‘Tools For Life’ by Johanna Unzueta 30.03.20

A few weeks ago I visited a client in Oxford, taking the opportunity to visit Modern Art Oxford while in town. Johanna Unzueta’s exhibition has acquired a new significance since the Covid-19 lock-down. We’re now a week into the new restrictions – limited social interaction, limited time outside, limited resources at our disposal.

Unzueta’s work considers the abundance of material in our modern lives “we have an excess of everything at this point”. She asks us to consider the miracle of hot and cold running water, the skills and resources needed to achieve it: “My intention is to bring into discussion the notion of labour. On a first layer, its technological, historical and social impact on the human condition, And on a second, its relationship to nature.”

Unzueta uses food dyes in her work – a simple and readily available material. The surprisingly potent colour of beetroot creates real excitement in people when they start to use it in her workshop sessions. Such materials reconnect us with a simpler way of living. One that is more sustainable, less wasteful but no less beautiful. “We can have so many good things or beautiful things or magic things, out of simplicity.”

Unzueta’s practice combines craft and fine art with industrial manufacturing processes. She learned weaving with the Mapuche people of southern Chile, researched natural dyeing processes in Guatemala, and acquired sewing and pattern making skills from the women in her family. Collaboration is key to her work, a practical necessity with the absence of state funding in post-dictatorship Chile.

“Tools for Life (replace with Covid-19) prompts us to consider the unseen human actions and efforts required to produce the objects and technologies we so unthinkingly rely on in our everyday lives.”

Coronavirus has forced us to consider supply chains and the processes behind our requirements for food, toilet rolls, pharmaceuticals, face-masks and ventilators. Our reliance on the “low-skilled” – now re-branded “essential workers”. The value of co-operation at global, national, regional and local levels. Being less wasteful and more thoughtful in how we consume resources and how we treat one another.

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