When self-described textile artist, rag picker, and costume ethnographer Nika Feldman was a child, she wore flowing skirts, floral patterns, and mixed-up prints, painting quite a contrast to the Lacoste- and Guess-clad kids in her class.
“I was a child of the thrift shops and flea markets,” says Feldman, 43, who spends half the year in various locations (Halifax last year) and the other half on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, at the same remote property she called home for her first three years. When her parents split up, her artist father eventually headed to New York, while her mother settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Feldman went back and forth, and spent summers in Cape Breton, where her parents had been part of the back-to-the-land movement. For a young nomad-in-training, turning trash into treasure was part of the adventure.
The town dump, for example, was a rich repository of fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle, as well as National Geographic, whose cut-out images papered her walls. Feldman’s interest in fashion was thus twinned at an early age with a fascination with other cultures – how people looked, how they dressed – and figuring out what it all meant.
Feldman studied fashion design for a year at Pratt, before a brief stint as a sample cutter for Betsey Johnson. She went on to open two New York clothing stores, offering revamped vintage pieces and her own designs. (Courtney Love, in fact, hired Feldman to rework her own vintage wardrobe.) But going further in fashion meant outsourcing, scaling up – and Feldman wasn’t interested. She left it behind and moved to Vermont, where she spent three happy years working with disadvantaged children. In time, she yearned to make art again – leading her to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where she graduated with a BFA in textiles in 2002.
“At art school I told one of my teachers and mentors, Naoko Furue, how whenever I saw traditional clothing from indigenous cultures, I felt shivers through my body. I felt like clothing was my language before English – and she encouraged me to listen to that,” recalls Feldman.
Although Feldman took the requisite classes in weaving, dyeing, and printing, her focus was never on making, or selling, pretty objects. “As an artist, I’m not so concerned about expressing myself; I’m interested in sharing how people express their cultural identity through what they wear – like a mediator of the material world.”
To that end, Feldman works only with used clothing and three tools: needle, thread, and scissors: “And with that, I can connect with anyone, almost anywhere.” This shared language of sewing has been, for Feldman, an entrée into cultures as disparate as Japan, Outer Mongolia (literally), and a beggars’ camp in Nepal – all places she has touched down through a combination of curiosity and serendipity.
Feldman created her first significant body of work in Kyoto, while on a prestigious Japanese government scholarship. Her husband, who had encouraged her to apply, died unexpectedly, and Feldman arrived in 2007 in a state of shock. The seven works she created – including Dance of the Dead (2009), inspired by a ritual called Bon Odori – were a way of processing grief as she explored ideas of physical impermanence. “As a maker, one is all about the physical world, creating something tangible. After David died, I lost that connection. My work was a way of reaching out to him.”
Feldman discovered piles of used kimonos at flea markets and began a meditative practice of cutting out hearts by hand. For When All There Is to Do Is Love (2008), she extracted 60,000 heart-shaped petals to create a pile that sits beneath a human-sized tassel made from the remnant kimono seams, as if it had been shed. In Offerings (2008), a piece reminiscent of a Marina Abramovic performance, Feldman sat in a nest of kimonos eight hours a day for a week, stringing hearts into flowers and then placing them in front of her, the pile eventually encircling her perch of kimonos.
During this time, Feldman met fellow wanderer James Hopkins, a former Wall Street broker who is now part of Nepal’s Buddhist community. He gave her an open invitation to spend time at the Kathmandu village where he had founded Quilts for Kids Nepal, a microfinance operation that helps send children, who would otherwise be begging, to school. Soon after Feldman returned to the States from Japan in 2009, a combination of culture shock and frequent-flier miles propelled her to Nepal.
“Visitors are usually polite – interested, but somewhat reserved,” says Hopkins. “Nika just strolled down to the beggars’ camp, sat down with the quilters, and started sewing. And because she has this magnetizing personality, so vibrant and always laughing, people gravitate towards her.”
As is her philosophy, Feldman arrived with no preconceived notions. “I don’t march into other cultures thinking I’m going to teach people a better way. Through the act of sewing – how we stitch, pass the scissors, rip the fabric – we communicate volumes,” she explains.
The women she was quilting with were perplexed at first; while they worked with new cloth or tailor’s scraps, Feldman collected and washed discarded fragments from rubbish piles around the city. “Nika was salvaging the beggars’ discards – sometimes used for personal sanitation – that they wouldn’t touch,” recalls Hopkins.
“To be honest, they thought I was kind of crazy,” says Feldman, laughing, “what with the rags and the improvisational way I place my quilt pieces.” The women donated their own old fashions for the back of her quilt, along with a quilt sample of a lotus flower they were planning to discard. “One side told the story of Kathmandu, and the other told the story of these people, through scraps of their actual clothing, and the lotus – the classic symbol of beauty growing out of the muck.”
