soft tactility of her materials,” said Doherty. “Hand tufting her works, threads of acrylic, wool, velvet, and more, introduce a tender dimension—a sensitive, vulnerable, and enticing facet to dismantle the misperceptions of Black women. Furthermore, the mingling of individual threads of yarn brought together into a collective whole, echoes the interconnectedness of her subjects.”
While Saunders has only recently embraced textile art, her great-grandfather in Jamaica was an affluent tailor. She has also been influenced by a range of artists including Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Wangechi Mutu, and Renaissance tapestries. Among her influences, she credits Black figures across disciplines and generations who have excelled at their craft and sparked joy including, Maya Angelou, Octavia Butler, H.E.R., Alicia Keys, Queen Latifah, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, Kehinde Wiley, and Serena Williams among many others.
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Image info: Simone Elizabeth Saunders, Excellence, 2021, velvet, acrylic and wool yarn on rug warp, 152 x 152 x 4 cm. Courtesy the Artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo: Jesse Tamayo