Articles and Features

Female Iconoclasts: Olga de Amaral. Unapologetically Against the Prescribed Narrative

Olga de Amaral
Portrait of Olga de Amaral © Olga de Amaral

By Anthony Dexter Giannelli

An Undefinable Symbol 

Gold as a material has found an uneasy place for many modernist or contemporary artists. Its illustrious history and embedded capital-centred connotations have made it a somewhat overwhelming material to work with, to the extent that, in modern eyes, it runs the risk of overpowering or even casting an elitist, gaudy, materialistic shadow outshining the artists’ intended message of a specific work. Routes to circumvent this connotation include attacking the surface, distorting the divine lustre, contrasting it against any symbolic or visual representations of low-culture, or creating a dialogue that places the work in the realm of parody or social commentary. All of these practices rely on the assumption that this most precious metal is simply too much for audiences to digest.

In direct opposition to this, it is the creative world of Colombian weaver and fiber artist Olga de Amaral, whose approach to materiality, colour, texture, and surface celebrates each element with an alchemical-like treatment. Displaying a uniquely unapologetic use of gold, precious metals, decadent pigments, and natural fibers, she takes the viewers’ preconceived notion of luxury and turns it on its head. Amaral’s overall practice rebels against classification and prescribed notions of what she or her objects should be, firmly staking her claim as a pioneer within the textile arts and the growing evolution of abstraction beyond the canvas.

Olga de Amaral, Arboles series (2013)

Rebelling Against the Divides of Art and Craft 

Thankfully, we can now see the conservative, western-centric world of the fine arts moving slowly (and reluctantly) towards a more holistic view on creativity and inclusivity of media. We are moving further and further from the rigid divides that Amaral was first introduced to as a young, trained architect From Bogotá who arrived at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan to study in their textile faculty in 1954.  The status quo placed any artist using textile – regardless of the practicality of their final creations – precariously on the ledge between fine art and craft, leaning heavily towards the latter. At the time Olga de Amaral was introduced to the world of the loom, she stood at a crucial turning point for the medium which, similarly to other craft traditions such as ceramics, was long looked down upon for being considered “women’s work” and unworthy in eyes of western high art. However, this started to change in the ’60s, only when established male fine artists such as Oppenheim and Artschwager, began to incorporate everyday, folk material into their practice, in an attempt to question and tear down hierarchical views on the material.

Along with her contemporary Ruth Asawa, Amaral has helped to push forward the revolutionary notion that works of fine art can exist in the same space, and not be separated from the world of craft. Even if these creations are craft at their core, does that make them of any less value culturally or monetarily? In fact, each one of Amaral’s works plays testament to the labour-intensive and material honouring craft origin, while their surfaces and presence rival the captivating abstraction presented through oil paint atop a Rothko canvas. In-wall hanging works such as Calizia II (below), gold-plated linen strands overlap and tunnel to develop a landscape brought to life through layers of blue and turquoise pigment. The romantic linen stretched surface of the great oil painters is thus elevated through an added dimension of heightened depth which embeds the painter into the very fibers of her canvas.

Olga de Amaral
Olga de Amaral, Caliza II (2015)

Manipulation of Dimensions 

The demonstrated treatment and understanding of the intricate relationships between depth, texture, and colour, delivers Amaral’s creations out of the standardized categorizations given to woven objects. Instead, for such dynamic pieces, the setting plays just as much into the interpretation and overall meanings of the works themselves. Hung from the ceiling, accumulations of delicate singular strands become strong columns or heavy barricades; walls to divide space and create their own interdimensional landscapes. In each variation of the woven form, Amaral plays upon the strength of her medium, building upon contradictions, the soft, malleable, familiar, and domestic starting material becomes weightless beams of light, embodying a signature luminosity. This alchemical transformation is only brought on through mastery of colour, technical skill, and expert manipulation of material. Combining these elements allows Amaral to access dimensions beyond depth, height, or length, in the realm of light and luminosity. 

