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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Tapestries for Civil Rights

Ireland-based Bill Shipsey is a human rights activist, artist event promoter and producer, barrister, and the founder of Art for Amnesty—Amnesty International’s global artist engagement program. Since 2012 he has conceived and commissioned 12 monumental memorial tapestries (funded in the main by artist supporters of Amnesty International, including Bono and The Edge of U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono, Paul Simon and John Legend) honoring, among others, Vaclav Havel, Seamus Heaney, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon and the people of Colombia. These tapestries are on permanent loan at various airport and museum locations around the world. Most of the tapestries were designed by New-York-based Czech artist Peter Sis and woven by master weavers at Ateliers Pinton in Felletin-Aubusson, France. Three new Peter Sis–designed tapestries honoring Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. were unveiled at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham this past Saturday.

I asked Shipsey to tell us more about Sis’ tapestries.

What was the impetus for commissioning these tapestries? The impetus for commissioning these three tapestries was principally to celebrate the achievement, example and memory of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement he lead. It was a continuation of the collaboration between Art for Amnesty, Peter Sis and Ateliers Pinton that has seen monumental memorial tapestries honoring Vaclav Havel, Seamus Heaney, John Lennon and Nelson Mandela.

What did Peter Sis bring to the work that is unique to his talents? In a word: magic. Peter has a totally unique style of art that has depth, humor, imagination and a color palette which makes his work totally suited to the modern tapestry medium—what Le Corbusier called the “nomadic murals of our day.”

What has been the response to the work? The response to the work from patrons who have seen it (including Edge of U2) and the leadership and foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, 500 of whom attended the unveiling in Birmingham on Sunday, has been heartening and hugely appreciative. Comments like “I never thought of Dr. King in this way.” “These are magical.” “They capture the spirit of three seminal moments in the Civil Rights struggle.” “They are just as relevant for today.”

Was there something in the work that totally surprised you? There always is with Peter’s work! I think Peter not being American-born approached the commission with some trepidation. But like all great artists and art he captured the essence of the man and the movement in an uplifting yet light and airy way. The “walking on air” or flight motif in all three is striking.

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