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Artist Gina van der Ploeg merges touch and textiles with tending to the land

by | Aug 2, 2022

“We wouldn’t have textiles without agriculture,” says Cape Town-based fibre artist and farmer, Gina van der Ploeg, “And what I love about textiles is that everyone has a connection with them.” From the clothing we wear to the textiles that adorn our homes, our lives are draped in material.

Gina’s art creates linkages between touch, textiles, and the tending of land. Take a glance at her Instagram account and you’ll be pulled into her tactile world. Greeted by natural vistas, fibre experiments, and a visual diary of her farming process, you’ll want to reach through the screen and allow linen fibres or hyacinth weavings to run through your fingers. All of this is profound in a world where disconnection and separation from our surroundings underlies many of our most wicked problems.

Artwork by fibre artist Gina van der Ploeg

Photo (left): Dominique Edwards

Gina’s process is slow, meandering, and labour intensive. Getting to know her materials, and spending time on the process is as essential as the finished work. “My creative process always starts with a curiosity about a material. I have to touch everything. It’s how I navigate the world,” she says. Her making takes many forms from knitting and sculpting to growing and weaving. “Fibres speak to a sensitivity to the land and the world providing me with the material. Everywhere you look there is something. I enjoy that possibility.”

Grasses hanging up to dry

At the time that we connected over Zoom, Gina was on an organic farm in Austria that grows wheat, sunflowers, fennel, nuts, apples, and roses. She was completing a residency and a public art project with the Institute for Art in Public Space. Specifically, the project matched artists with farmers to explore the connections between art and agriculture.

“I’m currently focussed on weaving with grasses. I’m working with a lot of the grasses from in-between spaces around the farm and a nearby meadow,” says Gina. Her final presentation for the residency included a short film that was projected onto the weavings made with the grasses.

Woven grass panels made by fibre artist Gina van der Ploeg

Woven grass panels made by fibre artist Gina van der Ploeg

Photo: Hloniphizwe Coleman

In 2019, Gina spent two months with weavers and indigo dyers in Japan as part of a UCT bursary trip. “It was profound for me to see how people retain generational knowledge and continue slow making traditions of farming, growing, harvesting, weaving, and spinning when they have access to land and don’t have historic trauma of disconnection,” says Gina. While we do have rich textile traditions in South Africa, this experience gave her a vision of how rich textile traditions would be if many of the people who created those textiles were not forcibly removed from their homelands and had their families fractured.

Inspired by the deep connection to fibres she experienced in Japan, when she returned to South Africa, she turned the pavement outside her parents’ house into a miniature farm. Although this process was fraught, given flax was originally grown in Europe and farming carries a colonial legacy. “Having easy access to land for cultivation is another immense and unjust privilege. In a country with such an immense wealth gap, where many live day-to-day, it is a privilege to value material and work with fibres in the ways that I do,” she says.

Fibre artist, Gina van der Ploeg, growing flax

Photo: Rebecca Manners-Wood

Fibre artist, Gina van der Ploeg, growing flax

Photos: Harry Woulds

Linen fibres

Photo: Harry Woulds

Her first farming foray was growing flax from seed to linen fibre which she documented online. “Growing flax was the most rewarding, hands-on process,” says Gina. “Agriculture, how we use the land that we have and how we preserve land, are important conversations. I’m not going to pretend that my art makes these huge statements, but I think it is important to consider when making. I happen to have a deep desire and need to connect with the land in that way.”

Upon reflection, Gina attributes part of this deep desire to cultivate to an inherent generational knowledge. Knowledge that is not shared verbally, or passed down in writing, but exists within you. “My great grandfather, on my mom’s side, was a farmer. My surname ‘van der Ploeg’ means ‘of the plough’. This knowledge is in my genes and my bones,” she says.

Gina’s materials are carefully considered. “The only things I buy are paper for paper works and warp threads to set up my loom.” She primarily uses fibres found in nature, self-cultivated, or scrap materials that people donate to her and would otherwise go to waste.

Fibre artist Gina van der Ploeg weaving at her loom

Photos: Harry Woulds

In the past, Gina has worked with Our Workshop as a project manager. The Our Workshop team is involved in many creative upcycling projects. “They taught me the value of things that might otherwise be thrown away.”

This decision to create work that is as low-impact and low-waste as possible helps to challenge the feelings of “self-indulgence” that Gina grappled with after deciding to become an artist. Perhaps a form of material activism.

As a fibre artist, the materials she works with often have physical and conceptual significance. One of her favourites is hyacinth — an invasive plant that grows in local rivers and duplicates every two weeks. “It is such a dichotomous material, because it is so invasive and dangerous for our waterways and yet it is so endlessly giving. It is amazing to weave with, make paper with, draw, and hold. Conceptually, my grandparents are from the Netherlands. So, the parallels of the hyacinth as an invasive plant and me as an invasive person in South Africa are also quite interesting,” she says.

Gina van der Ploeg harvesting hyacinth

Photo: Nicholas van Doesburgh

It is this fine line between the conceptual and the tangible that gives the artist the power to challenge, change, and heal. After all, merging ideas is particularly powerful when dreaming up new ways of doing and being in the world. As a fibre artist, Gina’s merging of art and agriculture speaks to just this.  Telling people she is a fibre artist is often met with looks of confusion, Gina admits enjoying this confusion. It allows people to be challenged. “I think sometimes people walk away from talking to me and think ‘she’s a bit weird’. But, at the same time, I hope that they go away from it and think ‘that’s something that I haven’t thought of or heard about before’.”

  • To keep up with Gina’s journey with fibre art, follow her on Instagram.
  • Images supplied by Gina van der Ploeg
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