Untitled (Sleep IV)

The still-pleated, eleventh dynasty linen dress preserved in an Egyptian tomb is as evocative as the velificantes on the Augustan Alter of Peace, carved in the ninth century B.C.E. In the ancient Homeric epic Odyssey, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, wove and surreptitiously unravelled a burial shroud, vowing to choose a new suitor only when the shroud was complete. The Seamless Robe of Jesus, said to have been worn by Christ before or during the crucifixion, was (according to the Bible) recovered by soldiers who cast lots for it. The garment is still claimed to be housed at various competing religious establishments today.

The manipulation of natural fibres have been a critical aspect of history since the seventh millennium B.C.E. As humanity progressed, textile arts evolved alongside weaponry, tools, clothing and art. From ancient weaving, natural dyeing and garment construction to hand embroidery and machine work, textile practice was born from necessity, but quickly expanded into a manifestation of culture, technological ingenuity and self-expression. An example of this is evidenced in the decorative patterning of Neolithic textiles woven and beaded with seeds.

In 168 B.C.E, the tomb of Xin Zhui (Lady Dai), wife to the Marquis of Dai and Chancellor of Changsha Kingdom was sealed in Mawangdui, Hunan Province, China. Filled with more than 1,000 items ranging from drink and food vessels to figurines and sachets of spices, flowers, and fragrant reeds, the tomb was rediscovered in 1972. But it was one particular textile item that drew almost as much attention as Xin Zhui's remarkably preserved body - a six-foot, t-shaped silk banner, painted to map the elaborate cultural belief systems of the Western Han dynastic period. Positioned at the top of the banner, a deity with a human head and a dragon body awaits the funerary procession of Xin Zhui. Below is a depiction of Xin Zhui and her attendants, with sinuous dragons flanking the scene. Below them, the body of Xin Zhui lies with mourners and at the base of the banner is the Underworld, populated by a pair of giant black fish, a red snake, two blue goats and an unknown deity. Perhaps intended to aid the soul of Xin Zhui on its passage to the afterlife, the banner is an example of an established Chinese textile culture and stands as the earliest known portrait in Chinese painting.

The elaborate liturgical mantle of Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily (r. 1130-1154), was constructed in red silk imported from the Byzantine Empire. Embroidered with gold lion motifs overcoming domesticated camels and coruscating with semi-precious and glass jewels, the mantle was crafted by Arabic artisans in Palermo, Sicily, likely signifying victory over the previous dynasty.

In 2010, the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen's last collection echoed this mantle and other lavish garments of the period, the heraldic figures of gold lions twisting against vivid red Jacquards and silks pressed with cabochon jewels and pearls and rich with a legacy of textile artistry.

During the Edo period in Japan, fine silk dress was assumed by only a select portion of the upper-class, so the working-class grew, spun, dyed, and wove their own clothing from cotton, linen, and hemp. Worn from manual labour, these clothes were constantly in need of repair, and were mended and reinforced with spare fabric scraps. In many cases, these boro garments have lasted generations, becoming complex indigo-dyed patchworks spanning decades of wear and mending.

The instances I have mentioned here, as well as countless others, are markers of our own technological and cultural passage. The banner of Xin Zhui, 50,000 year-old string fibres, boro garments - all are enduring historical vessels pointing to the importance and ingrained demand for the merging of art and object. Though malleable and pliant, the value of textiles has often led to their placement in notable sites like tombs and caves, rediscovered intact hundreds or thousands of years later. The scope and evolution of textiles has revealed vital insights into the narrative of humanity. As textiles developed, so did the societies that produced them (and vice versa), a vivid cycle of human necessity and ingenuity.

To undertake any textile artform is to operate on the foundation of an ancient and ever expanding expression of materiality. Highly physical, I choose to work with textile materials in part because of their vast history, diverse evolution and growth. Historically, textile arts have also been dismissed as women's work - a title that has often come to suggest both a menial practice and an inferior practitioner. But with the unification of modern art and feminism, textile arts are now recognised as a vehicle of expansion, renewal, physicality, and reclamation, with a united history that feeds deep into the heart of contemporary textile and fibre art practice.

Untitled (Sleep IV), an exploration of the chronic illness of narcolepsy and its manifestation in sleep objects by Megan Kennedy
Untitled (Sleep IV)

Like preceding pieces in the Sleep series, Untitled (Sleep IV) is constructed from my used cotton sheets. For this piece I also incorporated sections of pillow cases and nylon materials from an old nightgown - a reflection of the role and permeable weight of sleep objects through the spectrum of chronic illness and the transferral of human experience to inanimate materials. Sleep textiles are objects that draw the expectation of comfort and rest - an expectation that is often unmet for those with a chronic condition. While my work is by no means as elaborate as Roger II's mantle, or as profound as generational Japanese boro garments, I feel that in deconstructing, manipulating, and binding these infused panels of material, I work within a historically expansive medium united by the affirmation of necessity and the innate demand for artistic expression.

Red thread sewn into white sheets and nylon mesh with a blue hue. A detail image of an artwork investigating chronic illness. Photograph by Megan Kennedy
A photograph of white thread sewn into while sheet material. Photograph by Megan Kennedy