Célio Braga and Eylem Aladogan: Textiles as Storage of Cultural Heritage and Collective Memory

Christel Vesters


The etymological link between the words text and textile opens up a whole field of thinking about textile as narratological medium. The Latin verb textere means 'to weave', which, in its essence, is a technique of interlocking two or more systems of threads to produce a sturdy yet pliable material. It is not difficult to see the analogies between the act of weaving and writing: just like the weaver binds together threads to create a new texture; a writer strings together words, sentences, and storylines to mould a new reality. But can we read a piece of textile the way we read a text?

One way to do this may be by reading its image. Whether figurative or abstract, most textile designs contain motifs or patterns that bear symbolic meaning. Particularly in Medieval Europe, tapestries or embroidered textiles played an important role in the visual culture of a place. But also in other cultural traditions around the world, textile was (and still is) used as a medium to carry images, be they the portrait of a holy person, a biblical or mythological scene, a heroic battle scène or another important historical event. A famous example is the Bayeux Tapestry made in approximately 1068. Seventy metres of embroidered fabric tell the story of William the Conquerors victory in the Battle of Hastings. Like a modern day storyboard, the textile narrates the course of events from his departure from the coast of Normandy up and until his conquest of England.


Pictorial tapestries like the Bayeux Tapestry are a straightforward example of textile as text, but there are also more subtle ways in which textiles convey information and tell a story. If we look at pre-industrial tapestries or embroideries, each period or region had its own characteristic 'style' - its own techniques, colour pallet and design. Like a local dialect, textiles particular structure and appearance would tell you where it was produced. In addition, motifs patterns or colour schemes functioned as a set of codes. Knights and soldiers for instance could be identified by the colours and emblems on their banners. In other words, there are many ways in which textiles tell a story, either through images, symbols or through the information stored in its material and techniques.

Patterns, motifs, but also materials are the storytellers in the work of Brazilian artist Célio Braga. In his installation Memory Unsettled (2016) for instance, Braga used old tablecloths and pieces of clothing, some of which were worn by the artist himself. He collected the fabrics from all over the world, each of them with a past life and history. In Memory Unsettled these pieces of cloth find a new destination. The artist stitched them together, fabricating several layers of fabric, which form the basis of his work. You could say that by taking these pieces of white fabric from their old setting and re-using them in another context, Braga created a clean slate onto which a new story could be written.

Célio Braga looks at history for inspiration. One of his references is the 16th and 17th century genre of Vanitas Still Lifes from the Netherlands. Deeply rooted in a Calvinistic worldview, Vanitas paintings reminded the viewer of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.' To communicate this memento mori the paintings included symbols such as skulls (certainty of death); rotten fruit and other perishables (decay); smoke, watches, and other clockworks (the passing of time). Flowers and butterflies also prominently featured on these moralistic genre paintings, and their symbolic meaning must be interpreted along the same lines: the ephemeral nature of human life and the frailty of human existence. Yet, despite their symbolic meaning flowers were also regarded for their beauty, making them an attractive motif for generations of still life painters and textile designers.

Braga too is interested in flowers as motif. We can find various designs of different types of flowers embroidered across the white fabric surface of his installation. To Braga the flower symbolizes life and death, much like they did in the Dutch 16th and 17th century. Another source of inspiration is the ritual of votive offerings. In Brazil, the artist's country of origin, images or small objects made out of clay, wood or metal, symbolizing a limb such as an arm or an organ such as a heart that would be offered at a sacred place. These ex votos are part of a prayer ritual by which a person asks for a miraculous healing, or thanks his gods or saints when the miracle is answered.


Over the years Braga collected many examples of ex votos. Like the pieces of old cloth, the artist lifted them from their original context and incorporated them in his artwork. By (re) drawing the different shapes of the arms, legs, faces and hearts, Braga played around with the ritualistic objects until the right form appeared. Using soft grey, pink, light blue and green, and sharp red threads, the stylized flower motifs and the abstract ex voto motifs are embroidered onto the white cloth. Not by hand, but by a computer-controlled embroidery machine which allowed for a variety of stitching techniques creating an organic surface.

