I first discovered the work of South African born, US based, artist Ilona Anderson at the Self-Fabricated exhibit in which I also showed my own work. At the opening I was immediately drawn to the small careful embroideries of objects that were simultaneously banal and dangerous. It became quite evident that the work and the artist was very politically minded and very rooted in her birth countries struggles. Since then I have had the pleasure of enjoying much of Ilona’s work including her incredible drawing installations and gotten to know Ilona as a very intelligent and kind artist. She seemed like a perfect subjetc for this go round of Future Heirlooms. Here we go…
Tell us a bit about your background?
I am a South African who has been in the USA since 1988. We came here on Fulbright Scholarships with our two young children. and both did graduate degrees. I had been a successful painter for a long time with work in many major South African collections.
I went to an all girls schools for both elementary and high school, (as was usual in my neighborhood), At school I learned how to do basic embroidery in addition to other home economics subjects . My mother mostly knew these handicrafts and helped me to finish my projects.
I did not do anything with these skills, except to make hippie outfits and things for my children when they were young.
My art practice was primarily drawing and painting and I did not use these skills as part of my art until many years later.
What is your education as an artist?
I went to a college in South Africa and majored in art and English. It was not a very exciting program so after I graduated my advisor suggested I go and work with an artist who taught classes in his home. This was an important connection for me as this mentor eventually opened his own art school, Hi goal was to provide black artists with an art education, (apartheid excluded them from this possibility.) Eventually I taught at the school.
If you had to describe your work in 3 words what would they be?
At the moment I would have to say delicate, unusual and beautiful, The work I am working on at this moment could have sexy added to the list too.
Tell us about your current body of work?
I recently had a show of my drawings called What One Is and have now begun a new body of embroidery (drawing in thread) work. After I bought a beautiful piece of vintage broiderie anglaise I began to think of making a sexual alphabet. After half a year of gathering ideas and brewing about the form I have finally begun.
Over the past few years I have been engaged in this series of drawings in thread, in which I take the traditional women s craft of embroidery, turn it on its head, and elevate it to a high art form.
With my embroidery I add a layer of new meaning to the old and loved linens, by engaging in a centuries-old female occupation.
How does working with embroidery/stitching affect the conceptual aspect of your work? What drew you to stitching?
I began doing drawings in thread some years ago when through my paintings I began to explore how the colour of our skin is such an awful and superficial way of looking at people. ( This is a the kind of things South Africans brought up under apartheid and are/ were concerned with).
I discovered embroidery hoops at the art store and decided to do a series of works making embroidered breast of all the colours of human beings. In the end I only finished a few as I found it too boring to make these largish single colour sections- though the ones that I finished were very beautiful. This project brought up lots of other ideas for the medium.
My work has always had a lot of sexual content. Under apartheid SA was a Calvinist country and the government had banned sexual content and swearing, in movies or other public places, but allowed violence and murder. The truth was they committed the most violence and murder. They also operated very punitive approach to any opposition. Showing outrageous (in SA at that time) images in my work, was one way of expressing my opposition to the awful apartheid system.
Your work is very much connected to your experience of growing up in South Africa and now living here in the US- can you talk about this as inspiration?
As you can see from my previous response growing up in SA is pivotal to my life. One cannot extricate this from their story.
Growing up under apartheid, I felt the need to make work, which was both relevant and meaningful, work which would express opposition to apartheid and attempt somehow to rend a hole in the system. This ambition or rather, intention led to work, which was explicitly socio-political in focus.
Being back there in 2002-04 it seemed the same need was very alive with many pivotal issues coursing through every aspect of society.
You have done a series of embroideries and ceramics of dangerous objects both overt and banal. How did you come to this series?
SA is such a beautiful country and many are unaware of the fact that untold millions of people have in their day to day life not only been left unaffected by the politics of reconciliation, but now seem utterly lost in a rising sea of poverty, AIDS, violence and corruption. I made this installation which sets out to trace some of the contours of this pain and the edge of pleasure so part of being alive.
This of course is not just a South African problem but rather a human issue affecting all of us and our desires.
For another installation I created a place of rest, so essential for our well being, yet here it has been violently disrupted. At first glance all seems somewhat beautiful, the loveliness of the embroidery, the rose petals strew on the bedding, yet upon careful consideration one notices the petals are actually a holster, the colourful objects guns, the hole in the pillow case a bullet hole.
Again one is reminded of the painfulness of human life and the fragility of the human condition.
Your current work is mostly drawing and you seem to have moved away from thread, what lead you to this change?
I seem to work both threads of inquiry in tandem. The working with thread takes a very long time and I sometime feel stuck within a big project- yet I also cannot seem to be able to keep away from it. I assume I will always have some project I am working on. Preparing for the show, Self-Fabricated, at the Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, MA, was very overwhelming as I had a number of other exhibitions happening at the same time and we were asked to make a piece inspired by the beautiful Chinese Jacket, which I used to deconstruct a sampler. Once that show was up I needed a break, from embroidery. Even though I had ideas for other works, I just could not rouse the energy to begin another project. Now that I have had a break I am excited to be working on my next project. (described above: a sex alphabet.)
What is the next direction or step for your work?
Having just had a major one person show and having been curated into a Drawing Show at the Boston Center for the Arts. I am happy to be exploring different things in my studio without having an agenda. This is a fun place to be and one never knows where things will lead.
I do have some shows scheduled further down the road and therefore have time for play and exploration right now.
What was the last really inspiring work of art you saw and why?
I look at work all the time. A multiplicity of works excites me. I visit the ICA, MFA and all the local exhibitions frequently.
In terms of fiber arts, I loved the show at the Museum of Fine Arts of the embroidery of Colonial Boston. The embroidered linens were so beautiful; embroidered chair covers, drapes to keep the four posted bed warm and private, all with wonderful flowers and stems winding across the surface. I also love early samplers.
What is your favorite thing about your studio?
I like having a studio to work in. and actually would like a bigger studio space at some point.
I don t use my studio to do my drawings in thread. I often carry work around with me or work on my couch. (tree by where Ilona works in top image.)
What do you struggle with most as an artist?
Maybe having enough time and finances to be able to execute everything I would like to do.
What else do you spend your time doing?
I am very lucky. In lots of ways I am my own boss. I am a professor and enjoy teaching. My children are grown and live their own lives so I have lots of freedom to do my own work now.
I am a Buddhist so I spend time meditating and studying, which is really enriching and satisfying. This is a very important aspect of my life and guides much of my thinking and my work.
How do these inform your work?
I think just being curious and alive influences my work. Being a Buddhist affects everything about how I see the world and therefore impacts my work profoundly.
Where can we see your work?
My web site is: www.ilonaanderson.com
I also show at the Kingston Gallery in Boston, MA.
Thank you you so much to Ilona.
Until next time keep your needle threaded.
Joetta Maue is a full-time artist, writer, and curator with a focus on the art of the needle. Her most recent body of work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy and the domestic space. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the critical blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch and the Surface Design Journal.