Hana Miletić is gearing up for a busy season. From December, her work will be on view in group shows across Europe, including at M Leuven, the MAK in Vienna and Kunstinstituut Melly in Rotterdam. Next spring her first solo exhibition in the US will open at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachussetts. María Inés Rodríguez, director of the Walter Leblanc Foundation in Brussels, met up with the artist to discuss Miletić’s transition from street photography to textile, the origin of cartoons and weaving as an embodied and social practice.
MIR (María Inés Rodríguez):
I would suggest that we start this conversation at what I like to call ‘the beginning’, that is, a kind of epiphany that led to what we can appreciate today as your work.
HM (Hana Miletić):
I used to practise a street photography of sorts, making images quickly with small disposable cameras in urban areas where I was living at the time, predominantly in my current residence of Brussels and my hometown of Zagreb. The fast pace of the photographic process that I was using, which also included making prints, confused me to the point that I started doubting what I was actually doing. I started feeling disconnected from the images I was making. It felt like I was quickly grabbing things instead of sitting with them and getting to know the neighbourhoods and the communities that I was engaging with better. So my work started to move away from photography, towards organising and editing other people’s work. Ultimately I ended up weaving, which resolved the problem I had encountered with reproduction in my photography practice.
When I think of your work, when I look at it, different references come to my mind. The presence of the fabric, the weft, the warp, the thread that builds something, takes me back to my initial training as a textile designer. Somehow, I like the idea that we went the other way round to find what we were really interested in and now we are here to talk about it.
Indeed, we have a similar trajectory. During art school I never imagined doing any kind of handwork or fibre work. I spent my days photographing, editing and printing pictures, using both analogue and digital methods, and reading critical theory. A few years after graduating, in a parallel movement of moving away from photography and towards organising, I enlisted in an evening course in weaving in a community art school in Brussels. As a child, I did a lot of handwork with my mother, grandmothers and nieces: embroidery, crochet, knitting … but never weaving. After completing a series of technical exercises like warping threads, threading a loom and learning different binds, my weaving teacher asked me what I was planning to make. Her question startled me because I didn’t come to the weaving class to be productive. To humour the weaving teacher, I brought some of my old photographs to class and said I would weave what is depicted on them: repairs and transformations, small and big, using different materials like tape, plastic and cardboard, applied to buildings, infrastructure and vehicles. That was in the autumn of 2015 and that is what I have been doing ever since, and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Somehow the process of observation involved in photography has marked your approach to weaving. As well as your way of walking the street and looking at it.
Yes, in the series of handwoven textiles entitled Materials I remake the mended and temporarily fixed structures that I encounter while walking in public space. The scale, colours and textures of each textile are based on the materials that were used in the original repair and that I captured in the photograph. I also install the works in the same positions (at the same heights) as the original repairs. For example, a piece of tape that was covering a door handle will be installed at hand level and not at the usual eye level. I use my photographs as ‘cartoons’ of sorts: in the sixteenth century, preparatory drawings were made on hard paper or cardboard — hence the name cartoon — before being woven into tapestries. Deeming the photograph a ‘cartoon’ indicates that it is indispensable to the process in a strictly utilitarian way. The photograph is a model, a draft, a drawing behind the warp. The weaving cannot happen without it but, once the weaving is done, the photograph is discarded. This is how photography sits in my work now, as a support structure. Weaving feels like a situated process that allows me to more consciously deal with the conditions and the transformations of everyday life. I hope to overcome the reliance on reproduction. That is why I prefer not to exhibit the photographic reproductions — the ‘cartoons’ — on which these works are based, but rather to give prominence to the interconnected processes of making, thinking and feeling that weaving allows.
It is, in a way, how the great tapestries were — and still are — woven: an artist paints a design on a piece of cardboard that serves as a basis for the weavers. Take, for example, Goya and his famous cartones for the Real Fábrica de Tapices de Santa Bárbara. Or Rubens. Here and in the nearby region we have many examples and incredible tapestry manufacturers. I recently saw one belonging to the Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries from the sixteenth century. Do you think this proximity also influenced your working process?
Hmm, I’m not sure that I was conscious enough about what I was doing to make that link from the start; I only started calling my photographs cartoons after a little while. It took me some time to figure out what I was doing in terms of the transformation and reproduction of images from reality into weaving via photography, although from the very beginning I did keep my photographs next to or underneath the loom while weaving, exactly as you do with cartoons.
Before going to art school in Antwerp, I studied art history and archaeology at university in Brussels, and I remember learning about cartoons, especially in relation to Rubens and the ‘Flemish tapestries’. Though, at that time, I was more interested in the production of tapestries in terms of understanding the different power relations within the art world — including, amongst others, patrons, artists, weavers and merchants or dealers — than in the iconography itself.