In 2016, such instances of cultural fluidity inevitably raise questions about appropriation, even though the history of art is a centuries-old call-and-response between peoples of disparate backgrounds. The fact is, Feldman does not appropriate so much as document, celebrate, and barter ideas with everyone she meets, with a porousness that most of us would find challenging.
Tammy Sutherland, director of the Manitoba Craft Council and Feldman’s art school classmate, recalls an artist friend of hers confronting Feldman about this very topic. “It’s a cliché, but Nika is a true ‘citizen of the world,’ ” says Sutherland. “She approaches people with such warmth and respect – and she doesn’t sell her work or profit off anyone’s ideas.”
Feldman’s practice of responding to – rather than mimicking – indigenous approaches, is illuminated in her Tribal Truck’r work. The years-long project began in 2010 in Barmer, Rajasthan, near the Pakistan border, where the once-thriving craft of block printing is floundering. An Indian/American couple for whom she’d done some textile designs in Vermont invited her to spend time in the place where the fabric was made, and see what inspired her. Which – much to the bemusement of the artisans – turned out to be trucks.
Feldman was enthralled by the brightly colored, fantastically decorated vehicles, many of which have “Goods Carrier” written across the top. “I felt a connection to the nomadic concepts that have intrigued me all my life, and I loved all the decorative symbols and charms offering protection.” She designed a detailed image, which was carved into wood, and bought 30 yards of the block-printed fabric for herself.
Back in the States, Feldman made a skirt and other clothes out of the fabric, which she wore when returning to Karnataka, India, to study the Banjara, a formerly nomadic people.
“The Banjara were India’s traditional goods carriers; they used to be the warriors of the road, like the trucks are now, travelling with up to 100,000 oxen and transporting everything from spices to valuables for the royal family. And they were total badasses!” Feldman exclaims. “The women had elaborate tattoos and wore bright colors, with mirrors and protective amulets to ward off the evil eye.” Put out of commission by the railroads, the Banjara are no longer nomadic, “and the younger women are more covered up, in polyester saris,” says Feldman.
“So I decided to take the truck clothing idea a step further. All over India, people can read each other’s stories through their clothing. It would have been weird to just adopt their outfit, so I worked on a tribal costume that would say something about me.”
As the Banjara women did their embroidery, Feldman embellished her skirt and a vintage choli (shirt) with words, symbols, and decoration: “They really enjoyed the humor of the fact that I was, essentially, dressing up like a truck.” Feldman also helped to record a bit of their disappearing culture, a kind of Alan Lomax with watercolors and thread. She painted portraits of some of the older women who still wore traditional garb and had them laser-printed onto pieces of fabric where she also sketched their tattoos, later turning them into embroidery – fragments of a vanishing way of life.
Part artist, part anthropologist, Feldman does not travel with a journalist’s detachment. In 2013, she collaborated with another textile artist, Susie Vickery, in the Dharavi neighborhood of Mumbai (among the largest slums in Asia), as part of a public health initiative. Arriving in the aftermath of a horrific gang rape in Delhi where many blamed the victim, Feldman and Vickery sought to use clothing as a way into the subject.
“What I love about people’s reaction to Nika is that they feel she is one of them,” says Vickery. “With women, clothing is a big point of connection, so for Nika to wear and embellish their traditional garb was seen as a validation of their lifestyles. They trusted her, and she encouraged them to be creative and experiment with concepts and designs.”
The women stitched images and messages onto the pallu (the loose end) of their recycled saris, which resembles a cape. One participant embroidered claws and wrote, “When you see a woman, don’t become an animal.” Another, “Keep Out.” Feldman and Vickery staged a fashion show, with special hair and makeup that transformed the women into superheroes as they marched down the runway wearing the anti-rape slogans, which were adapted for billboards.
Returning from India, Feldman felt the first stirrings of a desire to settle down. “I thought I’d spend my life travelling, but after my last trip, I felt tired for the first time; I wanted a place to call home.” Which turned out to be the off-the-grid studio on the land where she had spent the first few years of her life.
A new project, called Tees & Tabs, has Feldman training her ethnographic lens on a tribe closer to home. She is embellishing pieces of mass-produced textiles, such as recycled T-shirts, with hand embroidery and shiny objects from our culture – soda-can pull tabs – to create a kind of contemporary North American costume.
Eventually, Feldman hopes to create a community of like-minded artists in Cape Breton, which is about four hours from Halifax.
“I’ve been involved in lots of communities, but something kept bringing me back to North America,” she says. “I’m not part of the infrastructure in these other places, and maybe the truest way I can make a difference is right here.”
Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco, and a frequent contributor to American Craft.