If you understood the facts, they needed no embroidery: all the wonder was already there, the more spellbinding because it was true.
This line from the 2003 novel Blind Lake by American-Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson, was written for metaphoric effect, but it may well have been the literal inspiration for illustrator and data designer Nithya Subramanian. Perhaps Subramanian started feeling the need to needle people with her art because few truly understand the facts — spellbinding, terrifying facts — about plastic pollution that spell doom for the planet.
Subramanian had been mulling over the problem of plastic pollution in oceans for a while, when she came across the 2019 report The Beach and Beyond published by Ocean Conservancy, which also organises a worldwide volunteer-driven beach clean-up day each year. Some key data sets from that report appealed to the data visualiser in her, and the seed of her latest art project Debris was sown.
After months of note-taking and prototype-making, the Mumbai-based illustrator and data designer seemed to have arrived at a tangible version of her vision. She recently shared a tweet thread with some work-in-progress images of Debris . At first glance, the images simply look like those of addas (wooden hoops with clasps traditionally used to secure fabric for embroidery) with stretched gauzy fabric and some pretty thread patterns on them. But what these patterns and stitches signified was far from pretty. Subramanian’s painstaking embroidery was, in fact, a visual translation of some alarming data points on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
What Subramanian did was take data on washed-up plastic debris of three countries and represent them in her embroidery. India was a natural choice, followed by Thailand for its tourist destination reputation, and Germany as a representative nation of the global North with some presumptions of better waste management.
In the artist’s silver organza ocean, one red hoop represents 10 plastic wrappers, one yellow spiral 10 plastic cups/ plates, one blue spiral 10 plastic bottles, one green ‘L’ 10 plastic bags, and one grey kantha stitch one cigarette butt. Days of effort culminated into a dizzying crisscross of lines, knots, and stitches and translated some alarming if dry numbers into fascinating patterns. Pointing to a profusion of grey stitches on one adda, she said that it had precisely 1,975 stitches representing the number of cigarette butts found on a 10 km stretch of a German beach.
Although it takes a viewer some attention to match the legends with the patterns and to be able to actually ‘read’ the data, a picture eventually emerges — one that is both beautiful and disturbing.
Subramanian’s engagement with plastic similarly has a beautiful and a disturbing side. On one hand, she acknowledges plastic’s centrality in our lives. Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story made her think harder about the accepted wisdom that plastic pollution is terrible and must be stopped at all costs. “Plastic is also pretty magical. It has revolutionised our lives in ways we now take for granted. And while it is highly visible, other forms of pollution like air pollution or greenhouse gases are probably worse in their long-term effects,” she says. Also, plastic, according to her, is not the primary demon: “Plastics are made as a by-product of fossil fuel refining. If we cut our use of fossil fuels, we could also be cutting our manufacture of plastics, which would also incentivise recycling.”
These musings led Subramanian to feel more thoughtful and less incensed about plastics. This attitude reflects in the medium and the materials she picked to communicate data. Unlike her other data visualisation projects, which mostly involve digital graphics and animation, she chose embroidery as a deliberate deviation for several reasons. She lists the desire to work with her hands instead of constantly working on screen, choosing something that would take time and patience, and wanting to reach the kind of audiences to whom data graphics may not be readily accessible. Embroidery met all these parameters and its tactile experience appealed to her. “You want to touch it and feel the stitches dip up and down through the fabric”, she says.
It took Subramanian months of research, pricked fingers, frustration, YouTube tutorials, and several failed attempts before she could zero in on the style, the fabric, the threads, and the colours. Her set of three finished pieces currently remain framed in their hoops.
Each country is a piece of organza, which folds up in waves outside the frame and looks like both water and plastic. She plans on embroidering a few more countries, so more comparisons can be made over their plastic waste. They are currently on display on her Twitter handle, Instagram page and website, but she hopes to exhibit them as one in a series of works using different media to tell data stories.
The notes, mood boards and prototypes she has shared testify to her commitment to this unusual medium, knowing well its less-than-elite status. “Embroidery is an art form that has been practised by women for centuries and they’ve created a dazzling array of stitches, forms and patterns. Still, it does not always get its due as an art, and instead is looked at as ‘women’s work’ or purely decorative,” she says.
But Subramanian’s ingenuity in marrying a traditional craft to modern data design concepts might just help break the silos down. After all, embroidery is for everyone; just as visual and statistical literacy is.
The writer is a culture writer and an Interfaith Studies scholar.