Jill Magi and ‘The Weft in Pencil’: Story of words, printed page, and textiles

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“Life is not one thing or the other. Life is beauty and struggle, history, and the present. So I wanted people to experience both things,” says American visual artist and poet Jill Magi to Al Arabiya English, during her solo exhibition ‘The Weft in Pencil,’ at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi.

Her words take on the rhythm of the spoken word, the earnestness of a teacher, and the enthusiasm of an artist who has found freedom from the confines of the editorial grid and the printed page into the large canvases and prints in a gallery.

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‘The Weft in Pencil’ is a body of work resulting from the Artistic Development Exhibition Program, a partnership between The Institute of Emerging Art and Warehouse421.

The show is an excellent dive into the artistic processes at work at an individual level and, at the same time, shaped by the artist’s present surroundings besides ruminations about the colonial forces of the past.

Magi, who teaches literature and art programs at the New York University Abu Dhabi, presents works that are rooted in grid or matrix formations, the intersection of warp and weft. The works are inspired by her experiments with the printed text as well as her discovery of the beauty of North African strip-weaving and the grid patterns of those textiles. This encounter encouraged Magi to embark on an exploration of “weaving words.” The seed of a new artistic process was born.

 American visual artist and poet Jill Magi at WArehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.
American visual artist and poet Jill Magi at WArehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.


In one of her poems in 2017, Magi had written, “So far I have not talked about warp/and weft because they continue/ to stun me. At the intersection/ I pause, basking in the aura/ of the grid.”

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Magi says: “Textiles are on one hand extremely beautiful, we know them and wear them. Again, they are not neutral. And their histories are also about colonialism, trade, capitalism, and globalization.”

When asked whether her works could be placed in a Western Modernist context, she maintains that “Modernists were not interested in purifying painting. For them, there’s nothing to read in the painting itself – you know, art for art’s sake. Honestly, I don’t believe that…I don’t think it is possible.”

“Although I greatly respect the Modernist project, painting has a different history, and it points to other things… it can point to textiles (as in my case), not to the painting itself, though.”

Magi said that she has been influenced by Abu Dhabi city, and the ‘textility’ of the place, as in the repeated patterns that are everywhere and seen in the city’s architecture starting with the 1970’s Gulf Modernism.

Jill Magi with ‘The Weft in Pencil, Blue Version’ (Acrylic, watercolor, graphite, cotton canvas;25.5 x 30.5 cm; 2021). (Courtesy: Warehouse421)
Jill Magi with ‘The Weft in Pencil, Blue Version’ (Acrylic, watercolor, graphite, cotton canvas;25.5 x 30.5 cm; 2021). (Courtesy: Warehouse421)



‘The Weft in Pencil, Blue Version’ (Acrylic, watercolor, graphite, cotton canvas, 25.5x30.5 cm) is a gouping from a series whose title is taken from the poem ‘The Annotated Here’ by Marjorie Welish, and is inspired by West African strip-weaving where slight variations in color alignment, and patterning reference cloth made by weavers who sew together narrow strips of checkerboard patterns in order to make a whole.

‘Moonbright’ (latex paint; temporary wall painting, 10 mx 80 cm) is a temporary wall painting, where groupings of vertical stripes mimic the shape of bolts of fabric on display, or books on a shelf, or the vertical stripes of a warped loom. The work’s title is from the name of a neighborhood textile shop in Abu Dhabi, and also refers to the influence of the artist’s late mother who collected fabrics, taught her to appreciate the beauty, and potential of cloth.

The paintings ‘Sample Book Pages 1-17’ (A series of 8 diptychs and a single work; Watercolor, acrylic, graphite, cotton canvas) in this series are based on the loosely structured grids of an 18th century silk sample book from France, confiscated at the English border and eventually housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The double-page spreads of slightly irregular rectangles and color combinations provides Magi with templates of abstract paintings.

‘A Textile Lexicon,’ (a series Watercolor, graphite, acrylic, canvas, artist’s hand-painted frames; 33 cm x 43 cm; 2021-22)
‘A Textile Lexicon,’ (a series Watercolor, graphite, acrylic, canvas, artist’s hand-painted frames; 33 cm x 43 cm; 2021-22)



During the colonial era, while France outlawed patterned fabrics from India because of their excellence, England attempted to ban desirable French silks in order to support their own domestic production. Despite the history of conflict and illicit trade held in its pages, the double-page spreads of slightly irregular rectangles and wild color combinations provided templates for abstract paintings where colors and shapes create visual entities in themselves.

Installation view of ‘The Weft in Pencil,’ at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi. (Courtesy: Warehouse421)
Installation view of ‘The Weft in Pencil,’ at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi. (Courtesy: Warehouse421)



‘Another Alphabet: for Kounellis’ pivots around the ideas that the context wherein language functions is never singular, stable, or neutral, and that language is an invention and material in itself. ‘Another Alphabet: for Kounellis’ embraces partiality, illegibility, and invention, and channelings the sense of rupture, risk, and possibility characteristic of the life of Greek self-exiled artist, Jannis Kounellis.

‘A Textile Lexicon – A Series’ recovers the etymologies of the names of French silk fabric samples, while also pointing toward the silk sample book’s history as an archive of trade histories and colonial extraction. The names assigned to certain weaves point east and south, evidence of advanced textile practices coming from Syria, Iran, China, India, and Indonesia. These works also elevates words to the status of primary subject matter through careful copying and hand painting.

‘If, then light’ series of paintings celebrate the grid of a window, the blue of sky, and small slivers of light in the form of golden threads. Because the works are monochromatic, small variations in the edges of the shapes are pushed to the forefront of vision, highlighting the beauty in slight differences and the partial decay that is inevitable over time.

As Faisal Al Hassan, Head of Warehouse421 writes in the foreword, Magi’s unexpected encounter with an 18th Century merchant’s silk sample book took her “further away from so-called Western notions of modernism and aesthetic traditions.”

‘The Weft in Pencil’ is heavily influenced by West African strip-weaving, where checkerboard patterns made from pieced-together fabric strips expand compositional possibilities beyond the loom’s width limitations, and when misalignments and deviations from the pattern are integral to the cloth’s aesthetic.”

‘The Weft in Pencil’ exhibition will be open till September 21, 2022.

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