DUBAI: Holding a portrait of her husband drawn on a white linen cloth, Stephanie Neville sews long stitches across a part of his face, leaving it incomplete with loose thread hanging out. The 47-year-old UAE-based South African artist has created several such artworks of relatives, highlighting her loss of connection with loved ones. It was living away from her family and her frequent separations from her husband, a marine engineer, that first inspired Neville to express the emotions brought on by their absence though her art using traditional techniques, including embroidery, knitting and sewing.
“I have been living in the UAE since 1999, away from my parents and siblings, with a husband who travels for several months of the year. Their absence in my life became a catalyst for introspection and exploration. Through textile art, done mostly by hand, I found (a way) to capture the (passing) of time, emotions, missed opportunities, loneliness and boredom,” she tells Arab News.
Although these themes stem from her own personal experiences, she believes they are universal. “The migrant diaspora in the UAE, especially, can relate to these emotions that are so typical of the transient life here,” she says.
For the first piece in her series “Here, not here,” the artist stitched wedding vows onto her bridal veil and embroidered over her husband’s portrait. A larger installation from the same series, consisting of embroidered body parts and empty wooden frames, was displayed at an exhibition titled “Woven Identities” at the Project Space, NYU Abu Dhabi art gallery in 2017.
“’Here, not here’ was about the loss of connection I felt with my husband during the months when he was away,” Neville says. “Stitching on the veil and on his portrait was a way of mending our ties, the loose threads symbolised disconnection and the sense of rejection I felt as the partner left behind.”
Depicting the displacement that immigrants often face, Neville created “Sticks and Stones” in 2016. She stitched pairs of contrasting words on pieces of fabric discarded by tailors of home décor stores in the UAE.
“Through the contrasting words, such as ‘adore, ignore’ or ‘solidarity, solitude,’ I wanted to reflect the duality we feel within relationships. The discarded home furnishing cloth was a way to connect with other residents and showcase our shared emotions,” she says.
Neville graduated university with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1995. It wasn’t until years later that she returned to her childhood passion for art, gaining a visual arts degree in 2014 followed by a master’s in 2019.
“I always liked to paint, but I wasn’t really encouraged at home to pursue it professionally,” she says. “So, when I got married and had more time and financial support I went back to learning art.”
Over the years, she has been part of several local and international, solo and group exhibitions. Neville has also dabbled in art centred around sustainability in the UAE with a group exhibition on mangrove protection. Her forthcoming projects are related to sustainability, specifically ocean conservation, using work created with organza fabric and embroidery for a collaborative project with UAE-based Zee Arts.
Stitching, knitting and sewing, Neville says, have deep meditative qualities that help her find focus and inner calm.
During lockdown, Neville had to cancel a long-aniticipated trip to visit her aging parents in Pretoria. The isolation and uncertainty of that period made her consider her mortality, family heritage and her own legacy. This reflection led to her recent series, “Origins,” which traces her maternal ancestry. Neville transferred three portraits (of herself, her mother and her maternal grandmother) onto cotton cloth. She soaked the cloth in Rooibos Tea, native to South Africa and her mother's favourite drink, and stitched green and gold beads around the portraits to represent the sporting uniforms of South Africa — as both her mother and grandmother were athletes. “Origins” was part of the recent group exhibition “Covid Conversations” at Tashkeel in Dubai.
“I have always been close to my dad and felt that I was very different from my mom. But during lockdown, I was forced to communicate with her because of my dad’s deteriorating hearing. During one such conversation it dawned on me that my embroidery and stitching is the common thread that binds me to my mom,” Neville says. “As both my mother and grandmother were avid sewing enthusiasts and dressmakers, I am now carrying this maternal legacy forward through my art.”