This essay recovers a collaborative project between two fibre artists from Poland and Lebanon, Jolanta Owidzka (b. 1927) and Georgette Saliba (b. 1946), in order to critically analyse the framing of Eastern European tapestry by prominent voices associated with the Lausanne International Tapestry Biennials in the 1960s and 1970s. This exhibition platform arose amid the tensions of the Cold War, the Non-Aligned and anti-colonial movements, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its participating artists navigated modernist narratives supporting a strong East-West dichotomy that integrated elements of Orientalist exoticism (notably the sensationalising of women artists and the equating of Lausanne to Mecca); yet this manoeuvering and other dynamic facets of artistic practices remain underexplored in the literature. Taken at face value, the biennial’s claim to possess scientific objectivity while favouring a formalist approach to the fibre medium both oriented and restricted the representation of Eastern European fibre art in Euro-American writing of the period. Officials and critics of the Lausanne Biennials heroised an avant-garde line-up of artists dubbed the “Slavonic Wave,” but overlooked their multi-faceted engagement with feminised “craft” as a protected form of modernism in communist and authoritarian regimes. Moreover, their emphasis on originality and singular authorship disregarded Eastern-bloc artists’ transregional artistic networks facilitated indirectly by the biennials. These networks included artists from “craft”-producing regions systematically excluded from biennial participation, notably in the Middle East and Africa. To illustrate this dual point, I consider the collaborative project of Jolanta Owidzka, one of the Polish “stars” of the early Lausanne Biennials, and Georgette Saliba, a Lebanese artist based in Bteghrine, Lebanon. Their collaboration resulted in a series of abstract tapestries (made of silk, hair, sisal and wool) fabricated between Bteghrine and Warsaw and sold in Beirut in the early 1970s. Their innovative project highlights the limitations of the dominant biennial framework for interpreting modernist tapestry in Eastern Europe and opens new possibilities for conceptual and geographical re-mappings in textile scholarship.
The Lausanne Biennials and the “Slavonic Wave”
In the 1960s, artists in many localities explored the unique materials, spatial dimensions, and conceptual possibilities of fibre. Their aesthetic and technical research existed in productive relationship to various forms of weaving and fibre work, including understandings of traditional handicraft and folk art. In Eastern Europe, artists propelled tapestry and fibre art in innovative directions shaped by the multi-layered conditions of their creation and circulation. Artists such as Jolanta Owidzka, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Jagoda Buić manoeuvered government stipulations for content and censorship, barriers to accessing materials and audiences, and communist and nationalist ideologies about craft and folk art. They simultaneously established curricula and creative initiatives for art schools, design cooperatives, and other arts organisations such as the theatre in addition to founding personal and collective studios. Those artists who were invited to participate in the new venue of the Lausanne Biennial engaged with a strong set of expectations and restrictions reflecting hegemonic Euro-American hierarchies of the arts and systems of valuation. Their navigation within and across multiple, often clashing, domains enhanced their international visibility, legitimacy, and their presence within the professional networks. They cultivated relationships and collaborative projects facilitated by but extending well beyond the biennial framework.
As the preeminent forum for exhibiting European and North American tapestry in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lausanne Biennial attracted the attention of numerous artists globally. The biennial was sponsored by the International Centre for Ancient and Modern Tapestry (CITAM), a Swiss cantonal institution inaugurated by the French artist Jean Lurçat and Swiss curator Pierre Pauli in 1961 for the promotion of tapestry and related research. Lurçat and Pauli launched the first biennial in 1962, intending to showcase artistic approaches and developments across nations, transform the city into a modern “crossroads,” and forge transnational cultural relations. Pauli travelled to Eastern Europe to identify and issue invitations to artists working in fibre, while Lurçat visited francophone Africa and the Caucasus, where he consulted with art schools and artisanal bureaus on various tapestry initiatives. The first biennial featured invited artists from seventeen countries in Western and Eastern Europe, North America, and Japan. Subsequent biennials brought together similar configurations of artists, becoming a platform for growing debates on the definitions, parameters, and processes of tapestry in light of experimentation with fibre’s dimensionality and material and conceptual possibilities. These deliberations led to the coining of the term “New Tapestry” in 1973 as critics differentiated artists’ work into two oppositional camps loosely demarcated by older “French” and avant-garde “Slavonic” orientations.
