Willemien de Villiers was born in 1957, in Pretoria, South Africa. She studied Fine Art at the University of Pretoria, graduating in 1978. Currently based in Muizenberg, Cape Town, Willemien also writes, paints and works with ceramics.
Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.
– Louise Bourgeois
Soft and mutable, cloth by its very nature is a tangible signifier of connection, with its interwoven warp and weft. The ubiquity of textiles – which cover our skins and fill our homes, allowing for a bodily engagement with the world – is also used by De Villiers to examine and elevate shared female stories. The fabrics the artist chooses are those used in everyday, ordinary domestic settings, sourced from thrift shops, family and friends. A tablecloth, for example, can be practical and decorative. It can be a symbol of celebration, of home, of togetherness. Of distance and loss. It can be part of a bride’s trousseau, a tangible result of hours of work, a family heirloom. It often shows signs of history in its stains, tears and mends, in its lacework and existing embroidery. Willemien considers these an essential part of her own final artwork, as witness to a life – the beauty as well as the hurt. She accepts and draws attention to the messiness of existence by adding her own stains to the cloths she sews on. Dripping substances like red wine, turmeric and coffee, the artist subverts the onerous task of removing stains – so often left to women. Moving between ritualistic and prosaic, her substrate of choice is a carrier of densely expressive meaning, underscoring the conceptual framework of her practice.
Her medium of choice – cotton thread – is both a physical and figurative means of connecting. Running point to point, through and over and under, it ties together the visible and invisible, denying a one-dimensional understanding of the object and subject.
She most often uses thread whose colour is inspired by the body – pinks and reds, browns and off-whites. Like the stains on her fabrics, these refer to the lived experience of women and, still so common, the traumas enacted on them.
While stitching does function as a metaphor for repair, there is evidence that such physical interaction with textiles stimulates an actual neurological response. Through dedicating so much time to interacting with an artwork, it becomes a psychological object in itself, beyond the imagery portrayed on its surface. The repetitive process allows the artist to access an inner state. This gives rise to a form of projection, where the act of stitching allows for a processing of complex or difficult emotions. In this slow, quiet, meditative engagement, the seemingly simple act of pushing a needle through fabric fashions an oeuvre which has shifted the action of both psychic and bodily violence to the action of restoration and healing.
‘I suspect that I find this practice so soothing because every living thing on this planet owes its existence to an endlessly repeating cellular echo that generates and supports the equally endless cycle of life and death.’
In her work, Willemien de Villers searches for a balance between universality, stability, change and growth. She shows that beauty can be created in the wake of trauma and rupture, and that through our desire to challenge existing norms, we can connect to create a system that is more carefully considered, and more thoughtful.
Selvedge Magazine, Issue 97 | The Fabric of your Life: RED | 2021
Blood Red by Patricia Cleveland-Peck
Textile Art Magazine | Embroidery | March/April 2021
Anatomy of an Artist by Jo Hall
Resilient Stitch by Claire Wellesley-Smith | Batsford | 2021
Threads: Contemporary Embroidered Art | Thames & Hudson | 2019
De Fil en Aguille by Charlotte Vannier | Pyramyd | 2018
UPPERCASE | Stitch.illo | 2017
Craft Art in South Africa | Creative Intersections by Elbé Coetsee | 2015