by Shraddha NairFeb 22, 2022
In an exhibition at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, curators Lars Bang Larssen and Mats Stjernstedt bring together over 150 artworks by self-taught Swedish graphic arts pioneer, Charlotte Johanneson, in a retrospective titled Take Me To Another World. This includes textiles from her early work, both originals and reproductions of lost pieces, five of which have been made specifically for this show, as well as her graphic designs. Some of her noted works include portraits of prominent figures from the 1980s like Bjorn Borg, David Bowie and Ronald Reagan. The display is on view at the gallery until August 17, 2021. The display on Johanesson’s work tells the story of an artist without fear, one who tells her own story while traversing media seamlessly.
Caught in the space between new technologies and old, Johannesson’s work reads as a narrative woven with the threads of zeitgeist drawn from the times it has seen through. Playful, referential and culturally symbolic, her work ties together many stories in a documentation of the political and social shifts she witnessed through her life.
A textile artist and graphic designer born in Mälmo, Sweden in 1943, Johannesson’s work underscores the parallels between traditional handlooms and early computer systems. If you have been unaware of this relationship so far, here is a little lesson in history to further contextualise the development of her work. In the early 1800s, French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard designed a tool which would revolutionise weaving to allow for more complexity and artistry in the crafting of patterned cloth. What was an otherwise labour intensive process became quick, easy and accessible as a result of this invention, bringing intricately designed textile to the masses. This was made possible using interchangeable cards, each of which had a unique pattern of holes punched into them. These holes acted as instructions for the weft to pass through the warp of the loom, a task which was previously done manually. These unique punch cards also allowed for replication of a design. They continue to be used in handlooms today.
Around the same time in a different part of Europe, British mathematicians, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, worked to develop the Analytical Engine in the 1830s, a device which is largely remembered as the first computer. It served primarily as a calculating device, which was able to store data and also print it. The modern-day equivalent of this five-tonne heavy, seven-foot-tall machine is the compact CPU unit which today sits on your office desk. The reader used Jacquard’s punch cards to enter and store data in this computer. The Analytical Engine, although never fully completed, the invention laid the foundation for computer programming as we know it. This interesting time in history tracks the development of binary codes and its applications, a reference which finds its way into Johannesson’s textile art.
The Swedish artist tells us about her introduction to the medium of textile, “After dropping out of high school and having some short-term idiotic jobs, I got into an education in weaving in 1962-1964, learning a multitude of techniques. I loved it and when I came to know about Hannah Ryggen and her great picture weaving, I was truly hooked! Hannah made pictures about the Nazis in Norway under the Second World War. I wanted to make pictures about my reality and the time I lived in”.
The composition on the loom, due to its binary nature, propagated the growth of Johannesson's practice towards the digital field. In the 1970s, she started to work with computer-based designs after acquiring an Apple II Plus on a trip to California, whereafter she began to teach herself how to programme in order to make graphics for the screen. A few years later, she and her partner Sture opened a digital art studio called Digitalteatern (digital theatre), which ran from 1981 to 1985.
Johannesson’s work takes on a determinedly political stance, each tapestry alluding to various events and issues which, both, surrounded and influenced her. For instance, the Chilean military coup of 1973 is referenced in her work Chile Echoes in My Skull (1973). Through her oeuvre, in her digital graphic artwork called Faces of the 1980s, she draws on popular cultural icons like Boy George, Bjorn Borg, Ronald Reagan and David Bowie, furthering the notion of her work as a documentation of the times. The artist frequently employs the world map in her visual creations. She says, “I just love maps, when I look at maps I know where I am, on a planet in the universe. I am always conscious of living on this planet earth, it gives perspective on my life”.
Johannesson is also concerned with the cultural and political stigma associated with the legalisation of marijuana, its health benefits and the many industrial applications of hemp. Using the motif as well as the material itself in her work, she stands as an advocate of the pro-legalisation movement. She says, “Cannabis Sativa is a nice herb. I have always used it in my warp when weaving. It’s also nice to smoke when I really want to have a new perspective. In Sweden the authorities are restrictive and blind”.