Biennial officials claimed the neutrality of a scientific instrument in their selection process. Like a “seismograph,” the biennial’s role was to register contemporary currents and trends. The juries soon positioned themselves at the forefront of the New Tapestry phenomenon driven by the Eastern European artists, but without foregoing recognition of artists who created using the modernised approaches of Aubusson and Gobelins, spearheaded by Lurçat and François Tabard in the 1940s. Those artists construed as following this “tradition” of pictorial tapestry and division of labour, even if falling out of favour among some jurists, represented a “French” orientation (whatever their nationality). Artists from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, the majority of whom were women, were celebrated as the instigators of New Tapestry; Poland’s highest concentration was accentuated.
Writing for the Gazette de Lausanne in 1963, the Swiss critic André Kuenzi declared: “But it is in the arts of weaving that Poland seems to us the most revolutionary. Paris is worried about it, and Aubusson, understandably so. We can thus unmistakably say that the tapestry of tomorrow is being woven today in Poland.” Swiss curator Erika Billeter affirmed in 1967: “As was true in the previous Biennials, the countries of Eastern Europe again offer the most impressive part of the show.” She bolstered this perspective over the years, recapping in 1995 that “pioneering” Polish artists and the Yugoslav Jagoda Buić unleashed the “willfully expressive” potential of textile art by the second biennial of 1965. Kuenzi and Billeter quickly expanded their coverage to include other nationalities, but the precedent of an East-European or Slavic avant-garde was firmly in place.
Framed as antagonists, artists of the “Slavonic Wave” took the Lausanne Biennial by storm for their perceived artistic autonomy and rupture with tradition, feminine craft, and utilitarian concerns. Critics applauded their original thought, experimentation with fibrous constructions and environments, and direct manipulation of “primitive” tools and materials. Moreover, the women’s unusual tapestries generated intense interest in their studio practices and lives behind the Iron Curtain, fanning a sort of exoticisation. As Rich Matthews uncovered for readers of Fiberarts magazine: “In the climate of the world today, there still exists that great wall between ‘the free world’ and ‘the communist bloc.’ In the US we have little knowledge of the elementary processes of day-to-day living, the ekeing [sic] out of a career and the societal structure through which one’s actions must be manoeuvered. The world is so intricate, there are so many versions of the truth. She [Abakanowicz] shares a small apartment with her husband, and has another small, tenth floor apartment for her studio (and is faced many times with having to lower her larger pieces out the window to the ground).” In addition to facilitating a rare traversal into the bizarre conditions beyond the wall, the Lausanne Biennial simultaneously aspired to be the “Mecca” of tapestry to which artists and critics made “pilgrimages,” a conspicuous metaphor given the context of Cold War efforts to direct and contain Arab anti-colonialism and nationalism. Such symbolic appropriation imbued the biennial’s Cold War framework with Orientalist content that continuously re-emerged in art writing and references to Islamic prayer rugs, Bedouin tents, and the like. Multiple perceptions and representations of a fetishized “East” thus converged in the biennials’ purportedly neutral Euro-American terrain.
A strong preference for formalist description during this period had a flattening effect on the literature about the biennial and the artistic practices of its predominately female Eastern European luminaries. A Greenbergian notion of autonomy and eschewal of craft gained traction, reflecting distaste for fibre’s decorative and commercial associations. Distancing New Tapestry from the applied arts, Billeter wrote that by 1971, the biennials had become “exhibitions of autonomous forms. Materials and techniques increasingly obey[ed] autonomous values.” The critic Vlado Bužančić captured this language: “This ‘Slavonic wave’ was destined to pioneer and mark the most autonomous intentions in recent tapestry all over the world.” Freedom from artistic convention, as noted by US-based curators Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, became a “rallying point” for what they called “Art Fabric.” Thus, the dominant notion of “autonomy” assumed a narrow formalist connotation that overlooked women’s negotiations of Soviet and Communist ideologies and the position of tapestry, craft, and gender therein.
