Comparison of Alice Kettle and Ibrahim Mahama

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 2: Encountering Time - A Critical Analysis, Research & Reflection

For exercise 4: Comparative Analysis, I have chosen to compare Alice Kettle’s Thread Bearing Witness (2018) and Ibrahim Mahama, Material Effects (2015.

I was drawn to compare these two due to their contrasting use of fabric in their work. Fabric is something I work with a lot and it was interesting to see two vastly different employments of it with a lot of commonalities too.

Venn diagram comparing Alice Kettle and Ibrahim Mahama

The overall aesthetic of the two pieces couldn’t be more different. They both do construct with fabric as the basis but in a very different way. Thread Bearing Witness is a large scale work involving highly coloured and detailed embroidery (Whitworth, 2018). The pieces take fabric as the basis but then teams of people embroider using a huge variety of stitches and colours and a plethora of designs. The connecting feature is the theme of cultural heritage, migration and the role of embroidery as a domestic practice worldwide. The variety in the designs is as wide as the people creating them and each person has a story to tell through their creation. When they are displayed together there is a sea of colour from blues, reds, turquoise to golds and yellows and everything in between. Material Effects also uses fabric as the basis but takes a monotone look due to brown jute being the only fabric used. The effect is a wall of brown, again huge in scale but this time the focus isn’t on the variety of stitches and fabric techniques, the impact is in only one significant fabric being used throughout (MSU, 2020). Mahama only use jute to make his giant installations. Jute is a symbol of global industrialism and the associated labour with it. There are also strong links to the colonial past and its historical link to empire. Jute is predominantly produced in a few countries in Asia and Latin America and then circulates worldwide through international trade networks (Amarica, 2018). 

A strong theme that runs through both pieces is the politics of movement. In Kettle’s case, the focus is on the movement of people through migration and the impact on people’s lives. Migration is one of the defining issues of our time and will continue to be through climate change and global conflict. It can be easy for us in the West to sit and watch the news about refugees and migrants and detach ourselves from it. Kettle brings the people behind the news into the limelight and gives them an opportunity to share their creativity and stories. In a similar way, with his use of jute, Mahama highlights the hidden people in the global labour force. By using a material directly linked to Ghanian cocoa production, he shows the integral role African labourers have in producing goods for western consumers. Through this, both are giving a voice and stage to marginalised people.

The production of both pieces although they use very different techniques have some similarities. Both are produced by cooperation and community. Kettle gets groups of migrants together to produce pieces for the collection and Mahama and his many collaborators work together in communal settings, which are often former sites of production — abandoned factories, train stations, markets, or courtyards.


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