Installation view of Sheila Hicks’ work <em>Nowhere to go</em> on display as part of NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy<br/>

Sheila Hicks

Sophie Travers

Handmade by artist Sheila Hicks’s small studio in Paris, Nowhere to go, 2022, is nonetheless epic in scale. At almost seven metres high, it stands defiant, challenging notions of textile works as intimate, small, gendered, very much in the spirit of its creator Hicks, who has been doing the same since she began weaving, painting, and teaching in 1959.

The NGV Triennial 2023 is, forgive the metaphor, woven through with textile art. The cornerstone of the rich diversity of artworks commissioned and acquired from international artists is Sheila Hicks’s monumental Nowhere to go, 2022, generously supported by Triennial Champion, NGVWA. This lopsided mountain of brightly coloured acrylic boulders is the kind of delightful intervention in the Gallery that NGV audiences adore. Hicks’s works, and this piece in particular, are irresistibly open and attractive. They invite immediate engagement, and while they do not all play with scale of this magnitude, they always pull you in. Hicks is fascinated by the seemingly endless possibilities of the materials she manipulates: their colours, textures, structures and forms. Her career is characterised by restless innovation and curiosity. She is an excellent choice for a wide-ranging exhibition, such as the NGV Triennial, where the key thematic pillars of Magic, Matter and Memory anchor more than seventy-five projects by 100 artists from around the world.

Textile art may be having something of a renaissance, thanks, many think, to the enforced domesticity of the pandemic. The fragility this moment provoked seemed to lead us to seek care, calm and continuity in our surroundings. The interior and exterior of our worlds are conflated. The softness we wanted to see on the walls we viewed day in, day out extended post-pandemic to the walls of galleries and museums. Slowness, already a virtue in the accelerating landscape of late-stage capitalism, gave the handmade enhanced appeal. Post-COVID, social interactions that echoed tinnily on screen were joyously thrown out – replaced by delicious hugs and hanging out. The haptic was back with a vengeance. Out with the NFTs and in with the clay, the cloth, the metal and the wire. Out with AI and in with age-old artisanship. Knowledge transfer through making. Sensation, touch, even smell.

Hicks would likely laugh at all this interpretation. In interviews she evades attempts to categorise or even analyse her work. She is a self-professed contrarian, refusing to be labelled, and meeting questions with questions of her own. While Hicks is the subject of several books and more than a couple of retrospectives, she shirks attempts to consolidate her ideas into any kind of philosophy. She would most likely rebuke this article’s framing of her work for the Triennial as emblematic of anything at all.

Born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1934, late Depression era America, her family moved frequently, following her father seeking work. This established a love of travel that became a signature. She studied at Yale School of Art where she was influenced by Bauhaus leader, Josef Albers who taught her to appreciate colour and light, and by art historian George Kubler, who instilled an appreciation of Latin American art and archaeology. Albers introduced Hicks to his wife, the experimental weaver, Anni Albers. Hicks attributes her passion for structure to their several meetings around the loom. In true Bauhaus style, Hicks’s serious engagement with fine art, craft, design and architecture, disregards hierarchies of discipline. 

During her studies Hicks received a Fulbright grant to spend a year in Chile. From there she travelled through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, broadening her appreciation of traditional forms of weaving and their deep cultural significance. Hicks exhibited her weavings in Santiago and Buenos Aires and extended her travels through Bolivia, Uruguay, and Brazil, before returning to the United States to complete her studies. 

Upon graduation in 1959 Hicks received another scholarship and studied in Paris, while also traveling widely in Europe. A year later, her interest in Pre-Inca textiles took her to Mexico where she worked with local weavers and taught at the University of Mexico. She met the Mexican architect Luis Barragan, who gave Hicks her first private architectural commission (for a convent). In that same year of 1961, she exhibited in New York and her first work was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (the white wool Wall Hanging, 1961.) Setting the pattern of responding to invitations inside and adjacent to artmaking for the decades to come, Hicks began to design textiles for the German American manufacturers Knoll. 

In 1964 Hicks moved with her daughter to Paris, the base from which she has worked prolifically over six decades. The artist enjoyed the foreignness this unlikely home provided, explaining once in an interview, ‘There’s an immense amount of freedom in being an outsider. You’re a heretic. So, it becomes a way of life’.1 From the start, her supporters understood this outsider status as an asset that enabled her to jump fences between disciplines. In 1966 MoMA curator Mildred Constantine gave Hicks her first public commission, for the restaurant of the New York headquarters of CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), designed by Eero Saarinen. 

Hicks went on to create an abundance of works for public space, at the same pace at which her work was beginning to be exhibited and collected by major institutions. A second commission by Saarinen for the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York has been viewed by millions. In 1993 she created Four Seasons of Mount Fuji for the Fuji City Cultural Centre in Japan. At 103 metres, this was the longest fibre bas-relief in the world. 