Women’s Art Weaving in Poland
Jolanta Owidzka, one of five Polish artists to exhibit in the first Lausanne Biennial, gained prominence during a period when tapestry’s associations with folk culture and peasant roots carried ideological value in Soviet-bloc countries.
In Poland, professors in the art academies in Warsaw and Krakow incorporated local traditions of folk abstraction into their work, enabling students to mediate official regulations that conceded a nationalist spirit for the applied arts. While the Ministry of Culture and Art enforced socialist realism among painters between 1949 and 1956, its favourable perception of artists’ initiatives to revive handicraft and vernacular culture left room for aesthetic experimentation. Between 1945 and 1952, Owidzka attended the Higher State School of Fine Arts in Krakow and the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she graduated from the department of interior design. Like her peer Abakanowicz, Owidzka studied in Warsaw with Eleonora Plutyńska, who Polish art historian and critic Danuta Wróblewska described in 1972 as “weaver and ethnographer rolled in one.” Not only did Plutyńska teach weaving techniques and Polish textile history, but she also incorporated her collaborations with women weavers of the countryside into her pedagogy. Owidzka recalled her professor’s emphasis on the technical properties of weaving in Poland, acknowledging its weight in the context of official regulation: “It [workmanship] was certainly not a slogan coined by socialist realism. Incidentally, art weaving with its well-defined functions could well evade the dictates of socialist realism. Abstraction and geometry alike were accepted because such had been the tradition of art weaving.” Upon graduation Owidzka sustained her interest in workmanship at the Institute for Industrial Design, where she conceptualised weaving in relation to the spatial dimensions and domestic requirements of populist apartments.
Both Owidzka and Abakanowicz pursued fibre art practices, including the design of rugs, kilims, and wall hangings, in interior design institutes and cooperatives during the 1950s. They also created experimental pieces using course, non-traditional fibres that probed weaving’s position in architectural space, participating in group shows. In 1957, Owidzka participated in a Polish Art exhibition that circulated across the Arab world, traveling to Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, and Baghdad, followed by China. The artists’ first solo shows in Warsaw in 1960 (Owidzka at the Zachęta Gallery and Abakanowicz at the Kordegarda Gallery) brought greater visibility to their innovations and established their leadership of the “Polish school of art weaving.” Despite fewer restrictions on textiles, authorities nonetheless censored Abakanowicz’s exhibition until they determined that the works were intended for interior design. The momentary censorship illustrates Catherine S. Amidon’s point that “fibre art was modernism protected by its process.” Women artists could manipulate its nationalistic function as feminine folk art to disassociate from “a potentially dissident” masculine world of painting.
The picture looked different in Lausanne. According to prominent perspectives there, Eastern European artists made a definitive break from “women’s work” and feminised craft traditions, particularly those perceived as embedded in French mural tapestry. In contrast to Owidzka’s statement, Swiss chairman Réné Berger offered a formalist approach to artworks in the seventh biennial in 1975; he saw “a renewal of purism […] expressed in a simplified form” and the deployment of “an almost aggressive geometry.” Other critics sought to refute any notion that the “Slavonic” style was connected to governmental support for weaving and peasant life. If acknowledged, these critics explained Eastern European artists’ multifaceted engagement with folk weaving and craft traditions within the modernist grammar of primitivism. They were not completely off-base in doing so; David Crowley has shown that in Stalinist Poland “a particular notion of the primitive with roots in modern art found itself to be a strange bed-follow of the fetish made of peasant culture in official ideology.” A convergence of discursive practices around fibre’s primitivity thus enabled flexibility in artistic practice for the artists negotiating various forms of restriction and regulation across political terrains.
The Collaborative Tapestries
As their international reputations grew in stature, women artists such as Jolanta Owidzka forged networks and collaborative relationships that extended beyond the East-West framework of Lausanne. Artists from Poland and Czechoslovakia established tapestry practices in sites in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Lebanon. Important galleries of modern art, such as the Dar El Fan in Beirut, held exhibitions like “Polish Contemporary Tapestries.” Organised by Krystyna Kondratiuk and Jeanine Rubeiz (the directors of the Museum of Textile History in Łódź and the Dar El Fan, respectively), this monumental show introduced the sculptural tapestry of thirty-four artists to Lebanese audiences in 1972.
