The brilliantly colored married woman’s blouse from Thailand is made of cotton woven in a pattern of bright red and marigold yellow blocks. It is sleeveless, without a collar or any complex construction. But thanks to the exuberant fabric, the blouse is impossible to miss, a joyful garment for a woman who has reached an important stage in her life. It was handwoven in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Nearby is a cotton and wool maiden’s shawl made by Hopi weavers in Arizona in the early twentieth century. Though it is about the size of a small blanket, the dramatic white shawl with red and black bands of color on the long edges was worn by unmarried women during ceremonies. With its bold, simple contrasts, it is highly graphic and utterly compelling.
Both garments are beautiful, and they are among the one hundred thirty textile masterpieces now on display at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, Washington, through February 27, 2011. The Museum owns some two thousand handwoven, traditional textiles, but these one hundred thirty represent some of the best. Most have never been displayed and the Burke organized the show in conjunction with its one-hundred-twenty-fifth anniversary. Included is work from native cultures in North, Central and South America, as well as work from Southeast Asia, Micronesia, Japan, China, and the Philippines.
Thanks to the smart installation of Weaving Heritage, one of your first impressions as you enter the large gallery is that the space is filled with strong color and bold design. Squint just a bit and it is easy to imagine that the space is filled with big, color-saturated mid-twentieth century abstract art. The colors are intoxicating. The robes, shawls, blankets, skirts, and rugs are mostly suspended from the ceiling or walls, and making the circuit from one end of the gallery to the other you pass from the textiles of one culture to the next, all supported with helpful curatorial notes.
The textiles within each culture share a strong aesthetic point of view. Many of the Native American weavings of North America are designed in bold colored stripes and geometric patterning. Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan textiles are often adorned with stylized representations of birds, animals and the natural world. Much of the Southeast Asian work is woven in very narrow increments of color, producing textiles in which the colors seem to melt seamlessly from one into another.
Yet these extraordinary textiles from around the world also frequently have characteristics in common. The Chinese textiles include several silk robes with very ornate embroidery. A silk Chinese man’s dragon robe with its sumptuously embroidered dragons, constellations and ocean waves is impressive. The accompanying text notes that embroidered garments were for high-ranking people, and representations of dragons were expressly for the emperor or high-ranking princes. The dragon robe on display is characteristic of the Qing Dynasty of 1644-1912.
At the other end of the gallery are weavings by Pacific Northwest natives, including a Tlingit Dancing Blanket woven in Alaska in the nineteenth century. Made of mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, the blanket was for ceremonies, meaning someone important likely wore it. Designed in gray, yellow, black, and white, the fringed blanket includes anthropomorphic images of diving whales, their eyes staring straight out from the design. Though the Tlingit and Chinese textiles seem worlds apart, both confer power to those who wear them partly because of the animal motifs.
Perhaps it is not surprising that weavings by the Navajo share certain artistic sensibilities with weavings from Central and South America. A stunning black, red and white Navajo chief’s blanket from Arizona, 1880-1890, is an artful composition of stripes and diamonds. Over in the group of Guatemalan textiles a red, blue and purple huipil, or woman’s blouse, is also a study in contrasting stripes and borders. More colorful and elaborate is the Chinantec huipil from Oaxaca.
There are many lovely textiles in this exhibition. The oldest are from the mid-nineteenth century and the newest were made in the last three or four years. Standouts include a cotton and wool rug from Ecuador, 1972-1976, in orange, beet red, white, and blue. Off to one side of the rug is the image of a large fish. Also exquisite is a straight, wrapped, cotton and silk woman’s skirt from Vietnam, 2000, in very subtle linear patterns of black, crimson and gold threads.
One of the surprises is the group of textiles from Micronesia woven from fibers of banana and hibiscus plants. Indigenous weavers throughout history have been resourceful in using available plant or animal fibers. And the Micronesian weavers made understated, barely dyed textiles that look like lightweight, finely woven linen.
Despite the beauty of the textiles, there is a tinge of sadness threading through the show. All the cultures represented had thriving, sophisticated handwoven traditions that often went back thousands of years. Then, as Europeans and later Americans traveled around the world colonizing or setting up trading partnerships, traditional textiles went out of fashion. In some cases colonial powers insisted that their new subjects give up traditional dress; or traditional dress simply became old-fashioned among younger people. Cheap, machine-made textiles are now preferred in cultures that once had thriving handwoven industries.
Still, there are signs of hope. Craft collectives in some countries have in recent years started to find support from their governments, and a renewed interest in cultural heritage has inspired some young people to take up weaving. Nevertheless, contemporary handwoven textiles are made primarily for the tourist trade or for collectors with a taste for ethnographic artifacts. The increasing rarity of traditional handwoven textiles makes the Burke’s fine exhibition all the more welcome.
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