Hicks continued to expand her material vocabulary and ideas through travel. She worked in Israel with weavers, embroiderers, upholsterers, tailors and fashion designers in factories and kibbutzim. She was appointed by UNESCO to head the Manufacturing and Design Academy of South Africa in Cape Town. She joined the artistic programme at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. For the Japanese Bridgestone Tire Corporation, she helped create a new stainless-steel fibre. Hicks developed tufted rugs in Morocco and commercially woven fabrics in India. She challenged and expanded every practice she incorporated and continues to explore new technologies for textiles and their installation and use. 

The gallery label for one of the earliest works acquired by MoMA in 1967, The Evolving Tapestry: He/she, 1967–68, articulates the appeal that Hicks’s work continues to offer the curator. It reads, ‘… this work assumes a different form each time it is exhibited. The heaped linen threads invite the viewer to reconceive the structural potential of the soft material’.2 This note could be written for Nowhere to go, the work created fifty-five years later. Just like Hicks’s earlier ‘tapestries’ it confounds expectations of what a textile can achieve.

Nowhere to go is a higgledy-piggledy seven-metre pyramid of acrylic fibre, gathered in nets to resemble puffy boulders or mutant mosses. The work is breathtaking in scale, epic, like much of Hicks’s interventions into architecture. There is an immediate appeal to touch, even to jump into the work, as Hicks has encouraged at times in her exhibitions. The blues that graduate upwards from dark to light offer a lifting momentum that has something ethereal to it, inviting the imagination to stray to the sea or to the skies. The heavy feel of the avalanche contrasts the soft, emotional appeal of the colours, which range from a saturated, dense royal blue, through to a fuzzy almost green to a misty baby blue. As MoMA noted in their description of Hicks’s work changing with every fresh installation this piece, which was first shown at The Hepworth, Wakefield in the UK, will live differently in Australia. Audiences who have had little exposure to Hicks’s oeuvre, are however not necessarily disadvantaged. Hicks has always encouraged the personal, immediate, emotional response. As Hicks has said, ‘Give the material a chance to speak and give it a space to be seen’.3

The NGV Triennial places Nowhere to go in conversation with textile-driven works by artists from China, Malaysia, Mexico, the US, and the UK, as well as work in every other medium. It is not controversial to assume that all artists working in textiles will be aware of, and possibly even inspired by, Hicks – so established is her reputation. She has become almost legendary for the longevity of her ambition. In 2018 Hicks astonished artists worldwide by constructing a rope and fabric column not only outdoors, but in the middle of a lake, at a Belgian music and art festival. She defied gravity, elements and assumptions about what a (then) eighty-four-year-old artist might achieve. 

For the NGV Triennial, the monumentality of Hicks’s work is echoed in Lin Fanglu’s She’s four seasons, 2023, a commission that takes time-honoured tie-dyeing techniques into an epically scaled installation, generously supported by Vicki Vidor OAM, Ginny Green and Bindy Koadlow. The room-like embrace of Franziska Furter’s Liquid skies/Gyrwynt, 2023, has an ecological imaginary and materiality that connects a richly woven rug to a hanging work, Haku, made of glass beads. Tapestry weaving is in fierce hands in young American artist Diederick Brackens’s marrow becomes breath, 2022. The forty-metre-long tapestry, The avocado legacy. Deforestation, revolution, a new beginning, 2023, created by eleven Mexican weavers to a design by Valeria Montero and Maria Camacho in the Conflict avocados project, 2023, by Fernando Laposse, is overtly political. Step through the Triennial and you encounter pandanus, carpet, patchwork, appliqué, embroidery, mulberry papers, plant dyes, wood and cotton. 

One hopes Hicks would approve of artists who, like her, enjoy,

‘Taking a material and making it sing and dance and do somersaults’.4

Sophie Travers is Director of Australian Tapestry Workshop.

See Sheila Hicks’s Nowhere to go, 2022, as part of NGV Triennial until 28 April

Purchased, NGVWA, 2022

NGV Triennial 2023 is supported by Presenting Partner Creative Victoria, Principal Partner Mercedes-Benz, and Major Partners Chadstone – The Fashion Capital, Telstra, MECCA and Deakin University. The NGV sincerely thanks Triennial Champions: Felton Bequest, July Cao, Barry Janes & Paul Cross, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, NGVWA, and Neville & Diana Bertalli, and we recognise all generous supporters to the NGV Triennial 2023.



Leslie Camhi, ‘A Career Woven From Life’, The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2011


Gallery label from Brute Material: Fiber into Form, 5 Apr. 2013 – 8 Sep. 2013, <>, accessed 29 Oct. 2023.


Sheila Hicks interviewed for ‘Sheila Hicks: Off Grid at The Hepworth Wakefield’, accessed 29 Oct. 2023.


Gwen Burlington, ‘Constant discovery: Sheila Hicks interviewed by Gwen Burlington’, BOMB,, accessed 29 Oct. 2023.