We were talking the other day about a picture of you as a child, with your grandmother and a cousin, spinning. When we talk about weaving, we often talk about knowledge, about transmission. I particularly remember a work by the Colombian conceptual artist María Angélica Medina titled conversation piece, which she began in the 1980s. She used to sit knitting on a small chair and would offer a chair to whoever wanted to join her in conversation. In a way, she brought her domestic space — and a type of work considered domestic — into the public space, to initiate an exchange with an audience.
Yes, as mentioned before, as a child I did a lot of handwork with my family, but never weaving. A few years ago, my mother showed to her mother what I was making as an artist. Upon seeing my weavings, my grandmother mentioned that her own mother had once done something similar. My maternal great-grandmother was involved in a weaving community in the rural area of Lika in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite not having had access to an education, my maternal great-grandmother was using mathematical formulas to help other villagers warp and thread their looms. Unfortunately this story reached me only later in life; it got lost with my grandparents moving from the countryside to the city and my parents and me migrating to Belgium in the 1990s. That’s why weaving feels so intimate, I think. The techniques that I use have been transferred to me by many weaving teachers and ancestors, consciously and subconsciously.
I can relate to how María Angélica Medina offers the audience a repetitive and meditative practice such as knitting to create the context and potential for something else to happen. This reminds me of the many conversations and encounters that took place during the participatory felting workshops that I have been facilitating since 2018 together with a group of women and non-binary people from the community arts centre Globe Aroma in Brussels. These ‘Felt workshops’, as we call them, are opportunities to experience how collective feelings can be formed through collaborative practices, located between stories and technique. There is also a micro-political dimension to the multiplicity of hands and voices, which the technique of felting poetically echoes. The differently coloured parts of the felts are still distinguishable, but up close you can see that they have gently become entangled. I imagine the same to be true for the interlaced loops of Medina and her audiences.
I’m so glad you mention these workshops and how collective work has been present in your work. All these days, faced with the current situation, I’ve been thinking about the importance of coming together, of talking, of sharing experiences, of thinking, despite the differences in point of view — of how collectively we are a force. Perhaps this is a far-fetched metaphor for weaving, but it is what I imagine at this moment: weaves and warps, or knots, constructing something in a mental space that allows us to imagine and reconstruct something different from what we are living.
In retrospect, I think that I started facilitating these workshops to reconnect to the practices of commoning that I grew up with in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, and which seem to be hindered by how lives are organised today, by the architecture and infrastructure we share. For example, on the top floor of the high-rise in which my grandmother lives in Zagreb, there used to be a laundrette that all the inhabitants shared — you had to coordinate with the neighbours which colours of laundry you were washing when. Today this room no longer exists, unfortunately; after the building got privatised, the laundrette got converted into a lofty apartment and sold.
The Non-Aligned Movement that Yugoslavia co-founded in 1955 together with India, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia, and that your home country of Colombia joined a bit later, has also been very inspirational when imagining how to organise collective work. I have been thinking about it often during the current moment. Ultimately it is about being in ‘difference without separability’, as Denise Ferreira da Silva wisely says.
If there is one thing that interests and inspires me about our discussion, which began a few years ago, it is to see how — despite coming from countries that are so different geographically and politically — there are finally so many points in common, as well as differences that allow us to continue talking to each other.
Yes, we keep talking!
To leave our conversation open to the future, I would like to mention the French-Hungarian architect Yona Friedman, who has been a great reference in my work and in my life. Friedman developed urban concepts such as the Spatial City, proposing that the city be organised freely by the citizens, and he referred to social utopias as the result of dissatisfaction and suggested that these utopias could be realised through a collective response. His visionary work over the years consisted of seeing the world not only as an entity that can be described by statistical methods, but also as being composed of individual entities that he called ‘granules of space’, entities with unpredictable behaviour that make it possible to bring to life a mobile architecture and an emancipated society.
Maybe an architecture that is radically mobile would help us move beyond the expectation of nation states. That would be a dream. We keep talking and dreaming.
This Is Us, until 18 February 2024, Z33, Hasselt, www.z33.be.
DOKA’ from 15 December until 5 January 2024, M Leuven, Leuven, www.mleuven.be.
My Oma, until 29 April 2024, Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, www.kunstinstituutmelly.nl.
HARD/SOFT: Textiles and Ceramics in Contemporary Art, until 28 April, MAK, Vienna, 2024.
Solo exhibition, curated by Selby Nimrod, from 5 April until 4 August 2024, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, www.listart.mit.edu.