Indira Allegra on the Memory of Objects and Looms as Writing Devices

Indira Allegra with "Decommissioning VIII"

At first glance, the artwork resembles a normal woven wall hanging. Until you notice the thick horizontal threads interrupting black, vertical lines running down the white cloth, that is. And when you inch even closer to Indira Allegra’s “Woven Account,” incongruous threads appear. They’re made out of woven newspaper—and they mark the spaces where hate crimes against LGBTQ2S people have been committed.

“It is, among other things, a way of me processing my own experiences of being gay-bashed in San Francisco,” Allegra says. “When you experience something like that, it’s more than your body can actually hold. Humans can only kind of deal with so much. Making art provides a space to transfer part of this memory so that I don’t have to carry it all by myself.”

Allegra lives in Oakland and has had works commissioned by the de Young Museum and SFMOMA and shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She’s in Seattle for two weeks; “Woven Account” on view in Contemporary Fibers at North Seattle College and her solo show BODYWARP, a collection of looms as sculptures plus photos and videos of performances, runs until Feb. 10 at The Alice, where Allegra also performs this Friday evening.

“The looms at The Alice were gifted to me by queer weavers,” Allegra says when we meet up in a coffee shop to talk about her exhibit. “That’s really special. They’re very old, too, from the mid-20th century. I consider them bodies with a lot of life experience.”

She sips her Green Citron tea. “I still remember the first time I saw a loom, almost 10 years ago, when I was still only working with video and poetry. I recognized it immediately as a writing device.”

In what sense?
When we use the word “text” we are actually invoking the word “texere” from Latin, which means “to weave.” I don’t see much of difference between layering lines of text—stanzas—and layering lines of thread, or working with lines of video and audio information stacked on top of each other. I’m always weaving in some way. What I like about actual weaving is that the materials give back. Silk, cotton, paper, they have their way of doing their own thing.

Cloth also holds stories and connotations, as seen in your work “Blackout,” in which you investigate the twill commonly used in police uniforms.
Material has memory. I think of cloth as the original external hard drive. That’s what so cool about object-making, objects are able to hold things that we might not able to store in our bodies. I think that’s why I’m able to work with and about historical memory and trauma, whether it happened to an individual or whether the trauma is intergenerational, experienced by many people at once.

You mention that fabric can store stuff we might not be able to hold in our bodies. But in BODYWARP you layer yourself on the looms, you become the fabric. Why is that?
When you prepare the yarn to weave, it gets warped, stretched, dyed and dried. All to create tension on the loom. Many times and in many ways, as a person embodying various marginalized identities, I’m held under tension in social space all the time. So I figured, why not move from being the weaver to being the thread? What if I could work with my own body to create tension and work with that in a constructive way? Interestingly, those looms are built to hold tension. Which is why I feel a certain kind of kinship with them. I can trust them with the weight of me.

Can you transfer some of the tension, even if only temporarily?
That’s the work of the performance. When I’m in contact with the looms, there’s a transference. That tension from my body gets to become something else, something bigger than what is happening in my body.

How did the videos of the performances in BODYWARP come about?
Both were performed in spaces that were haunted in their own ways. The “Decommissioning” series was shot in a former military base close to a missile testing site, where soldiers are stationed for a long time surveilling the Pacific and looking for an attack that never happened. There’s this colonial impulse in the architecture there, of heavy iron pillars right in the middle of rolling hills. The Casting series was performed in a barn from the 1800s. It was a favorite place of a woman named Pamela Djerassi, who later committed suicide at what is now known as the Djerassi Resident Artists Progam. There’s a tension in those spaces that the loom and I can pick up on and do something with, rather than just feeling burdened by it.

Tomorrow you’ll take these performances from empty spaces into the gallery. How is that going to make a difference?
I’ll be drawing on the history of the building of the Alice, which is over 100 years old and used to be a brothel, then a drug house. After it was “tidied up” into these art and business spaces. Architecture is like a palimpsest, there’s stories upon stories upon stories written into the rooms and walls. I’ve been doing a lot of research on that history and I’ve discovered that those sex workers often listed their official occupation as seamstresses; an interesting textile reference. I’ll build upon that tension of the history of sex work in that building and the Georgetown area in my performance.

Last year your work was included in Art and Media Activism and Piece de RESISTance at SOMArts in San Francisco. Do you consider your art activism?
To say that my work is activism plays into an underlying belief that some work is political and some work not, but I believe every work is political. I also don’t depend on my practice to be an activist. I think there is an assumption that folks with racialized and other marginalized identities lean into their practices like that all the time. I don’t. In my practice, I get to ask whatever questions I want.

Indira Allegra talks with Rezina Habtemariam at The Hedreen Gallery at 7 p.m. tonight and performs BODYWARP at The Alice gallery tomorrow, Friday Jan. 12 at 8 p.m.