Japanese Textiles: Special Exhibit
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN USA
Textiles are an intrinsic part of life, across all cultures of the world.
Besides carrying out a functional purpose, it communicates cultural values, aesthetics and social standing.
“Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan”
This exhibition* debuts the Mia’s extensive collection of more than 200 outstanding Japanese textiles, one of the foremost collections in the world. Besides its beauty, the exhibit centers on the importance of local resources for human survival and comfort.
*Exhibit runs through 11 September 2022.
Mia Japanese Textile special exhibit.
P.C. Cher B 6/29/22
Textiles have also been a significant part of my life.
Like the Japanese culture in this exhibit, skill with textiles was passed down from generation to generation in my family. Both my grandmothers – and my mother – were expert seamstresses and other textile mediums. Through their diligent instruction, I learned to design and sew my own personal garments. Today, my sister still creates and constructs her own artistic wardrobe of wearable art.
As an adult, the genre of textiles I worked with broadened. I learned how to knit and crochet, creating useful and lovely wearable art. I was introduced to weaving on a loom, co-authoring a How-To Manual on Weaving for Beginners. Weaving still remains one of my passions and active hobby. One of my large woven wall hangings was recently displayed at the Minnesota State Fair. As a design professor, I incorporated weaving and textile arts into my Principles of Art lessons on texture and pattern.
These life experiences provided a deeper appreciation of this special exhibit of Japanese textiles. The most difficult task of this post was narrowing down a few from the nearly 200 to the options to share with you! Here are my favorites!
The Mia Exhibit
The Mia Exhibit
Textiles made between 1750 and 1930 are represented in this Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art) exhibition. It includes three geographical areas belonging to present-day Japan.
The exhibit celebrates both the resourcefulness of humans as well as the ingenuity of the makers of the items on display. Interestingly, the creators of these beautiful, functional works of art are all unknown to us.
Standard silk kimonos we often see are not the focus of this exhibit – silk was reserved only for the upper classes. Rather, we see typical clothing which showcases regional craft traditions such as a wide range of textiles for fishermen, farmers and firemen.
Clothing is made from local materials – many we don’t typically think of using for the weaving of clothing. Fish skin, deer skin, elm bark, banana leaf, nettle, wisteria, and hemp are used along with paper, cotton and wool.
Creating Textiles to Wear
Creating Textiles to Wear
Textile workers in pre-industrial Japan inherited their professions, skills and tools. Similar to what my sister and I learned from our mother and grandmothers, there is continuity from generation to generation. The end result is a depth of artistic and technical knowledge. Different at that time is that the journey from raw materials to finished product passed through the hands of many specialists.
This woman’s Festival Coat is one of the first items in the exhibit. It is made from fish skin, reindeer sinew with cotton thread, applique and embroidery.
This lined Winter Robe wraps up the show as one of the last items in the exhibit. It is dark blue-ground, cotton with a dog paw print pattern. The yellow-ground lining is a pattern of ivy, chrysanthemum, and bamboo grass, stencil resist with applied pigments.
Jewelry – Ainu women wore necklaces made of glass beads on ceremonial occasions. Fashionable, they also offered the wearer spiritual protection. This neck ornament with medallion is made with glass beads, plant fiber, molded metal, and lacquered wood.
Textiles in Society & at Festivals
Clothing defines Class
A person’s public identity was largely defined by the class to which one was born in pre-industrial Japan. This determined what one did and where one lived – and the materials one could wear. Edicts reserved silk only for nobility. Cotton, ramie, and other natural fibers were worn by commoners.
The collective identity of a group was expressed at public festivals. Clothing at special events was emblematic of a shared background and a collective sense of self purpose. A fisherman was part of a community of fishermen. An indigo dyer lived and labored among other indigo dyers. And so on.
Stories to tell…
I love stories. So when an exhibit shared a personal story such as this one, I paid attention!
Rain capes protected residents of northern Japan from heavy rain and snowfall. A man made this fancy rain cape as a gift for his wife to wear with pride to festive occasions. Made of left over rice straw, with cotton for the shoulder piece, he attached a fringe of shredded tree bark strands along the edge.
Pattern & Color…
I enjoy pattern and color; this kimono caught my eye.
This festival kimono would have been worn by a man performing folk dances at Obon festivals to honor the spirits of his ancestors. The focus on family identity and connections to both living and dead relatives is seen in the large family crest on the upper back. The combinations of materials – pine, bamboo and cherry blossoms – identifies that it was a custom order.
Textiles in Daily Life
Textiles in Daily Life
Patterns! I was intrigued by the variety of patterns and use of both stylized and abstract patterns. Patterns were created by dyers who had developed exceptionally complex and varied techniques.
This Tea Service Mat features a pattern similar to carpet from Central Asia, attainable only by the nobility.
