Q&A with Sabi Westoby for The Festival of Quilts

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Immediate Live talks to Guild member Sabi Westoby about her exhibition at The Festival this month.

Hi Sabi, we’re delighted that you’ll be exhibiting your new collection of wall hangings, ‘Uprooted’, at The Festival of Quilts in July. The works were inspired by The List which names all the refugees and migrants reported to have died trying to reach Europe since 1993. The List was published as a supplement by The Guardian newspaper on World Refugee Day in 2018. Can you tell us more about how you found art in that printed list?

When I first saw The List I had a profound sense of shock, a body blow. As I turned its pages, I knew I had to respond to it in my art. I had to give form and shape to the named and unnamed men, women and children who had died trying to reach the relative safety of Europe. So not making art was out of the question. My first piece, ‘Page 27 Exodus 1’, was accepted by Studio Art Quilt Associates for a global exhibition, Forced to Flee, and ‘Uprooted’ builds on that work. 

The hangings combine fabric printing, stencil cutting, hand quilting and stitching. Can you tell us more about the making process?

The organisation collecting the data, www.unitedagainstracism.org, has given permission for The List to be re-used and re-distributed provided the source is mentioned. I had individual pages of The List commercially printed on cotton. The images were inspired by pictures of refugees and I made stencils using a cutting machine.  The positive and negative images were stencilled on in varying degrees of opacity. I experimented with decorative stitching but chose very simple hand quilting to highlight the silhouette of each person. 

How did working on ‘Uprooted’ make you reflect on the human beings whose lives were lost. Was it a difficult collection to make?

When sewing each image, I could not but help read the raw printed data and reflect on the lives lost – why were they forced to leave their homelands? What future were they hoping for? Did they suffer in death? Yes, this was a difficult collection to make but even though all the data was heart-breaking to read, I was determined to continue with my project and bring it into public view.

What would you like visitors to The Festival of Quilts to take away from ‘Uprooted’? Is there a campaigning message or organisation that you are supporting through it?

I am aware that visitors may find the subject matter of ‘Uprooted’ upsetting. But I hope they will take time to contemplate what it might mean for a person to be uprooted from their homes by climate change, persecution, civil war; to make a perilous crossing seeking the relative safety of Europe; to live in refugee camps or detention centres for several years in a state of uncertainty about their future. The aim of my work is to bring to public attention the human side of the refugee crisis, going beyond stark figures and news reports.

You are part of the Studio Art Quilt Associates group. What does it mean to you to be part of this group of artists?

I am privileged to be part of SAQA, which enables me to meet a talented and supportive community of international textile artists in online discussions and talks on a wide range of topics. Membership also includes exhibiting opportunities and my work has been shown at venues in Europe, the USA and online.

Have you made new any work during COVID-19? If so, how has the pandemic influenced your work? 

I am in the process of making a series of textile wall hangings using paint, text and stitch. They are based on the pandemic and the varying messages given to the public in press briefings since March 2020.

Sabi Westoby is a London-based mixed media artist and quilter. Her exhibition, ‘Uprooted’, is at The Festival of Quilts at the NEC Birmingham from 29 July – 1 August 2021.

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