By Unn Sonju
The tapestry fragments from Oseberg have always been of central interest to my work. They are both mysterious and revealing. The early Vikings wove long, narrow lengths depicting events that were important in their lives. The technique is so antiquated and complicated, the threads being so thin and closely woven that I doubt if anyone could hand weave so finely today. These tapestries are thought to have decorated the walls in the Viking long houses. Thinking about these tapestries it suddenly occurred to me that weaving long lengths is fundamental to the loom.
This discovery encouraged me to make long, narrow tapestries depicting events central to my life, some being 15 to 20 metres long.
The Baldishol tapestry is woven in a technique very similar to the way I weave today. The images are bold and clear, one depicting Man and Nature the other Man the Warrior. So much of my work is either gleaned directly from nature or is an outcry against man’s warring violence and destruction.
My first art education was at Leeds College of Art, England. There I found myself at the centre of an art educational revolution where the emphasis was on an analysis of the constituent parts of art rather than the academic tradition. Here the idea was placed above craft and technique, innovation and imaginative leaps encouraged. It was unconventional thinking about the nature and creation of art that has patterned my thinking, teaching, ideas and actions to the present day.
After Leeds, by chance I heard on the Norwegian radio a woman speaking about ‘piss blue’, her beloved indigo dye. This was the voice of Hannah Ryggen, an outstanding artist and tapestry weaver. I didn’t know of her, or her art. It was the passion she conveyed in telling about the trials and tribulations suffered in order to make her own ‘indigo blue’ that spurred me on to learn tapestry. In order to do this I enrolled in a course in tapestry at Den Kvinnelige Industriskole (The Womens Industrial School) in Oslo. In contrast to Leeds, here the emphasis was entirely on craft and technique and only the Norwegian tapestry tradition.
The early 60’s found me engaged fulltime with tapestry yet it would take almost 20 years before I really discovered the unique plastic qualities of tapestry. The ‘Eureka’ moment came when I understood that tapestry had two sides! The image was on both sides of the material, one image being the mirror of the other! This opened up a horizon of possibilities in both 2 and 3 dimensions. I found that the tapestry material could be twisted, knotted, turned and could move in any direction, the aim being always to clarify my fundamental visual idea.