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South African artist Danielle Clough was recently commissioned to create portraits of television’s two biggest comedy stars, David Letterman and Tina Fey, except these were no ordinary portraits. Clough created two striking embroideries of the stars in her signature style, and each achieved instant global recognition.
It’s not hard to see why Clough’s artwork has garnered such widespread approval. She’s taken the concept of stitching and embroidery and totally turned it on its head – complete with bold thread colours, unique frames (several of her works are set on old tennis racquets) and unusual subject matters.
But it wasn’t until she was in her early teens, when a friend saw a drawing of hers and said how much she’d like it as a tattoo, that Clough realised she might have a talent.
‘I think this was my first clear moment of affirmation that made me see myself as artistic,’ she said when interviewed by Culture Trip. ‘I recently discovered my old scrap books and diaries and realised, through the insane amount of kokis (fibre-tip pens), stickers and glitter, that I have always had a creative edge, but I just saw that as normal then’.
She went on to study art direction and graphic design at advertising school, which she said gave her a grounding in the practical and commercial side of the art world.
‘It gave me the room to explore different mediums such as photography, design and craft, and trained me to look at my work as a product and myself as a brand. I don’t consider myself as an artist, more of a crafter, and I think my schooling has moulded that’.
Although it’s Clough’s most recent forays into embroidery that have got her noticed, she’s had marked success throughout her career, initially as a VJ at concerts and music festivals, and more recently as a skilled artist working across several disciplines. She credits all of these experiences to her present-day success.
‘I definitely see it as a culmination of many years of work, and deeply feel like nothing goes to waste’, she said. ‘I use photography in my embroidery, and design in my photography, and I don’t see them as separate entities. They are all slightly different vessels, carrying the same cargo’.
Still, it’s hard to deny that her reinventing a seemingly outdated artistic technique, such as embroidery, on a striking surface, like the strings of an old wooden-framed tennis racquet, was a stroke of genius.
In a world where most art is experienced on the two dimensions of a cellphone screen, Clough’s works immediately stand out, which is possibly why Instagram (where she goes by Fiance Knowles) has been such a good platform for her. She’s garnered a large, loyal following on the platform, and was a featured artist back in 2016.
‘I think there is growing appreciation for the tangible in this digital age’, she said of her artwork’s popularity. ‘Almost a kick-back from the instant and disposable. You can see this in a resurgence in hand-painted signs, craft beers and ceramics for example. This, coupled with the nostalgic aspect of embroidery, has all the components to become popular’.
Even though Clough saw the potential in the art form back when she was picking through old racquets to embroider at Cape Town’s Milnerton Flea Market, the popularity has surprised her: ‘I knew it had potential and I was hopeful’, she said. ‘But I didn’t ever imagine it would be what it is today’,
Although she openly admitted going through periods of self-doubt as she crafted her more famous pieces, she states humbly that their resoundingly positive reception has been ‘affirming’.
Because of this, she appears determined to continue along the same path, using the recent trajectory to keep improving: ‘My goals for the year have been to improve and “level up”, and that is still the focus. I have recently completed my largest portrait on expanded metal, and I’d like to do more work like that’.
Clough’s humble and determined approach seems to be paying off. In many ways, it’s ironic that she’s using an art form long forgotten by many to lead the way in a new wave of creativity.