Embodied Knowledges


Our bodies are the text that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation. Katie Cannon

I would like to start at a place where I had ignored for the longest part of my life, my body – a place that stored the wounded past that I was painfully fleeing from. A place that felt alien in the global north where my yellow skin, almond eyes and short legs paled against the dominant bodies that had blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin. A place where it couldn’t speak about its own ineffable invisibility. A place where my eyes were filtered by the reality of those with blue eyes, the dominant ones who claimed the ‘universal’.

In 2018, I had the honour of teaching in the Cultural Diversity Minor at Wdka alongside my dear colleague and friend, Teana Boston-Mammah. The thematic focus of the course was ‘Embodied Knowledge(s)’, an understanding “that without the bodily, we would not be able to organize ourselves in our environment: we would not know where/what we are, what/how we are learning or how we can communicate about our feelings, experiences and modes of being.”

From a feminist and marginalised perspective, the act of reclaiming the body was a resistance towards rational abstraction within the academy as institutional legacies of Enlightenment thinking. The traumatic impact that this has left is an instituted dissociation, one that sees the objective gaze, the erasure of situated, embodied and enmeshed knowledges as ‘neutral’, and thereby attaining the status of authoritative and universal. To begin unpacking why certain values since the Enlightenment period have been prioritised over others, bell hooks’ term “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy”, may be useful here. It describes a reality of interlocking oppressive structures that have reorganised our world view to uphold the belief in false divisions and hierarchy between head/heart, male/female, male/other, science/intuition, rational/emotional, art/design, design/craft, Western/non-Western, public/private and abstraction/lived experience. As with many other institutions, art and design educational institutions have perpetuated these binaries, keeping the top denominations as superior institutionalised forms of knowledge while denigrating the bottom denominations as unofficial and inferior, as visualised here in this image of ruptured and false binaries. For me this path of mending involved the processes of stitching back together false divisions, unlearning institutionalised conditioning and devaluing Eurocentric hierarchies. And all of that started first by understanding the world where the senses begin – that is in our bodies – by interrogating how the body organises our knowing, feeling and being, and by extension how that shapes our understanding of the way we gaze on our own bodies and those of others.

  1. Body as archive

The path back to my body has not been a wholesome image of wellbeing, one in which you might envision a white lady doing yoga or meditation against the backdrop of a crisp morning sunrise. In fact, it has been at times entirely boring, crippling, and lonesome. But increasingly over the years, I’ve also discovered vast new terrains in a house that I previously thought was much smaller. Building upon ‘Embodied Knowledge(s)’, Rob Baum’s notion of the body as archive – ‘a container of emotion, sensation, and memory, including trauma and its effects’, has been a really useful frame to understand the archive not necessarily confined to an architectural edifice or institutional machine, but rather as a humanly embodied locus for memory. Set forward by a desire to unearth my body as archive, my inquiry is driven by questions about what my body is aware of that I’m not, about the darkness it hides from me to protect me, and whether I might habour the stories and traumatic memories of my ancestors deep within my RNA, the messenger-interpreter of DNA genes. I am interested in traumatic memory and how trauma alters the physical and psychic body. I’m also interested in the transmission of traumatic memory onto the body, and through RNA imprints those past experiences onto the present, like a haunted re-enactment, ever-present yet intangible. (dear Ursula, spectral publishing)

  1. Bodies as cultural archives

I also see bodies as repositories of collective knowledge. Similar to Baum’s notion of body as archive, building upon Edward Said, Gloria Wekker writes about the notion of the ‘cultural archive’ not necessarily located in a physical place, but rather located within ‘repositories of memories’ with regard to how colonial influence have affected and structured the ways in which a culture views race. She writes that it is located ‘in the heads and hearts of people […], but its content is also silently cemented in policies, in organizational rules, in popular and sexual cultures, and in commonsense everyday knowledge, and all of this is based on four hundred years of imperial rule’. The cultural archive is the ‘repository of (colonial) memory and knowledge tainted by the colonial’. (Shapeshifty)

More literally, I have to recall the oral traditions of West Africa, whereby the storyteller and musician of the tribe, known as a griot is a living repository of history and culture. The griot is a powerful and important figure that passes the memories of one generation to the next. And if one departs this life, it is as if a library burns. Fahrenheit 451, a book written by Ray Bradbury in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era in the US, paints a dystopian story of a society that oppresses its people by erasing its past through the burning of books. People who resist live in hiding on the fringes of the community and by memorising the books that were destroyed, become human archives.

