Home is where one starts from.
As we grow older. The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
TS ELIOT, Four Quartets: East Coker
What does it mean to belong in a society where everyone is transient?
The artists in Woven Identities - Jeff Scofield and Stephanie Neville - have each spent over 15 years
living and working in the UAE and their art reflects many of the complexities that entails.
Scofield’s practice is rooted in materiality. His assemblages of found objects take reference from his
greatest inspirations: Emirati Hassan Sharif (1951-2016) and American Tony Feher (1956-2016).
Although ostensibly commenting on the threat to the natural world – a concern magnified when living in
the desert, Scofield’s preoccupation with natural materials is poignant. They are temporary, much like
human life and indeed, our relationships.
In Conversations (2015), Scofield’s society is represented by thousands of torn pages from books
bearing script written in the many languages and alphabets in daily use in the UAE. Money Cascade
(2017), his second installation, continues the idea – this time with currency notes collected from across
the region and further afield. Visually intriguing, they catch light and throw dynamic shadows but they
are intrinsically unstable. Tied together with cotton rope, the individual pieces are floating and fluttering
and in essence, they underline the fragility of relationships in an ephemeral community.
These installations also speak to the notion of national identity. When immersed among so many
cultures and ethnicities, one becomes more attached to individual identifying factors. But with time,
perhaps these too get lost, re-shaped or moulded by the journey.
With his series of woven books Book Weaving Collection (2016), Scofield has interspersed pages of
original text with drawings and layers of other narratives. He is rewriting his own history and inviting us
to consider our own. Neville’s installation Sticks and Stones (2016) is in dialogue with this piece.
Comprising embroidered words on recycled textiles, this is another kind of visual diary. Neville’s practice
is autobiographical so these words are posited as messages to her absent husband but in the context
of the exhibition, they resemble internet memes, which are so widely distributed on social media and
pinpoint a central aspect of transitory living.
A conscious and astute observer of her own life Neville uses embroidery and textile to subvert and
exploit her feminine stance. The embroidered body parts that hang between the floor and ceiling in her
three-metre installation here not here (2012) also pay homage to her husband, who constantly travels
for work. Individual pieces depicting parts of his anatomy are delicately suspended. There is a foot, an
eye and, in case we were in any doubt of his gender, his most intimate male organ. Where Scofield
contemplates human kinship, here the relationship put under scrutiny is a marriage.
But so too is the craft itself. Well-versed in the work of feminist art historian Rozsika Parker, who wrote
about the role of embroidery and the construction of femininity, Neville reclaims the craft making it bold
and almost defiant. Bean Bag (2013) is made with brightly coloured, synthetic materials that contrast
with Scofield’s earth browns and rust hues. In both practices physicality is central.
Neville, too, presents an assemblage of her own. Like (2016), a hanging collection of ‘selfie’
photographs crocheted together with fishing wire maintains a strong presence with both its shape and
content. Neville moves the viewer’s gaze away from our relationships with others towards ego. Here we
see a representation of the introverted search for belonging that cyberspace offers and as well as a
sense of displacement in the fruitlessness of trying to fit into a disjointed community.
Laced throughout Neville’s work is a sense of melancholy and longing hidden in the frivolity of colours
and tactile material. Scofield also laments. In his work, we feel a longing for ways of life lost to time and
to communities that used to communicate slowly – in the post-internet sense of the word.
Just as the threads and cotton of the various artworks in this exhibition are inextricably linked to form a
whole, the stories of our lives also culminate in the present moment, a concept that in and of itself is
also difficult to define. Here, shared experiences are as important as individualism and from their
combination, new definitions are drawn.
Against the backdrop of a relentlessly changing landscape and in a country steeped in nationhood,
Woven Identities expresses the slippery reality of carving a notion of home.
• By Anna Seaman
BIO: Anna Seaman is an experienced arts and culture writer who has spent the past 10 years
documenting the UAE art scene.
The Complicated Pattern: Unpicking and restitching
the threads of Woven Identities.
By Anna Seaman