Between the embroidered flowers and ex voto, we find words like 'adored', 'pulse', 'trust' and 'fever'. They are taken from poems written by the English poet Thom Gunn who describes the beginning of the AIDS crisis and expresses his grief over the friends he lost. Braga also used more profane, everyday materials in his installation, namely twenty-nine pieces of household soap and empty medicine bottles the latter deriving from his personal medicine cabinet or that of his close friends or family. Between the flowers and ex voto motifs, the words of Thomas Gunn and the soap and medicine bottles, Braga developed his own symbolic language. Unsettled Memory tells a contemporary story about the frailty of our body, about sickness, healing, about life and death. By using images and materials that -literally - are close to his body, these themes are not only part of a universal story, but intricately connected to the personal life of the artist.


Like Célio Braga, Dutch artist Eylem Aladogan looked at the cultural heritage of her country of origin. Delving into the culture of textile manufacturing from the Ottoman Empire, she found that, the richly decorated textile objects that were made during the high days of the Empire, not only tell us something about the artistic vision and skills of the craftsman of that time, but also about the social and political life in Ottoman society.

The reign of the Ottoman Empire lasted for six centuries and its territory reached from the Levant to Arabia, and from Mamluk Egypt and North Africa to Iraq and the Balkans. Its population consisted of many different ethnic groups, each with their own cultural traditions and crafts. However, from this melting pot of styles, techniques and usage of materials, a distinctive Ottoman style emerged in the 16th century, characterized by the palmette motif (originally from Mamluk Egypt); exquisitely drawn flower motifs such as the tulip, rose and hyacinth (popular in Turkey); the use of silk weaving and gold (a specialty amongst Byzantine craftsman). At the height of Ottoman Rule, textile manufacturing fell under strict governmental control. Many of the richly decorated fabrics were manufactured in the imperial workshops. Here, officials would commission draughtsman, weavers and tailors to develop the lavish, intricate designs, work with the most expensive materials using the most advanced and innovative techniques. Sultans were keen on displaying their wealth and their dedication to culture and science, and their power and prestige would be reflected on their silk caftans and other imperial textiles.  

But there is also a darker story to these beautiful textiles. No empire has ever been built without bloodshed or war. During the Ottoman Rule, many countries and ethnic groups were fought and conquered, annexing their land, their culture and their crafts. The imperial kaftans are indeed a product of the wealth and success of the Ottoman Empire, but on the flipside they tell the story of political power supported by violence and oppression.   

The two tapestries Aladogan created for the collection of the TextielMuseum comment on this duality. For The Haunted Fields (for the love of my Father), Aladogan adopted the popular floral motive and created a new repeat pattern in sober colors. The title of the woven carpet refers to the ambivalent nature of the original Ottoman masterpieces: they are haunted by the sacrifices made to sustain the power of the regime. Reflecting on this ambiguity Aladogan also draws a parallel to the current political regime in Turkey and the idolization of the Ottoman Empire by President Erdogan.

The work is dedicated to her father, a Kurdish-Turkish immigrant  who came to the Netherlands for political and economic reasons, and who recently passed away. The Haunted Fields (for the love of my Father) is an interweaving of different storylines; that of the original Ottoman silks, the relation between high-end crafts and (military, economic or political) power, and the story of a father who left Turkey because of his dire situation.

Red Thread, Aladogan's second tapestry, shares a similar narrative. Using an Ottoman kaftan as her model, the artist recreated the iconic dress in five different shades of red. Here, the main symbol is the color red, referring to the color of blood. To emphasize the terror and loss of life, a darker red marks the area around the chest as if it were a stab in the heart. But there is also new life. From 'the wound' golden motifs of plants and leaves branch out over the surfaces of the dress, symbolizing the cycle of life and the ways in which traumas that are rooted in the past reach beyond, into the present. Aladogan further connects past with present by positioning the red mantel against the backdrop of a mountain landscape, which symbolizes the difficult journey many refugees today need to undertake to escape violence and war.

In his essay Being Alive, the British cultural anthropologist Tim Ingold praises 'that human ability to weave stories from the past into the texture of present lives'" Both Célio Braga and Eylem Aladogan engage with textiles as a deep storage of cultural heritage and collective memory. They picked up threads from different histories and traditions, connecting them to their own story and exploring what new patterns, what new perspective, and what new texts may emerge.

Cultural Threads . TextielMuseum . TextielLab . Tilburg . The Netherlands . 2018