Olga de Amaral
Olga de Amaral, Nudo 22 (2014)

Our brains are hardwired to be infatuated with the effervescent: our perception is sometimes lost or misguided by the way in which gold, silver, and rich pigments distort and amplify light and reflections. It is upon this anamorphic landscape that Amaral’s works dwell in an added plane for our mind’s eye to run wild. Each work, regardless of its literal depth, morphs into new distinct and dynamic surfaces depending on the onlooker’s viewpoint. This is thanks to the combined effort of each strand’s multifaceted faces and plates making up the greater image. Using an off-the-loom technique, Amaral builds upon woven structures with gesso, pigments, and precious metals to allow each section, each strand to act as a smaller work; its own vignette of abstraction within the greater work. When shifted by a slight breeze or passerby the viewer can appreciate each moment, each snapshot of an ever-changing surface coming to life in a type of passive, third-person interaction.

Olga de Amaral
Olga de Amaral, Escrito X (2014)

Defining One’s Own Luxury

These lush visual and spatial environments, for many, may be reminiscent of regal excess, conjuring an image of tapestries hung in an exuberant place of medieval worship, or grand hall. However, past this initial impression, another picture of reality presents itself. Olga de Amaral first began using gold in her work after the influence of the British ceramicist Lucie Rei using the Japanese form of kintsugi. This practice seeks to repair broken ceramics with gold to highlight the cracks rather than attempting to return them to a lost state before the break occurred. Instead, a new state is created and elevated now, celebrating this imperfection. In a way, she was inspired by a rebel against a common understanding of luxury and its idolization of the unachievable, superficial perfection. 

Though her fascination with gold started with this Japanese tradition, Amaral comes from a land whose pre-contact civilizations inspired the European conquistadors and explorer obsessions with the famed El Dorado, the City of Gold. For the sake of storytelling, let’s entertain this possible influence to Amaral that art historians and critics are drawn to the world over. The Muisca who inspired this legend took a polar opposite approach to gold than that of the Europeans who would move heaven and earth to seek out the metal. Though both infatuated with the malleable liquid sun, the Muisca chose to let this gift from the gods live as they did. In life, many throughout their ranking in society adorned themselves in delicately fashioned symbols not solely reserved for nobility or warriors. In death, it was buried alongside the revered for the afterlife, or in ceremonial occasions, the carefully crafted golden objects were dumped en masse into Lake Guatavita, given back to the watery underworld.

Musica Gold Work
Example of Muisca gold work on display at Museo del Oro in Bogotá

Gold lived with their society, not hoarded only in the storerooms and closed-off buildings of the elite, this was the idea of El Dorado. While Europeans searched and desecrated numerous amounts of gold and resources from the Americas, El Dorado was never found for it was the idea of it that they never truly understood, and could not be pillaged. In fact, while gold was indeed highly cherished, weaving objects held a remarkably similar position. Astonishing examples still exist of royal llama weaving from across the Andes, but woven works penetrated so deep into societal life they were developed as a record-keeping and counting system.

Amaral’s practice embodies a lifetime of rebelling: as a textile artist, as a woman artist, as an artist between the United States and Latin America, she actively worked against what the art world cared to view her as. Her works combine the approachable, the familiar world of soft cloth with gold, that untouchable warm, holy embodiment of the heavens; thus, leaving us to question, why shouldn’t these types of cherished materials be more approachable? What better way to make us question our appreciation of the material, our praised objects or their availability to the masses. While we can’t deny her works themselves, ownership and sale play into the art market’s inescapable consumerist notion of luxury, when displayed, the space they create gives a moment of luxury and grandeur accessible to anyone. 

Relevant sources to learn more

The Fibers and Fabrics of Textile Art. How Classic Craft Found Its Way Into Fine Art Practices
Lost (and Found Artist Series): Ruth Asawa
Decolonizing Identity through Latin American Visual Art