Sunday, July 7, 2019

Repair and Design Futures at the RISD Museum

Repair and Design Futures at the RISD Museum [ended 6/30/19] was a great show about mending.
A quilt display in Cafe Pearl
Repair is the creative destruction of brokenness.
—Elizabeth V. Spelman, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World

Repair, a humble act born of necessity, expresses resistance to the unmaking of our world and the environment. This exhibition and programming series, Repair and Design Futures, investigates mending as material intervention, metaphor, and call to action. Spanning the globe and more than three centuries, these objects reveal darns, patches, and stabilized areas that act as springboards to considering socially engaged design thinking today. Repair invites renewed forms of social exchange and offers alternative, holistic ways of facing environmental and social breakdown.

On display in this multiuse gallery space are costume and textile objects from the collections of the RISD Museum and Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. In CafĂ© Pearl (at the Benefit Street entrance) and the Donghia Costume and Textile Gallery and Study Center (sixth floor), related exhibitions investigate additional approaches to repair. Through this informal, expansive format, we hope to encourage engagement across a broad spectrum of perspectives.

Kate Irvin
Curator, Costume and Textiles Department
RISD Museum
[all text in brown from RISD Museum website or exhibition checklist]

The exhibition was divided into several sections. There were also displays of relevant books, some of which I've listed at the bottom.

Wounds, Sutures, and Scars
We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right.
—Louise Erdrich, Four Souls
The visceral presence of flesh in objects crafted of animal hide is amplified here by the visible sutures
that suggest a tending to and eventual healing of wounds endured. This material’s spiritual resonance
prompts questions of how the wound, crack, or fissure might provide an invitation to respond not only on a personal level but also within civic and collective arenas.

Repair as Value Added
Repairs that are not only unconcealed but celebrated serve as reminders of the rich life an object has
led, adding meaning, calling attention to its stories, and enabling a new path forward. Weathered
garments with evident and various repairs encourage us to appreciate the worn and imperfect as entry
points to understanding objects as material and practice, and to identifying holes (evident in patch
repairs) as important signs of history, time, emotional investment.
Ghanaian Man’s Robe (Fugu), mid 1900s Indigo-dyed cotton plain weave, patched
Museum purchase: Museum Works of Art Fund, by exchange 2017.5.2 

Textbook Repair
Well into the 20th century, mending and sewing skills were part of women’s education. Neatness and
precision were considered key indicators of skill and a girl’s eventual management of her household.
However, despite meticulous textbook instruction and training, many historical repairs combine
systematic skill with improvisation and creativity.

Broken-World Thinking
Broken-world thinking, as conceived by scholar Steven J. Jackson, presents breakage as potentially
generative and repair as a space for creative solutions to ruptures in the fabric of society. These pieces
speak to repair as a way of making something—perhaps even a broken world—functional again. These repairs acknowledge use, abuse, accident, and error. They insist on not forgetting the thing or its history.

These pieces reflect the value of assemblage in communicating and sharing mutual respect and
perspectives. Notions of cultural purity and ownership have no traction here. These items instead
recognize the emotional labor of dialogue and repairing relationships by reaching across imposed and/or imagined boundaries.

Patchworked items manifest repair by promoting collaboration. They celebrate the dialogue of the old with the new and illustrate the ways anyone can intervene and give dysfunctional material new life. The coming together involved in the practice of patchwork quilting has traditionally provided communities with moorings of exchange, communication, and shared traditions. Repair, in this case, is a way to reconnect fabric and people and engage with cultural and material history.

Additional reading:
Linking with