On 4 December, Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) City Gallery welcomes the works of one of the world’s most discussed and revolutionary artists — Hilma af Klint. The body of work comes to Aotearoa after stints at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the latter of which attracted the museum’s largest audience in its 82-year history.
In celebration of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, City Gallery has partnered with Kowtow. The collaboration sees af Klint’s mystic and spiritualistic use of colour translated by Kowtow’s signature handwriting in two exclusive t-shirt and tote bag designs.
Ahead of the exhibition opening, Fashion Quarterly speaks to Kowtow founder and creative director Gosia Piatek about all things art, colour, and the powerful works of Hilma af Klint.
When did you first come upon the work of Hilma af Klint?
It was a timely discovery. I was living in London and quite lonely in a big city with a small child. I was on the tube one day and saw a teeny-tiny poster for a Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, in London. What grabbed my attention in that initial poster was the colour palette — feminine tones of lemon, blush and light blue composed together with beautiful organic lines.
I took a quick snap on my phone of the poster and next day took my toddler son in his pram down to the exhibit inside Kensington Gardens. The Serpentine is a small gallery and a world away from the larger ones.
Hilma’s 10 largest works were on exhibit (the same ones that are being exhibited at the City Gallery in December) and I was blown away by their scale and what I consider a perfect feminine colour palette. Little did I know that Hilma was born over 100 years ago and painted in an abstract style — 50 years prior to Mondrian and Kandinsky. But of course as a woman her work would never draw the same interest as that of a man.
I remember sitting on one of the viewing benches in the serpentine, a fairly cosy space and soaking in her stories and colour like a sunny day. At that point I realised how powerful art can be to a human spirit.
Hilma af Klint saw herself as a receiver of messages from the spirit realm, and that’s what guided her work. How does this compare to how you find creative inspiration for your work?
My inspiration comes from everything — art, architecture, nature, diversity and people. Mostly my creative inspiration is driven by the climate crisis and finding a solution for the fashion industry. Our line of work is political — we use clothing as an expression towards a vision of something healthier. It comes with tension, learning, hurdles and growth and it is the thing that inspires me the most, the creative thinking we do at Kowtow, the conversations and solutions we come up with as a team of change makers. We are working with a basic human need, finding a solution that can be gentle on everyone and everything feels like an inspiring contribution.
Were there specific pieces of af Klint’s artwork or philosophies that inspired Kowtow’s t-shirt and tote bag designs?
We took inspiration from her most iconic The Ten Largest series. The colours in this series are very distinct to her, and we wanted to celebrate that. The ‘Palette’ tee, ‘Palette’ tote and ‘Gallery’ tote illustrate the colour palette from No. 2, Childhood. The idea that the palette encapsulates the feeling of the painting proves the power of colour.
The motif from the ‘Petal’ tee is inspired by the organic forms used in her paintings. Floral motifs are also a point of connection between Kowtow and Hilma af Klint’s artwork and therefore it felt like a natural design direction to have that as part of this range.
I think scale is a big part of what makes The Ten Largest series so striking. The ‘Petal’ tee plays with this idea of scale by having the petals extend beyond the boundaries of its canvas.
Tell us more about your unique processes for colour dyeing. How do they differ from modern, or traditional processes?
We love working with colour at Kowtow, so much that certain colours have become iconic to the brand. At the beginning of every season we create a new colour palette. This may be inspired from vintage clothing, fabrics we have found and of course, art. We choose what fabrics or yarn would suit these colours then send them to India to be dipped in our fabric qualities. Once these come back from India we build the palette again, taking fabric qualities into consideration. The colours must sing as a whole collection but also within their own categories of ‘Building Blocks’, knitwear and wovens.
Our Fairtrade organic cotton is processed using Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) approved inks and dyes, which are free from chlorine bleach, toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde and aromatic solvents. We use GOTS approved washes for our Fairtrade organic cotton garments from lightweight jersey to denim. Our handknits are dyed with low impact, metal free dyes to ensure environmentally responsible yarns. These processes ensure sustainable use and treatment of water.
The process of choosing colours for the Hilma af Klint prints were similar. For this process we looked at her artwork and made strong colour palettes that reflected certain paintings. Then we looked through our colour dips from India, finding colours that were similar to her palette to reference for the screen prints. We had a few test prints, tweaking colours until the palette felt right.
Since there were overlaps between af Klint’s colours and our existing colour dips, the designs had a real sense of connection between Kowtow and af Klint. We are very privileged to have such an incredible collaboration.
af Klint called upon both the spiritual and scientific realms to help her make sense of the world — how do you think this approach reflects the state of the world we live in today?
I think people seek out inspiration from many forms to make sense of the world. For me personally I make sense of Kowtow through my connection with nature. The more I connect to nature the better decisions I can make for my work. My aim is to learn through connection so that our product is gentle and kind.
What is your favourite piece from The Secret Paintings exhibition?
That’s a really hard question as my favourite are her ten largest works as a series. To me, they cannot be singled out and are best appreciated as a whole. They tell a story and the colours work cohesively together to form one complete work.
How do af Klint’s artworks make you feel?
Inspired, meditative, dreamy and feminine. The scale of her works and the colours she chose to use make you feel very immersed. We are so lucky to have these works in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa.
The Kowtow x City Gallery collaboration will be available for purchase from Kowtow’s Auckland and Wellington stores and at the City Gallery this December.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings will exhibit at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi from December 4 2021 to March 27 2022.