From my experience creating patterns on looms for my weavings, I was intrigued by the intricate binding and knotting, mathematical precision in individually dyed threads used to create a pattern which emerges once they are woven together.
This Warming Table Cover boasts a very unusual whimsical and abstract pattern. it is made of cloth, bottom is patchwork, leftover yarn and indigo dye.
This Wrapping Cloth with circular floral design had one of the most inventive uses – to cover or wrap gifts for ceremonies such as weddings.
Textiles in Ainu Robes
Textiles of the Ainu Peoples
The Ainu textiles are the first to be shown in this Mia exhibition. Ainu are native to Japan’s northernmost islands and parts of the Russian Far East.
Elaborate embroidered patterns are featured in the robes. This was meant to please the eye and protect the wearer. They were created by Ainu women for family members as formal attire worn at weddings and religious ceremonies.
Ainu believed that spirit beings coexist with their people and could provide both help and harm. This belief was incorporated into their textiles. Designs were placed in the robes’ openings, in the back, where a person might be most vulnerable. This was believed to repel disease, violence or harmful spirits.
The act of stitching was a physical way for the women creating the robes to invest in prayers and love into the garments. This provided both healing and protection to the wearer.
Photos of the Ainu peoples wearing robes like those displayed added to the experience of the exhibit. It seemed to give life to the robes!
Alchemy of Indigo
Alchemy of Indigo
Indigo is a deep and vivid blue dye made from plant materials. In rural Japan, it was easily the most preferred color for cotton textiles.
Besides providing color, indigo leaves and seeds had medicinal properties! Believed to help against fever, snakebites and stomach disorders, indigo-dyed work clothes were considered to have a protective effect.
Fascinating Fact: because the dye served to reinforce the fabric and have antibacterial properties, it was popular for undergarments as well. The indigo dyed fabric would lie against sweaty, bare skin and turn the wearer a distinct color of blue! But they were protected!
Indigo is astonishing in the hands of a skilled dyer. It is an elaborate and time consuming process. The dye sits on the surface of cotton fibers. The pigment builds up as the same clothes is repeatedly dyed.
Rich, dense, nearly black blues can be produced. However, indigo-dyed cotton does fade over time with washing and wearing. Well-worn garments tell the stories of their use in the changing blue tones of their surfaces.
Techniques were developed to recycle well-used cloth into new textiles, from the cotton patchwork to the shredded and rewoven textiles.
This patchwork farmer’s short coat is one of the most fun items on display. It was constructed of patched pieces of worn, recycled cotton. Decorative stitching to reinforce the seams is created with the vertical lines.
Textiles & Firefighters
Textiles & Firefighters
The exhibit about Japanese firefighters was one of the most visually appealing rooms of the exhibit!
During the Edo and Meiji periods (1603-1912) fires were a constant threat to the thousands of people living in the densely populated cities of Tokyo (then Edo) and Osaka.
Fires spread quickly in buildings made of wood, combined with the use of indoor stoves and paper lanterns. Organized firefighting brigades were authorized to fight fires and enforce rules designated to keep them from starting. These men were considered heroes for their valor, strength and loyalty.
Inspiration for the Mia 3D display was this original woodblock print. In Japan, firefighters were lionized as protectors of the city and its residents, and audiences never tired of dramatic portrayal of firefighters and their adventures.
Firefighters in Art
Alongside the firefighters’ robes was colorful and dramatic art extolling their virtues! These were two of my favorites.
This firefighter’s robe with special protective emblem on the back serves to introduce one to the exhibit!
I found some interesting and unexpected parallels in this exhibit to my own connection to Textile Art. It has inspired my to pick up my weaving loom again – soon!
TRAVELER TIP: How to maneuver and get the most out of this wonderful – but extensive and exhaustive – exhibit! There were A LOT of rooms! (1) First, I did a overview by quickly walking through the entire exhibit without stopping to look at or read anything, but noting places of major interest. The rooms kept going – and going – and going! (2) Second, I went through it again, this time stopping at highlights and taking some photos. I made sure I also took photos of the wall plaques to accurately present them in this blog. (3) Lastly, I went through and took time to read and study each room in more depth.
If you enjoyed this post, I appreciate your “likes” – and especially benefit from your comments! They encourage me in creating future blogs!
Also – sign up for direct e-mail notices as soon as they are posted! https://charamana.com/blog/
- Website: artsmia.org – Info on visits to the Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
- Address: 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
- Admission: Always free to the general museum. Special pricing for special exhibits.
- All Photos by Cher B. on self-guided tour of the exhibit. 29 June 2022.
- “Curator’s Statement” by Dr. Andreas Marks (Mary Griggs Burke Creator of Japanese and Korean Art, Director of the Clark Center for Japanese Art). Mia exhibit wall plaque.
- Mia Wall plaques next to each of the items in the exhibit provided details listed about each item