Luam Melake’s Curious Hybrids
From September 3rd to October 30th, 2020, Artskop3437 is pleased to host an online solo exhibition by artist Luam Melake in partnership with Versant Sud. Her art practice is focused on handwoven sculptures and functional furniture objects that operate as vehicles for contemplation and empathetic connection. She refers to the histories and methodologies of art, design, craft, architecture and industrial manufacturing. Materials are borrowed from each of these fields and combined into works that collapse these disciplines. Abandoning a hierarchical framework enables a more accurate consideration of how these fields inform each other and what they can communicate.
“I came to weaving through a process of elimination,” explains New York City-based artist Luam Melake. Architecture, which the artist studied at the University of California, Berkeley, was “too big”; the materially experimental furniture that makes up the second mainstay of her practice “requires a lot of downtime as things cure and dry”. Instead she found the loom allowed for “immediate experimentation”.
Ironically, hand weaving is not often celebrated for its immediacy, but like so many things the distinction is relative. In her work as a materials researcher for the built environment the time to construct a building, rather than a textile, is Melake’s norm. But she recognises that the material solutions she sources can often be overlooked by a hurried visitor. Instead, Melake’s attention to the possibilities of our material world find an outlet that enjoys the viewer’s full attention in her textiles and furniture.
During a residency at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City in 2017, Melake “wanted to find a way for others to look inside themselves”. She showed materials of undisclosed purpose to visitors who were then invited to share thoughts about what the materials evoked. A series of weavings were created in response. While surprised at the confessional nature many of the conversations revealed, Melake found the project confirmed her fascination with the communicative power of materials. “The things I make are related to objects that are recognisable and for daily use,” she offers. Related to, but far from identical.
Melake’s weavings often move against the ninety degree angle interlacing of warp and weft the loom was created to control. Earlier works such as Recovery (2016) use the techniques of lace and tapestry needle weaving to “dissolve the grid that is fundamental to the practice of weaving”. She combines materials such as cold-applied copper and cement with the porous structure of the textile, describing the work as a landscape of varying emotions which appear in “the consistent process of healing and mending oneself, as well as the relentless threat of despair and depression that threatens to engulf and to harden”.
Remains (2018) works with another unusual material composition, bringing together Acrylic and Lurex fibre with polymer clay and cellophane. Instead of the emotional earth of Recovery, here Melake refers to archaeological sediment of a “topographical section, revealing a history of clay, earth and pottery fragments, followed by layers of plastics and petroleum products”. Attention to evocative material compositions is also apparent in Outpouring (2019) where rubber tubes droop expressively. An alchemy of tar, rubber, steel wool and cement sit alongside imitation gold and silver leaf in Without Qualities (2018), while tabs of squishy polyurethane foam, nylon thread, urethane and flocking fibres suggest material litmus tests in Parts That Fell Away (2019). “I think it is easy to dismiss what is recognisable,” Melake offers of the line she seeks between the familiar and the hard-to-place.
In addition to weaving, Luam Melake has begun a new furniture series called Optimisd (a blending of the words “optimist” and “optimized”). Listening Chair (2019) and Better Together Table (2019) offer positions from which we can watch, cradle or hear another person – a response to the “alienation and a decline in empathy” common not only in America, but across the globe today. While she is quick to acknowledge that this is not work that claims to solve the world’s problems, it is “a desperate attempt to do something; an optimistic attempt.”
Recently, Port, Porte, Porter (2019) has taken Melake’s own hand weaving into a larger scale. As a special commission from Fondation Blachère, the work was handwoven at Manufacture Sénégalaise Des Arts Décoratifs, an organisation established by late poet, cultural theorist and former President Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1966. The project was managed by Versant Sud in Marseille, who are dedicated to the development of artistic and cultural projects in the south of France and capital cities on the African continent – geographic areas which share the challenge of limited local arts infrastructure.
Luam Melake drew her initial inspiration for the tapestry from Rahim Danto Barry’s book Portes d’Afrique, which charts the many material and symbolic thresholds of sub-Saharan Africa. In French, the title Port, Porte, Porter offers a linguistic pun, suggesting various versions of movement both by sea and through doorways – places of exchange which offer poignant references to the histories of colonialism and the trade of enslaved peoples westward from the African continent.
Despite the considerable experience of the weavers working at Manufacture Sénégalaise Des Arts Décoratifs, Melake’s selection of jute, raffia and synthetic fibres were unconventional, challenging materials to weave. After the textile was completed in Senegal, Melake applied clay and plaster paint to the woven surface and an aluminium structure was created in the workshops at Fondation Blachère. “I want to push tapestry to three dimensional forms” she offers. Luam Melake’s textiles and furniture are creations that no longer resemble one taxonomy. Instead they offer curious hybrids of materials and techniques that refuse to be limited by the expectations of a single category or definition.
Port, Porte, Porter (2019) will be exhibited in Sumegne/Ngaparou, opening at the Fondation Blachère in October 2020.
Luam Melake (American, born 1986) graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a BA in Interdisciplinary Field Studies, majoring in Architecture and Art History in 2008. She has collaborated with public and private institutions on commissioned projects and has been artist in residence at leading institutions including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha and the Blachère Foundation in Apt, France. Melake lives and works in New York City.