PeekskillHudson Valley MOCA
May 9 – September 8, 2019
Rattan sticks painted black and woven together with thread arc between the “heads” of two weavings like a sci-fi brain-swap tube, facilitating a transfer of knowledge between mother and daughter. The effigies hang next to each other on the gallery wall. Rake and broom heads, trowel arms, kitchen funnel breasts and fruit bowl wombs peek out behind strands woven from store-bought yarn, shower curtain rings, metal washers, and toy soldiers. This mother-daughter pair, Family Lineage 1 (2019) welcomes the viewer into Anne Samat’s first solo show in the US, Greatest Love. Samat’s six unorthodox weavings, depicting three generations of her family members, hang in an upstairs loft the size of a two car garage. She made the work near the museum, during a three month residency, using a combination of materials she brought from Kuala Lampur and pieces she found in stores around Peekskill, NY where the museum is located. Samat’s weavings are grounded in traditional Malaysian techniques, but her use of readymade objects and three dimensions make her work closer kin to Jeffrey Gibson and Nick Cave than craft textile tapestries.
Samat states in the press release that her works are “a blend of tradition with modernization, pairing and preserving the old with the new.” We might immediately read that as a reference to her materials on the physical level—she’s weaving with the abundant detritus of our plastic present. But Samat’s “modernization” carries other references as well. Materials are gendered in Malay tradition: metal is male, textile is female.1 Many Southeast Asian marriage ceremonies involve an exchange of metal and cloth, a union across genders. Samat’s materials—metal woven in with thread and plastic (a third, agendered material)—trouble this gender divide. These effigies carry a trace of cyborg, and bear the markings of a creator whose cultural inheritance is at odds with her material habitat.
The most powerful piece, Che Ya: The Greatest Love (2019), is of and for Samat’s mother, recently passed. Rakes extend as open arms. Long woven cords create sleeves and legs. It is 7 feet tall and inhabits the room with a presence that seems to come from behind the woven curtain, from between the twists in the braids. Here, Samat’s attention to material is on full display. The craft store yarns, with stray tendrils of fiber and synthetic color, assume a shimmering energy they were never meant to possess. The toy soldiers, shower rings, and washers become part of the woven yarn, submitting their industrial primary energy to augment the matriarch’s power.
Che Ya’s “womb” forms the energetic fulcrum of the weaving, made from a black and shimmering hub cap with chrome lug nuts. The womb is framed by a forest of yarn in a spectrum of muted red tones, shorter strands hang directly from the spokes. Brightly painted rattan sticks behind the wheel create an incandescent glow. The wheel is the gravitational center of the work; it looks like a necessary, structural component and begs a question: what does it mean to remake your mother’s womb of out of male matter? If we read Samat’s material references closely, a transgendering begins to appear. Che Ya’s coarse and woven locks are weighted down by washers, bells, metal clips, and chains. Her body, along with the rest of the family members’, is represented with signifiers of both how they conform to and transgress their apparent gender.
Given that Samat did much of the weaving in Peekskill, the prevalence of garden tools is unsurprising—American belonging and place is cultivated largely in our yards, and a good slice of our retail space is dedicated to the pastime (New Yorkers, think: Home Depot, Tractor Warehouse, True Value, Ace, etc. are more easily found than Post Offices). Every piece bears a symbol of growth: rakes form the heads, two small works, Zaafarani: Grandson and Inara: Great Granddaughter, have trowels and shovels for arms, the midriff of Ocu: Family Warrior is flanked by a garden fork’s sharp metal fingers. Gardens are complex gender symbols, embodying both masculine order and feminine wilderness, something between untamed and domestic (contradicting the last gender association). A garden produces and protects plants like a little dirt womb. It can also imprison (mostly, it seems, women) like the garden grave in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. There’s an as-you-like-it aspect to the garden, it can be decoration, sustenance, or both. The garden is mutable, it is constructed and nurtured to express and perform the gardener’s desires, much like how the body—whether cisgendered or transgendered—is prepared and made to be read according the person’s desires.
Samat’s figures in Greatest Love evade familiar architectural metaphors of gender performance. Yes gardening includes pruning and weeding (weeds being a matter of opinion) reminiscent of renovation and wrecking balls. But where a building has completion dates and an aesthetic goal, raising a garden is an on-going process. Gardens require tenderness, what they produce can be changed with the season, they are fluid, they are pleasant however they exist—they embody the kind of unconditional support that we, according to Jung, require to become ourselves. In this, Samat’s Greatest Love provides an important contribution to gender discourse in contemporary art—replacing construction with cultivation and making trans embodiment into something natural.
1. “Metal was always hot, and it was always the male. Textile—thread, cloth—would be cool, and female. A lot of marriage ceremonies around South East Asia, especially if you were from the nobility, it was very important that at a certain point there was an exchange of these two things together.” Boon Hui Tan, “Threading the Contemporary: Visualizing Gender and Tradition” (panel), Asia Society, NYC, May 1, 2019, 1:14, accessed June 18, 2019. https://asiasociety.org/video/threading-contemporary-visualizing-gender-and-tradition-complete