At the Burke, a myriad of colors and textures are woven into layers of meaning

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

This woman's kimono from Japan (1950) is made of embroidered silk. The furisode is the most important formal kimono in a single woman's wardrobe. It is worn on special occasions, including the Coming of Age Day when a woman turns 20 and is, by tradition, a legal adult and eligible for marriage. It's on display in the Weaving Heritage collection through Feb. 27, 2011, at the Burke Museum. (Photo provided by the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture)

Traditional weaving has become an endangered art because, as stated in a Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture press release, in the past 150 years, “the introduction of cheap, machine-made textiles, changes in the availability of traditional materials … and economic and political strife in many nations have threatened the survival of hand-woven textile traditions.”

From Oct. 2 until Feb. 27, 2011, the Burke Museum is holding its first-ever exhibition of international hand-woven textiles. According to the Burke’s press release, the 130 works selected are “the most beautifully designed and culturally significant textile masterpieces.”

Examples of traditional textile arts from American Indian tribal groups, China, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Micronesia, the Philippines, South America, Southeast Asia, and Tibet are displayed at the exhibit, entitled “Weaving Heritage: Textile Masterpieces from the Burke Collection.”

Traditional weaving has layers of significance for different cultural groups.

Dr. James Nason, the lead curator for this project, explained that many textiles and weaving skills were passed down from generation to generation. He states that hand-woven textiles were strongly “identified with cultural identity,” and some textiles had “spiritual meaning.” The Burke release also states that hand-woven textiles are closely associated with “ethnic pride, technical artistic mastery, and community history.”

Highlights of the Asian selections

Southeast Asia

An Indonesian batik sarong from the Burke Museum's collection (Photo provided by The Burke Museum of Natural History)

In the Southeast Asia section, a Lao skirt called “Sin Tin Nyai” is shown. It has an ancient “4,000-year-old” design, said Nason. Its motif, a naga serpent, or water serpent, has many meanings. It symbolizes both “the ancestral past and the Buddha” and has protective powers.

The Philippines

The Philippines section showcases works from the north Philippines. Nason pointed out, “Some of the [recently woven] patterns shown here are the same as those seen in the 1800s. You see the continuity through time.” He said the Philippines have made great efforts in maintaining tradition.

One of the items exhibited is a Barong made from weave cloth of pineapple fiber, the piña fiber. Barong Tagalog, the Filipino national costume, received a popularity boost in the mid-1970s. According to the website www.barongsrus.com, in 1975, former President Ferdinand Marcos “proclaimed the Barong Tagalog as the national attire and announced June 5 to June 11 as Barong Tagalog week.” Piña fabric process begins with leaf plucking, and the process takes four months to complete for a yield of 20 meters of woven cloth.

Indonesia

Tourists usually associate Indonesia with batik, a textile that traditionally employs a manual wax-resist dyeing technique. Declared an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2009, batik is a symbol of Indonesia’s independence.

“Batik is traditionally considered to be one of the five highest arts of Indonesian civilization. … The close association of batik cloth with Indonesia, where it is a national dress and used for state gifts, is its symbolic value as a sign of political independence in 1949, when a national competition for ‘independence batik designs’ was held. This was the ‘Batik Indonesia’ movement.”

In addition to batik, visitors have a chance to see a “soul cloth” made by the Batak people of northern Sumatra. “It has incredible symbolic value,” said Nason. A “soul cloth” represents the soul of a woman.

Given to a woman when she is pregnant with her first child, it “will protect her, her child, and her family through her lifetime,” explained Nason. After the woman dies, her body is enshrouded in the cloth. Years later, her bones, when exhumed for ritual, are wrapped in the same cloth.

Japan

A sin tin nyai tubular shirt from Laos from the Burke Museum's collection (Photo provided by The Burke Museum of Natural History)

One of the exhibits that will grab the visitors’ attention is Japan’s section with a woman’s kimono made of embroidered silk. “This is the most important kimono in a single woman’s wardrobe. She wears it at the coming-of-age ceremony at age 20,” said Nason. The cranes on the kimono symbolize longevity. An Ainu robe made of elm bark is on display. The Ainu are Japan’s indigenous people. The difference in texture between the Japanese pieces and the Ainu piece is marked.

Traditional hand-woven textiles and today

One of the highlights of the exhibit is a quote from Pom Khampradith of Laos. Khampradith is the daughter and granddaughter of weavers, but she did not learn weaving owing to emigration. “Lao textile has always been very significant in my life as a Lao woman growing up abroad. It has been a cultural thread, the umbilical cord that ties me to my motherland. When I visited Laos recently, it saddened me to see that very few are carrying on this beautiful tradition,” Khampradith states.

James Gregg and his wife, Kyoko, are the Japanese community advisers for the exhibit. When asked if the Japanese nowadays embrace traditional weaving, Gregg said, “[Kyoko] grew up in Osaka, and weaving was not part of everyday life. Things changed drastically in the past 30 years. Japanese always embrace new technology. … It’s very expensive to buy a kimono. Young people can travel around the world rather than buy a kimono. … The society has changed. Getting married used to be the most important thing for women,” Gregg states alluding to the ritual, ceremonial aspects of weaving art.

However, survival of this tradition in Japan does not seem completely hopeless. Gregg continued, “Today, Japanese are trying to find ways to keep [traditional weaving] alive. Recently  — in the last 15 years or so — Japanese clothing designers [have taken] traditional textiles to make modern clothes. … The designers are internationally famous.” ♦

The Weaving Heritage exhibit is being held from Oct. 2 to Feb. 27, 2011, at the Burke Museum. For more information, visit www.burkemuseum.org.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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