Other Eastern European artists participated in state-endorsed exhibitions whose guests included leaders of the non-aligned movement; Jagoda Buić, for example, shared her tapestries with Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda during his visit with Josip Broz Tito in 1970. Artists from the Arab world similarly experimented with fibre’s symbolic resonance and mutable meanings as they followed developments in Lausanne and elsewhere. They shaped new textile practices in the contexts of state feminism, socialism, Palestinian liberation struggles, and the revival of traditional craft. After meeting Owidzka during her trip to Poland, Lebanese artist Georgette Saliba proposed that they embark on a collaborative project to design and weave highly textured tapestries integrating materials from Lebanon and Poland.
The artists mutual interest in the qualities of raw fibres and the transformative processes of spinning and dyeing, the structural interaction of fibrous materials, the artistic value of local workmanship, and the importance of textiles in shaping interior spaces sealed their relationship. Saliba, who had studied painting and sculpture at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts and the Lebanese University in Beirut, had turned to textile design after cultivating an interest in the local silk industry of the mountainous region in which her town Bteghrine was situated. She opened a small atelier in her home there, inviting a local expert weaver Adnan Moumneh, who directed a nearby silk factory, to assist in training four village women to spin and weave silk on a horizontal loom. Like other female artists of the period, notably Etel Adnan and Saloua Raouda Choucair, Saliba became invested in the revival of Lebanese handicraft and artistic partnerships with artisans. She created a range of silk weavings and crocheted garments and endeavoured to design tapestries with her handspun silk. During her travels in Poland in the early 1970s, she visited exhibitions and made studio visits to fibre artists of the “Polish school.” She spent two weeks with Owidzka and immersed herself in the material expanse of her atelier: sisal, burlap, copper, rope, wool, and cotton, before returning to Lebanon to continue discussions about raw materials and structural compositions.
Over the course of the following year, the two artists created a series of six collaborative tapestries, exchanging ideas and materials through letters, faxes, phone calls, drawings, and parcels of materials. Saliba shipped small paintings for use as model designs and spun silk from Bteghrine for use with fibrous materials assembled by Owidzka, who wove the tapestries on her loom based on her interpretation of Saliba’s designs. Owidzka shipped the finished artworks to Lebanon, where Saliba staged an exhibition out of her home in Beirut in 1973. Inviting Beiruti interior designers, they sold all but one tapestry to an elite private clientele. This unsold tapestry is a luminous, organic composition of thick and fine fibres: red silk spun in Bteghrine and dyed in Warsaw, course brown sisal and hair, green cotton, orange wool, and copper wire. The interplay of different fibres created vein-like, linear formations, while the variant textures and unwoven empty spaces add three-dimensionality to the surface. An electric green bolt runs vertically through the centre of the weaving, emulating a stem echoing the length of warp.
The artists’ success in Beirut motivated Saliba to pursue the collaboration with Owidzka, and the two corresponded about working on a larger scale exhibition. Saliba wished to expand her atelier and host a Polish artist in residence who would work with the weavers of Bteghrine. However, their project ended abruptly due to the outbreak of war in Lebanon in 1975. Only one work from this collaboration (the unsold tapestry) is known to have survived the war infamous for the loss of human life and cultural property. Salvaged by a family friend who Saliba instructed to enter her occupied house to retrieve precious belongings that included the tapestry and one bolt of finely woven, ivory coloured silk, the tapestry bears testimony to an invaluable textured history of trans-regional collaboration around shared aesthetic interests and commitments. The creative exchange between Owidzka and Saliba traversed not only sites excluded from the Lausanne Biennials, but also myths underpinning its framing of Eastern European artists and resulting historiography. This vignette illuminates that careful tending to a single unsold tapestry (and a lone archival document representing its story) can begin to yield a conceptual and geographical re-mapping that will more accurately situate the work of fibre artists, whether from Eastern Europe, the Arab world, or elsewhere.
Jessica Gerschultz is art historian and Assistant Professor, Department of African and African American Studies, at the University of Kansas.