Maria Lai (Ulassai, 1919 – Cardedu, 2013) was one of the most singular voices in Italian art from World War II on.
Her special talent for drawing led her in 1939 to enroll in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, the only woman in those years to study sculpture under Arturo Martini. In the fifties she moved to Rome, where she was able to observe various contemporary artistic developments, first through contacts with Art Informel and then, in the next decade, with the emergence of Arte Povera and Conceptual Art. From these movements she derived an interest in materials, both organic and those related to pre-industrial civilization, and in gesture as process, filtering these interests through an absolutely individual sensibility.
Though the sixties were a period of intense collaborations, Maria Lai increasingly distanced herself from artistic circles and a deeper engagement with literary and poetic developments, through her contacts with authors such as Giuseppe Dessì, who played a fundamental part in her formation, enabling her to rediscover the value of the legends and the history of Sardinia. From this period the relationship with the traditions of her land became central to her work, in a conceptual outlook with an anthropological matrix. Together with drawing, her output was enriched with subjects and materials close to an ancient, popular culture as in the case of her sculptures of bread, in itself a plain and perishable product, closely associated with everyday life and women’s work.
During the seventies the artist also created a series of works central to the development of her artistic language, which she called Telai (“Looms”), works that combined painting and sculpture and in which the age-old tradition of weaving was opened up to new compositional possibilities. The very structure of the loom, the yarn and the arrangement of the warp and weft were all elements that the artist interpreted and elaborated with absolute freedom of composition, so evoking the intimacy and the daily care in a world of female gestures, and producing works that blend abstraction and landscape, color and material, gesture and composition.
As the Telai were three-dimensional works they abandoned the dimension of painting, as in the case of Ricucire il mondo (“Sewing Up the World”) (2008), the work in the collection of the Madre. In this, as in other works, the technique and the instruments of weaving are transformed into a formal language that creates a close dialogue with the achievements of artists such as Anni Albers, Louise Bourgeois and Greta Bratescu.
Geografie and Libri (“Geographies” and “Books”) are series which the artist produced in the late seventies. In the former the story is organized around large compositions made with fabrics and embroideries that represent the planets, constellations and imaginary geographies, while the Books are among the artist’s best-known creations. (In 1978 she introduced her now celebrated Libro Scalpo (“Scalp Book”) at the Venice Biennale.)
Among them, the work La leggenda del Sardus Pater (“The Legend of Sardus Pater”, 1990), exhibited in the collection at the Madre, is one of the most important examples. Here the ties between weaving, embroidery and writing become intense and close, the echo of a relationship that evokes the beginnings of ancient narrative. In all Maria Lai’s work, the gesture of weaving becomes a meditation conducted in solitude, an intimate reflection on the meaning of community, history and tradition, a poetic attempt to recreate a bond between an archaic past and a present in which memory and its transmission appear to have lost their value.
The community, relational and memorial impulse finds its summation in the artist’s environmental interventions, as on the occasion of Legarsi alla montagna (“Tying Ourselves to the Mountain”) (Ulassai, 1981), a work that united action – literally it united a whole community with slender colored threads, prompting the critic Filiberto Menna’s comment: “It was the whole village that reconstructed a network of relationships by tying house to house, door to door, window to window, and especially one person to another […]. Here art has succeeded where religion and politics had failed to.”