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A typically wet day in early March found me walking down Mill Road into the centre of Cambridge. I passed the Amnesty International bookshop and something in the window of the next shop caught my eye. Looking past the plants in the window I saw, above the reception desk, bold blocks of woven colour; a tapestry in a pre-Colombian or Cubist style.

Hollie, the owner of Re:Fresh, a contemporary hair and beauty salon, told me that she had bought the tapestry some 18 years ago from a second-hand shop in London. That was all she knew, apart from the fact that she liked it, and I could see why. The stylised figures have a bold and engaging stare, the red tips to their tails act as speech marks enclosing eyes that speak to the viewer. 

What to make of the subject? At first glance the weaver might have been inspired by Picasso’s bulls and Minotaur or a trip to the Andes. Both aesthetic styles rely on abstraction, dynamic patterns and strong colour contrast. 

The composition isn’t cropped to imply continuation outside the weaving’s edges. Instead, the entire surface is patterned with figures not only in the manner of a pre-Columbian weaving but also of early European tapestry where the story takes place within the tapestry. Further echoes of Pre-Columbian aesthetics are in the reduction of the figures to geometric units with repeated motifs or symbols such as horns, labyrinths and colour, particularly red placed as focal points from left to right across the tapestry. The composition is enlivened by shifting hues and values, and asymmetrical patterning. 

Where the work differs from pre-Columbian influences is in the abstracted figures depicted. Andean tapestries show little interest in psychological nuance or anecdotal details; figures, animals and composites are more symbolic than real -they are representations of spiritual beings. The work in Re:Fresh, despite the flattened and patterned surface, has a rhythm in the composition that gives the abstract figures real personality - for a moment I was reminded of the dynamic figures in a much larger tapestry after the painting ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (see right). 

The figures in the Re:Fresh tapestry not only bear a resemblance to Picasso’s bull's heads but also have symbols of the Minotaur - for instance, labyrinths depicted as patterns on the left-hand figure and making up the outline of the right-hand figure. At first glance, the head of the right figure looks to be a pre-Columbean bird that would not be out of place on a totem pole. I still feel that the weaver of this tapestry was more inspired by Picasso than anything South American. Picasso depicted a very similar head on a curtain for the ballet La Dépouille de Minotaure en costume d’Arlequin (1936) and now in Toulouse (see right). Perhaps the weaver of this tapestry had seen it?

In the mystery tapestry bull horns and the Minotaur’s labyrinth are also woven onto the central figure who wears what looks like a toreador’s cape and a sword, the Estoques de Torero, (also called the Espada) or ‘Bull-fighter’s sword’

We will probably never know who the weaver of the lovely tapestry in Re:Fresh was or what they intended - unless one of you reading this article knows. Perhaps one day a work of ours will be found and hung on a wall for the finder to mull over its provenance and enjoy.

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