  1. Embodied heirlooms

I’m also interested to explore craft as intergenerational practices of embodied heirlooms. They are not treasures of the material kind, but valued objects of an immaterial nature; skills, trades, techniques, embodied knowledges.

  1. Navel expanding

Navel expanding practices is the understanding of the larger universe through the universe of the body. To understand the vast and infinitely mysterious, we begin by peering at and through another vast and infinitely mysterious micro universe that is our bodies. To me, it places the navel as the very gateway and portal to the macro and micro, smack bang in the middle of our belly. This hole, so reminiscent of a telephone cord, so vibrantly blue, is the fleshy tunnel into the cosmos beyond our skin. The false illusion is that this skin separates. In fact, it connects us – the cord enables telecommunication to forces we have been blinded by. Navel expanding is what connects body as archive to body as cultural archive, personal to collective, familial to the cultural. For more see navel expanding

Embodied knowledges means to me a step towards exploring the body as a simultaneous site of personal and collective knowledge(s)through navel expanding practices that have been historically othered by Western institutions of knowledge production. My next question is how to mark, record and document knowledges of the body, and how does textile as second skin, offer itself as a magical medium in ensuring its visibility and circulation?


Cipher Song

It’s come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets; the way a pleats commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail’s shell. Ram’s horn.

When the words burn, all that’s left is ash.

-Mai Der Vang, Afterland

I’ve always felt that textile had the capacity for carrying intimate stories, biography, memory and its relation to the body because of its close proximity to the material body. Textile can reveal the intimate traces of the body through material and immaterial imprints. For instance, the shape of the garment that traces the bulging belly of a pregnant person, or the memories captured in commemorative quilts. I’m interested to explore what is imprinted on the body, how that is expressed. And how textile as second skin, reveal the imprints of the body. I’m thinking about bodies as text and consequently the relationship between text and textile.

Some years ago while digging through a typography book I came across a piece of fascinating etymology which would be the seed in developing this framework. I was delighted that the root word for text and textile comes from the Latin word ‘texture’ which means to weave. Many expressions about writing come from the rich world of cloth making. This connection can also be understood as the connection between immaterial and material culture. Interconnected, entangled, material, and immaterial: text and textile, like their shared linguistic root, textere, are woven together. To weave, as a metaphor, also describes social networks as well as interpersonal relationships, likewise social interaction and intergenerational exchange. The expression ‘the fabric of life’ is an interconnected affair. Research, like story telling is weaving too, whereby lines of thought are interwoven together forming a patchwork of sorts.

Textile as documentary, record keeping, storytelling

In thinking about textile’s documentary role, I’m reminded of the quipu, a system of recordkeeping and communication using knotted-cord developed by Andean people around 3000BCE. These “‘talking knots’ were used as an embodied mnemonic device for recordkeeping, as touching the cords triggered the recall of information in a somatic or tactile form of reading, a literal pivot between text and textile.” The quipu plays a central place in the practice of Chilean poet and artist, Celina Vicuna, where she has explored fiber as a kind of line that mutates into a form of writing. As an object that was precolonial carrying ancient indigenous knowledge however severed by colonial regimes, the themes addressed in her work centers around the erasure and inaccessibility of knowledge as much as it does the containment of it. An embodied language from an ancient past summons us to a remembered or imagined body.

(Text)ile can simultaneously reveal and hide. What are the aesthetics and ethics of invisibility; hiding and obscuring? In contrast, what are the aesthetics and ethics of visibility; confessing and disclosing? One can see self-publishing as a gesture of making inner worlds visible, there’s an element of reflection and confession – the act of making it known to an audience, real or imagined, secular or divine. In thinking about textile as an autobiographical account, I’m reminded of Agnes Richter’s embroidered ‘diary’ jacket. In 1895, 51-year-old German seamstress was admitted to the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution where she would spend the rest of her life. Embroidered on the outside and on the inside of the jacket, the gesture speaks about the preservation of her own identity within an environment that sought to strip women of their dignity, sanity and sovereignty. Interestingly, it seems that Richter had created the fitted jacket which was designed to trace her asymmetrical body shape – extra material above the right shoulder to accommodate the spinal curvature from which she suffered.The textile became a place to imprint her mind as well as her body, calling us to remember the traces of her, despite the institutional odds against her.

