Celebrating Tapestry Artist Brita Been

By Karianne H. Sand,  January 14, 2017

Editor’s note: One of the problems with seeing notices on the Web for tempting exhibits of work by Norwegian textile artists is that, well, Norway is far away! Early this year an exhibit of the monumental tapestries of Brita Been opened in Skien, Norway. Karianne H. Sand delivered the welcoming remarks and she shared her talk with us, so we can imagine being there in person. These two photo collages were posted in a blog entry about the opening from the Skien Kunstforening, sponsor of the exhibit. Robbie LaFleur

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Dear everyone.  Dear Brita.

I wish to congratulate both Brita Been and the Skien Art Association–Brita for her 70 years and for her fantastic exhibit.  This year the professional organization Norwegian Textile Artists celebrates its 40th year, and it is this organization for which I serve as director.  Brita Been, too, is a member, and it is a great honor for me to be allowed to open this year of celebration with a textile celebration in her name.

This exhibit is called Arvestykker [“Heirlooms”], named for one of Brita’s woven series on display.  The exhibit also includes the series Skybragd [“Cloud Pattern”] and Repetisjoner [“Repetitions”].

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Rugs in the Repetisjoner series. Photo from the Skien Kunstnerforbundet

The series Repetisjoner is the earliest of the series in this exhibit.  And, where there is weaving, there surely is repetition.  Brita herself says that she creates three to four pieces per year, which speaks to how time consuming the process is.   It is time consuming and filled with repetition—the same motion over and over again.  Weaving is mathematics and geometry, something the works in this series reflect in their images.  Here one sees the repetitions, the mathematics and geometric shapes. Brita’s design language has clear references to the Bauhaus school and functionalism.  She constructs surfaces and creates space using color and design alone.  Patterns have no beginning and no end, like a machine that roars into motion.  But in the midst of all this, Brita sits and weaves with her hands—and with this closeness to her materials, she creates a fantastic energy and pulse in the tapestries.

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A detail from the Repetisjoner series, from Britabeen.no

Brita has an impressive curriculum vita, and I shall not even attempt to list the most important places where she has had her work exhibited—yet I feel it revolves around her having had one-woman shows at the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum [the National Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim], Kunstnerforbundet [contemporary art gallery, Oslo], Hå gamle Prestegård [Hå old parsonage farm, Jæren, Western Norway, now an art and historical culture center] and, last but not least, SOFT Gallery [the gallery of Norwegian Textile Artists, Oslo], where I work, and, of course, the Skien Kunstforening [Skien Art Association].  She has also exhibited in several locations around the world.

Chinese-inspired clouds

Chinese-inspired clouds, from Britabeen.no

One of several old Norwegian skybragd weavings in the Norwegian Digital Museum, at: https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023238942/putetrekk

One of several old Norwegian skybragd weavings in the Norwegian Digital Museum, at: https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023238942/putetrekk

I wish to draw attention to one biennial event in which she has participated no fewer than four times, the International Fiber Art Biennial, which takes place in China.  It is from this meeting with the East that the inspiration for the series Skybragd comes.  Here, Brita became fascinated with the reliefs carved in marble of variations of the cloud motif, and she then combined this with the old, traditional pattern, skybragd, that was used in earlier Norwegian weaving tradition.  In the National Museum’s archives, I found one piece with that title dating from between 1700 and 1760.  It appears that this pattern, based on the pomegranate and palmette motifs, is a universal motif that has moved across cultures and through time.  Here, Brita weaves together the West and the East.  Everything is connected.

The series Arvestykker began when Brita was given a commission to decorate the Bø Hospital retirement home.  She wanted the tapestries to give both residents and visitors a sense of belonging and recognition.  Therefore, she took as her point of reference Telemark’s strong folk costume culture.  It has, of course, been known for a long time that the most beautiful costumes of all come from there.  And, if any of you are in West Oslo on the 17th of May, you will see that everyone there originally comes from Telemark…*  But, there is a reason why this costume is so popular, for it is rich and colorful, with beautiful details.

Detail from the an Arvestykker tapestry

Detail from the an Arvestykker tapestry, from BritaBeen,no

In this series, Brita has taken as her reference the embroidery on the costume’s stockings and shirts and translated them to another strong folk tradition—that is, weaving.  The lovely details from the folk costume are now allowed to play the lead role in Brita’s work.  The powerful handwork that took hours to embroider now gets to be not just a decoration and pretty detail but the work itself.  Brita herself says, “These tapestries are a celebration of women’s creative work, their time and patience.”

The exhibition shows three different series, but at the same time as Brita manages to constantly renew herself, she also remains true to herself.  There is no doubt when one encounters a Brita Been tapestry that it is her creation.  The same is true for the woman herself—when one meets Brita Been, one knows that it is Brita Been.  I still remember the first time I met you ten years ago at the exhibit honoring stipend award-winners held at City Hall.  I remember you, dressed entirely in bright pink stripes, your dark page-boy haircut, and, not least of all, your incredibly joyful and energetic radiance.  I remember I thought then what I think now—this is an incredibly cool lady.

Warm congratulations, Brita, for the year, the day, and the exhibit.

*The reference to everyone coming from Telemark is because the Telemark-style folk costume is so popular and worn by many Norwegians, regardless of where their families originally lived.

Karianne H. Sand is an art historian and the head of Norske Tekstilkunstnere (Norwegian Textile Artists) and the SOFT Gallery in Oslo, the site of frequent cutting-edge textile exhibits.
Translated by Edi Thorstensson

Read more about the work of Brita Been on her site, britabeen.no, including an article from a 2015 issue of the Swedish Väv Magasin that gives interesting details about her weaving technique as well as her inspiration. Several of her tapestries are found on the Norwegian Absolute Tapestry site, here.

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