News | Wednesday, 19th September 2018

Exhibition of monumental textiles shining light on refugee voices opens in Manchester

Professor Alice Kettle’s ‘Thread Bearing Witness’ project is open at the Whitworth until 24th February

GROUND textile work
GROUND, a patterned monumental work, informed by refugees' contributions of imagery as a collective common ground

Textile artist Alice Kettle’s Thread Bearing Witness exhibition is now open at the Whitworth, and explores culture, creativity and resilience amid the global refugee crisis.

Thread Bearing Witness, exhibiting at the Whitworth, University of Manchester, until 24th February 2019, presents a series of large-scale textile works that shine a light on refugee displacement. These are informed by personal testimonies from many individuals seeking asylum in the UK; those living in refugee camps and groups working to support refugees.

Kettle, Professor of Textiles at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, is an internationally renowned contemporary artist whose work focuses upon stitched textiles.


In this project she has created new works from drawing contributions from refugees and has also worked directly with artists from Afghanistan, Syria and Uganda who feature in the exhibition through a series of sculptural textiles and other textile artworks.

The project thus seeks to increase awareness of the current issues of migration and refugees and the works will ultimately be sold to raise money for refugee causes.

Thread Bearing Witness represents displacement through the lens of textiles with its own history of migration. The project uses three interconnected strands; individual creativity, artistic representation of gifted imagery and public participation and making as a form of creative resilience. The exhibition tests ways of belonging within a cultural space, where textiles can act as a medium of integration.


Core to Thread Bearing Witness are SEA, GROUND and SKY, three monumental works which form an installation in the gallery. Kettle’s textiles act as temporary walls and suggest a campsite space, requiring the viewer to negotiate around the panels, viewing both fronts and back. This audience movement in itself challenges seeing these works as simply offering ‘decorative’ readings. 

The works present personal testimonies in the form of drawings gifted from the refugees Kettle met and worked with. They show how textiles can move from the domestic and personal to the spectacular, to chronicle shared making. They demonstrate the value of each human act of participation. 

SEA reflects on the experience through the media lens, symbolising the perilous and fatal sea journeys taken by refugees. GROUND is patterned, informed by refugees’ contributions of imagery as a collective common ground. Kettle has co-created sites and grounds for other voices to be present. SKY is similarly  made through gifted contributions of drawings as a shared one world view.

The Stitch Tree

Kettle said: “Textiles makes connections with home and community. It maps our cultural identities. Textiles are a way to engage with others, to show care about these challenging issues of displacement in a meaningful way and through a medium where I have a voice. I want to help and make a difference, as all parents do for their children.”

She developed Thread Bearing Witness with her daughter Tamsin Koumis, who established the Dunkirk Legal Support Team to advocate for refugee rights. Mother and daughter volunteered at a refugee camp in Greece and Kettle worked closely with various refugee organisations in the UK and abroad on the project.

Further strands of Thread Bearing Witness include The Stitch Tree project, with over 4,000 contributions of stitched trees from across the world, which form another large-scale work, Forest, in support of refugees.

GROUND close-up

Thread Bearing Witness includes further works from The Travelling Heritage Bureau, led by Digital Women’s Archive North, a co-research project and supportive network with displaced women artists.

Thread Bearing Witness is financially supported by Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University, Design Manchester, and public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Thread Bearing Witness is also supported by Hampshire Cultural Trust and The Artists’ Agency. The Travelling Heritage Bureau of Displaced Women Artists is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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