2011: Woven Identities of Japan: Ainu and Okinawa Textiles, Sept 4 – Oct 29

Clark Woven Ikinawa Bingata

Bingata kimono, Okinawa, 19th century, 123.2 x 188.8 cm, cotton with katazome stencil-dyeing. Collection of Thomas Murray. (Courtesy of Clark Center)

Textiles are an intrinsic part of life across all cultures throughout history. Whether used as clothing, containers, or mere decoration, textiles literally bind communities together. No other medium at once communicates social standing, cultural values, and aesthetics while also carrying out a functional purpose.

This fall, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California, returns from its summer break with Woven Identities of Japan: Ainu and Okinawan Textiles.

The first of two rotations, this exhibition will showcase articles of clothing made using different weaving, dyeing, and decorative techniques. This rotation focuses on the clothing of two unique ethnic groups; the indigenous Ainu of Northern Japan and the Okinawans of Southern Japan.

Featuring the dramatic, plant-fiber robes of the Ainu and the brightly colored kimono of the Okinawans, this exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the world of Japanese folk textiles.

Before 1879, the islands that today comprise Okinawa Prefecture formed the Ryukyu Kingdom. Established in 1429 by King Sho Hashi, the kingdom was a major maritime trading power in Asia. Okinawa’s independent history and religious, social and artistic traditions result in textiles that are truly singular.

Whether produced for trade, tribute or for the islanders’ own use, Okinawan fabrics were intimately related to the cultural and political identity of the people who made them.

The textiles of Okinawa reflect the tropical climate through a range of airy, plant fiber cloth and vivid decoration. One such robe featured in the exhibition is a striking bingata kimono from the 19th century that would have been worn by a noblewoman. Made of cotton, a material reserved for the upper echelons of Ryukyuan society, this robe features a pale blue background with a deep red latticework and stylized snowflakes, plum blossoms, and pine trees.

The elements that typified Ryukyuan clothing are evident including the triangular gussets under the sleeves, a long neckline, and the use of the decorative technique of bingata.

This paste-resist stencil dyeing technique was reserved exclusively for the use of the Ryukyuan court. Such painstakingly decorated textile art offers a glimpse into a culture that, while sharing elements of Japanese style, is uniquely Okinawan.

The clothing worn by the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, stands in sharp contrast to that worn by members of Japanese society. The Ainu are a highly diversified cultural group that lived primarily by hunting and gathering.

The way of life, beliefs, and material culture of the Ainu are distinct from those of the mainland Japanese. Accordingly, their textiles, while sharing some similar characteristics, are quite unique and visually express their religious beliefs.

The robes of the Ainu, usually woven from plant fibers, were meant to serve as protection against evil for the wearer. The sweeping abstract designs of these textiles focus on the hems and necklines of the robes, as openings in clothing were thought to serve as entrance of evil spirits into a person’s body.

This expression of religious beliefs is beautifully shown through the attush, a ceremonial robe made from elm tree fiber and featuring the ornamentation that is an essential characteristic of Ainu dress. These embroidered patterns are purely Ainu, but may have evolved as a synthesis of archaic Japanese patterns with the scrolling arabesques found on archaic Chinese bronzes.

Woven Identities of Japan: Ainu and Okinawan Textiles offers a glimpse into the clothing of two cultures that, while part of the same country today, were in the past truly distinct from mainland Japan.

Viewers will not only have the opportunity to see different types of Japanese textiles, but will also learn more about how these wearable works of art were originally produced.

This exhibition features outstanding works from the private collection of Thomas Murray, a dealer of Asian and Tribal arts and an enthusiastic collector of Japanese textiles.

This exhibition is curated by Virginia Soenksen, Curatorial Assistant. It will open on September 4 and will run through October 29, 2011. The curator will give an opening lecture at 2:00 pm on September 4.

The Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture is located at 15570 Tenth Ave, Hanford, CA 93230. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12:30 to 5:00 pm. The gallery is closed in the entire month of August. For more information, call (559) 582-4915 or visit www.ccjac.org