Friday, November 21, 2008

Textile Museum & TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity

On the Washington, D.C., segment of my East Coast Tour I went to the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian to see the TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity exhibit, which is on through December 28, 2008, and the Textile Museum. Despite having lived in D.C. for a couple of years I had never been to either of these museums.

While the Textile Museum is relatively small and out of the way, it is entirely worth the trip for its permanent exhibit The Textile Learning Center alone, and even more so if you fancy the current exhibition.

In hindsight I encountered these exhibits in exactly the wrong order. I should have started in The Textile Learning Center on the second floor of the Textile Museum. The exhibit The Finishing Touch: Accessories from the Bolivian Highlands, on through February 1, 2009, uses the vocabulary defined in The Textile Learning Center in its signage and in the organization of the pieces. The two exhibits are close enough to one another that it would be easy to go back to the TLC to refresh your memory. Having learned and applied your textile vocabulary on the second floor, you'd be ready for the main current exhibit Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas, on through March 8, 2009.

Finally, while my first stop was the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian to see the TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity exhibit, I think you could get a lot more out of it if you had the knowledge base from the Textile Museum under your belt.

The brochure accompanying TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity exhibit was one of the most thorough I've found. It included all of the text from the signage in the exhibit down to the descriptions of every artifact. I love taking notes and drawing sketches in exhibits and this brochure had plenty of room for both and enough information that I could concentrate on sketching and noting my own impressions rather than copying down information from signage. Oh, how I would love every museum exhibit to have a brochure like this! Mind you, its dimensions were that of a vinyl record, so not exactly the easiest to carry around all day, but worth the effort.

From the children's guide to the exhibit:
TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity examines African garments, textiles, and adornments as communicators of coded messages. Messages of the age, gender, status, individual character, and group identity are transmitted in the colors, symbols, beads, costly materials, and patterns that decorate these textiles.
This theme ties in nicely with my interest in quilts with secret information behind them.

My favorite pieces in the TxtStyles/Fashioning Identity exhibit included the Man's tunic (jibbeh) from the Mahdiyya State in Sudan created in the late 19th century out of cotton, silk, wool, cotton batting, and dye. The tunic was pieced with floral and paisley commercially printed cotton, giving it the appearance of a traditional western quilt. The signage noted that armor for a man and his horse in the Mahdi Army was most often quilted in cotton. Silk might have been included in this piece because it is thought to deflect bad fortune. It is more customarily used in textiles related to wedding and birth ceremonies.

In addition to materials with special meanings, like undyed white wool having protective properties, the exhibit described a number of patterns with their own meanings. For example, the Woman's wrapper (haik) made by the Kabyle peoples of Algeria in the late 19th century out of wool, cotton, and dye depicted triangles and diamonds, both of which are protective motifs. Lozenge shapes ward off the evil eye. More specifically, the oyokoman pattern of yellow an green warp dtripes in a red field is identified with the Asante rulling clan and Ghanaian nationalism. Can you imagine a textile being associated with a U.S. political party?

I was also inspired by the textile techniques on display. A Woman's wrapper made by the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria in the mid-20th century out of cotton and indigo dye used adire (ah-deer-ray), a Yoruba resist dye technique. The blue background was covered with an orthogonal array of circles called "tops." Tops are a popular pattern made by twisting a comb into a cloth laden with starch resist to make textured circles. They look like very finely drawn spirals.

The idea of textiles as communication devices is also developed in The Textile Museum's special exhibit Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas. From The Bulletin of The Textile Museum:
As social currency, textiles reveal a great deal about an individual's wealth, social status, occupation, and religious and ethnic associations, as well as a culture's values, codes, and social order.
The main theme of the exhibit is comparing textiles made by nomadic peoples to those made by settled peoples.

One story from the signage in the exhibition particularly resonated with me. In the Kuba and Shivran provinces of eastern Azerbaijan, many towns an d villages became known for producing rugs with specific designs or styles. The region came under Russian rule in the 19th century. As part of a program to "improve" local handicrafts (kustar), Russian authorities set about recording and "tidying up" traditional carpet designs. The state-sanitized designs were then redistributed throughout the villages of the region, making it difficult to know if the current design names bear any relation to where a particular rug was made. This faux-folk art is identifiable by its use of repeated colors.

This seems like a very similar process of homogenization as took place in the early 20th century in American quilt making that I've discussed elsewhere. To paraphrase myself, antique American quilts do not conform to the forms and techniques commonly accepted as "traditional" quilting today. The rules enforced by present day "quilt police" seem to have coalesced in the patterns and kits made available in the 20th century, much like the state-sanitized carpet designs distributed by the Russians in late 19th Century. What is commonly accepted as "traditional" quilting is really a set of patterns and techniques created by the quilting-industrial complex. These "traditional" patterns and techniques can be traced back to their owners, purveyors of 20th century quilt patterns and kits, like the patterns in Azeri rugs can be traced back to the state-sanitized patterns distributed in the late 19th century. But both of these sets of patterns are disconnected from their geographically and culturally specific origins. Additionally, this idea of making quilts or rugs based on centrally distributed patterns destroys the creative process in which women improvisationally created without patterns or techniques beyond those they shared with one another on an interpersonal level.

On a less historical note, I found the descriptions of the artifacts in The Textile Museum's special exhibit Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas fascinating in their own right. For example, "An excess of details repeated from a prototype result in overcrowding." And, "A narrow field and multiple borders suggests a window looking into deep space lending a contemplative quality." Something about these descriptions strikes me as more subjective than I've seen in other museum signage. This is an exhibit of artifacts "drawn from the collections of past and present members of America's oldest rug and textile collecting society, the Hajji Baba Club." So I wonder if the owner's personal assessments made it into the signage or if the curators took more of an appraiser's eye towards the objects. While I don't find this type of signage particularly helpful in learning about the object, I do find it helpful in learning what appraisers think of when they look at these sorts of objects. As someone contemplating entering quilts into competition, these peeks at what might be going on in the minds of the judges is always fascinating.

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