I follow Raquel Ormella on Instagram. Over weeks and months, her embroideries appear again and again on my phone screen; I see the dense layers of stitching spread and bloom in Ormella’s hands. She works on the bus, on a verandah and in her living room.
In these hand-sized works, texts overlap, background patterns shift to the fore. “I HOPE YOU GET THIS” reads one in clashing orange and blue, grey and yellow. This piece also lends its name to Ormella’s forthcoming survey exhibition at Shepparton Art Museum, curated by Rebecca Coates and Anna Briers, which brings together works from the past 20 years of Ormella’s practice.
“It’s a timely exhibition,” Coates says. “It’s so important to show some of those really seminal earlier works within a contemporary context. Great works continue to have a resonance and relevance within new times. What it enables us to do is reflect back on history and reflect on the current things we’re dealing with.”
Ormella’s practice has long explored the intersection of art with grassroots activism and uses drawing, textiles and video to dig into specific moments and movements: Tasmanian old-growth logging, post-Cronulla nationalism, the mining boom and FIFO culture. With the recent explosion of online discourse around social, political and environmental issues, there’s a potency in re-encountering these works.
For Shepparton Art Museum, I hope you get this is also part of an ongoing series of survey shows by mid-career female artists, and continues a longstanding commitment to collecting and showing the work of women.
“I discovered that in the 1970s one of my predecessors, the previous director, was incredibly prescient in acquiring work by leading Australian modernist female artists,” Coates explains. The result is a “strong collection of now-famous modernist women artists” held by this regional museum. This historical high benchmark, says Coates, “seems a very good reason for us to continue to be doing that work.”
Ormella’s significant practice – both previous works and new commissions – will span the entire museum. Her most recent series includes the small embroideries that I have been engaging with digitally. All these small intensities (2017-18) began when the artist was clearing out her studio, sorting through the amassed materials of her lengthy practice. She came across a stash of threads and unfinished embroideries, some dating from child- hood, others from her art school days in the early 1990s. Initially, she began working with these threads with an idea of slowly using them up, clearing out her “hoard” – although she’s since begun accumulating other peoples’ discarded stockpiles, gifted or found in markets.
For Ormella, this material build-up “is about an endless potential,” and ties into a broader interest in collections and categorisation, taxonomy and ordering.
“There’s something about colour as pure material that’s very exciting,” she says. Any artist or craftsperson can surely relate: whether it’s fabrics, inks, fresh oil paints, or embroidery threads in an array of hues, we are drawn to amass these capsules of possibility. The texts in Ormella’s latest embroideries are suggestive of this process (“PALETTE HOARDER” and “PEAK LOSS PEAK ACQUISITION”) and of the threads themselves (“IRONIC PINK” overlaid with “GRUNGE ATTITUDE”).
“Most of my work faces outwards, asking questions of the artist and the world; this work is focused inwards,” she says.
Many of Ormella’s previous textiles take the form of large-scale banners, with materials draped, layered and made porous. In a 2013 series using repurposed Australian flags, the surfaces of the flags are cut out with intricate patterns until it seems that only a few threads hold the fragile rectangles together. The works in All these small intensities, in contrast, are densely packed with colour, their edges made solid and wavy with stitching. Ormella says, “There’s a powerful intensity to a miniature.”
Ormella is interested in how people engage with the pieces on social media, too. On a phone screen “you get to look at it closer than a museum,” she says, “and there’s a community and a discourse around it.” Both she and Coates agree that the work’s digital existence is an important extension of the work, in which the labour, the process, the two-sidedness – in short “the embodied aspects of the making”, otherwise hidden – are all opened up for viewing.
Whether online or in the gallery space, Ormella’s words grow stitch by stitch into something you can hold in your hands.