I’m also thinking about the role of textile in subversive documentation. The gruesome Greek myth of Philomela is what comes to mind. Story centers around three characters; Philomela the princess of Athens and her sister Procne, married to King Tereus of Thrace. After Philomela’s powerful brother-in-law rapes her, he imprisons Philomela and cuts out her tongue to silence her from speaking out against him. Censored and voiceless, Philomela weaves the injustices at the hands of Tereus into a tapestry and sends it to her sister. Procne finds out and plots revenge on her husband by killing their son, Itys, and feeding King Tereus their son. The tapestry stands in for Philomela’s voice when her tongue is unable to speak the truth of the crimes committed against her. In weaving, a language that required no ‘tongue’, the tapestry was able to bypass the King’s efforts to silence Philomela.

Another one that comes it mind in which abuse is documented on textiles, is that of the Arpilleras, clandestine textiles on burlap grain bags made by women in Chile that depicted scenes of poverty, human rights violations and resistance in Chile during 1970s and 1980s under Pinochet’s rule. Some of the women who sewed were the ‘mothers, sisters, and wives of the disappeared from various class backgrounds who came together to process shared grief and strategize about how to agitate on behalf of their missing loved ones’ Women came together in church basements and shantytown homes and cut up worn ‘garments of missing children and husbands to embed into the arpilleras their smells and the tactile associations of the bodies that they clothed’. The textile works were primarily made to be exported and were smuggled out of Chile, sold in gift stores in Canada, Europe, and the United States, understood by such consumers primarily as craft testimonies that partook in traditions of folk cultural production while also telling necessary stories about a country in crisis. They circulated to transnational communities through networks of Chilean exiles, feminists, humanitarian aid organizations, progressive church groups, NGOs, global trade gift stores, and the like.

Part of the strategic canniness of these textiles was the fact that they were durable and portable: they could be rolled up, crammed in suitcases, and slid between layers of clothing as they passed through national borders largely undetectable by a regime that heavily censored any oppositional or critical voices. Shipments of arpilleras leaving the country (labeled with false return addresses) were discovered and publicized by police on a few occasions, however, generating negative press about “tapestries of defamation,” anti-governmental “propaganda,” and “subversion”—bringing fear of retribution to the arpilleristas, who were referred to in sarcastic scare quotes as “artisans”.

The subversive nature of textile has been well documented (subversive stitch, fray, cookbook of steganography), a feminized craft, object is considered ‘innocent’ and harmless, is precisely what this instrumentalises for their disobedient purposes.

textile as subversive documentation, documentary, for making visible while hidden in plain sight.

The story-telling role of textile is one that echoes in many cultures and timelines, and the story clothes of the Hmong people is no exception.

Hmong ppl without written language, and passed stories through flower clothes. Hmong refugees created story clothes. textile as a site of storage, transmission, keeping secrets, preserving history, protecting language

A cipher song by Mai Der Vang, textile as coded, flower cloth.



I’ve also been interested in the exploring about what the notion of publishing can mean for textile as text. Textile and text circulate amongst bodies, activated and conjured by being worn, read, carried, and exchanged. What are the ways in which textile encounters people? It is both intimate as it is worn close to the body and inside the private sphere, as well as circulating outside in the public sphere. Textile as a medium of publishing has also recently garnered many commercial and artistic efforts as textile printing technology has drastically increasing making it more accessible and cheaper to produce.

I first explored the idea of the body as a site of publishing in the project Thunderclap, a steganographic zine that piggybacks on fashion accessories to publicly distribute the suppressed writings of Chinese anarcho-feminist, He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920). The work camouflages into the streets of Beijing by way of using QR code and Shanzhai fashion, a trend which uses nonsense English on clothing in a context where English is not meant to be read but functions as a decorative element. I was intrigued by how Shanzhai fashion inadvertently rendered bodies into walking billboards, surfaces that have the potential of not only revealing historically invisible biographies hidden in plain sight but also inserting subversive work within public space. For now, I’ll end here at the beginning, where the idea of embodied publishing developed.

(Hutong whispers)

Embodied publishing explores ways to document, record, transmit and circulate embodied knowledges by way of text as textile.

Embodied knowledges explores body as archives of personal memory, trauma and history and which inevitably connects to bodies as cultural archives of collective violence, colonization, migration and war. Navel expanding as a gesture/position to trace the cultural through the personal. A family history is a country’s history. By tracing the umbilical cord, a fluid connection not only between personal and collective is made, but also past, present and future. The relationship between body, text and textile is explored for documenting, recording, transmitting and circulating these imprints.