Raquel Ormella: I hope you get this

There is a poetic sadness to Raquel Ormella’s work that is politically charged, expressing deeply felt approaches to issues of labour, class, migration and nationalism. I spoke with Raquel a week before the opening of her survey show at Shepparton Regional Gallery.

Raquel Ormella, Wealth for toil I, 2014, synthetic polymer paint, hessian, metallic thread and ribbon, 220 x 270cm © the artist. Courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane

The relationship between politics and textiles is rich. As Roszika Parker famously wrote, ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women.’ It’s also the history of working class protest movements. How did you arrive at textiles?
I had grown up doing craft. My mother taught me sewing and needlework, which were also taught to girls at state school. They were essential life skills for a working-class person: you needed to know how to repair your clothes. When I went to art school I was influenced by the feminists around me – Jenny Watson, Narelle Jubelin and Vivian Binns, among others. There was this rethinking of modernism through a feminist perspective and that involved resuscitating textile practices; so class and feminism became intertwined in my work.

A lot of this is about different kinds of labour. Whenever I see something that’s embroidered I want to see the back of it because it tells you how it’s made, and the time it took. The pieces comprising my new work All these small intensities (2018) will be displayed so you can see both sides, keeping that labour on display, presenting them as objects rather than just images.

Raquel Ormella, All these small intensities (detail), 2017, silk and cotton embroidery thread on linen © the artist. Photograph: David Patterson. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

A self-confessed ‘palette hoarder’, you’ve embroidered a series from threads that you’ve kept since art school. I’m reminded of the work of political theorist Jane Bennet, who reframes the hoarder as someone with a heightened sensitivity to the call of objects in an age of ecological destruction – an ‘object-oriented ontology’.
Hoarding – being messy and not being a domestic goddess – is something you’re supposed to be ashamed of. But it’s complicated. I was cleaning out my belongings because I was moving studios. I decided I couldn’t hold onto things anymore: I had to either use it or get rid of it. This is the thing about being an artist: if you buy something you don’t want to throw it out and have to buy it again; you don’t have that kind of money. If you come from a migrant family or grow up with material scarcity, there is a displaced emotional relationship to things. On the other hand, if you’re renting, you have to cart it all around and that has its own cost. So there’s this tension between being frugal and being impractical.

The way Bennet speaks about the ‘object-oriented ontology’ is quite freeing. The object has its power outside of any theoretical framework or art history, as artists we are sensitive and attracted to the ways that objects resist neat frameworks.

Raquel Ormella, This Dream, 2013, nylon, 150 x 210cm. Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney © and courtesy the artist

One of your works is titled My father’s work clothes (2018). There’s a specific story here – one of migration and labour. Can you elaborate on this?
The work I was originally making at art school was about my father’s migration experience; he left Barcelona to live and work in Germany, which was booming from the steel industry. Then he ended up in South America where my mother had grown up. From Lima, they emigrated to Australia. These multiple migrations are bound to the movement of global capital.

In Australia my father worked in a factory, so he wore grey King Gees. That was a detail I had forgotten until I saw some grey King Gees in an op-shop and I realised that the shades of grey I had bought at art school 20 years ago were the colours of my father’s work clothes. Clothing can bring back smells, feelings, memories of your dad coming home and changing out of his work clothes, the rituals of the day. The grey of King Gees is pretty much gone from the spectrum of the city; you don’t see people wearing them anymore. It was the colour of people who worked on the railways and in factories.

Raquel Ormella, All these small intensities (detail), 2017, silk and cotton embroidery thread on linen 13 x 13cm irreg. © the artist. Photograph: David Patterson. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

There are two banners in this exhibition that read ‘I’m worried I’m not political enough’ and ‘I’m worried this will become a slogan’. Given that activism takes a kind of emotional labour, how do you find a balance between political action and personal care?
Even though these works come from a particular time and connect to a particular set of relationships, people are still interested in them 20 years later. A lot has changed about activism since then, but the sense of being present and isolated at the same time remains relevant. We feel like we’re not doing enough, and the world keeps spinning. How do we emotionally do activism? How do we live between the public gesture and the private need to take care of ourselves?

I still feel really attached to these works – I can remember where I was and how painful it was to make them: they take so long and cover the kitchen table. They are redolent of the domestic spaces and emotional landscapes in which they were made but continue to connect to other people’s emotional experiences too.

A NETS Victoria and Shepparton Art Museum touring exhibition. Touring across Australia 2018-2020.

Macushla Robinson is a writer and curator based in New York.

Shepparton Art Museum
Until 12 August, 2018

Horsham Regional Art Gallery
13 October to 9 December, 2018

Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
19 January to 24 March, 2019

Drill Hall Gallery
12 April to 9 June, 2019
Australian Capital Territory

Noosa Regional Art Gallery
22 June to 28 July, 2019

Penrith Regional Gallery
30 November, 2019 to 2 February, 2020