Exhibition of Ainu and Okinawan Textiles

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HANFORD — “Woven Identities of Japan: Ainu and Okinawan Textiles” will be on view at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, 15770 Tenth Ave. in Hanford, from Sept. 4 to Oct. 29.

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.

Bingata kimono. Okinawa. 19th century. Cotton with katazome stencil-dyeing. 123.2 × 188.8 cm. Collection of Thomas Murray

This fall the Clark Center returns from its summer break with “Woven Identities of Japan.” 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 Shō 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.

Kaparamip robe. Ainu, Hokkaido. Late 19th century. Cotton; applique, embroidery. 129.5 × 124.5 cm. Collection of Thomas Murray

The clothing worn by the Ainu 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. Curated by Virginia Soenksen, curatorial assistant, 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.

Opening lecture: Sunday, Sept. 4, at 2 p.m. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 12:30 to 5 p.m. Closed on national holidays and during the month of August.

Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for students and active military with valid ID. Children 12 and under free.

Weekly docent tours are held Saturdays at 1 p.m. and guided group tours can be arranged by calling the center in advance at (559) 582-4915.

Become a member and enjoy free admission to exhibitions and opening lectures, receive invitations to special events and more. Memberships begin at $50/year.

For more information, visit www.ccjac.org

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