African-Print Fashion Volume 41.2

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS  in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.  Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA .

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

WOMAN WEARING DRESS printed with portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Union flags, black and white photograph, circa 1977. Photograph by Jacques Toussele, © Jacques Toussele.

In 2015 Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo expressed her affinity for African-print cloth, stating, “This is our cloth. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.” Her passionate words suggest the fervor with which African-print cloth is linked to African identity as well as an awareness of its transnational history and present. Its story begins in the late nineteenth century, when the (mostly female) traders in what is now Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, encountered European merchants arriving with a new kind of fabric—vividly-patterned wax prints. These women, from communities that had for generations revered well-made textiles and appreciated imported goods, recognized the potential of the colorful wares and suggested to the merchants motifs and hues that would appeal to their customers.

One merchant in particular, Scotland’s Ebenezer Brown Fleming, who was working with a company in the Netherlands, listened to the feedback his agent received, and, around 1890, began offering printed cloths that—though manufactured by machines in Europe and inspired by handmade batik fabrics from Indonesia—became entirely African. Scholar Helen Elands states concisely that, “It was African interaction in design choices that enabled African aesthetics and cultural values to pervade these products, allowing them to carry connotations of tradition and authenticity.” Many contemporary fashion designers, both in Africa and the diaspora, continue to embrace African-print cloth, which is now manufactured in Europe, Africa and Asia, as a declaration of their connection to Africa. Though these fabrics are delicately entangled in the complexities of Colonialism, technology, consumerism, and style, they are, at heart, African and in innumerable ways, global. 

ALEXIS TEMOMANIN, DESIGNER FOR DENT DE MAN. LES TOILES D’ARAIGNÉE: MAN’S SUIT in wax print by Vlisco, the Netherlands, 2016. Courtesy of Dent de Man, London, UK. Photograph by Marc Hibbert.

Several recent exhibitions have focused on African design and fashion, including “Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design” organized by the Vitra Design Museum in 2015-2019; “South of the Sahara: Accelerated Urbanism in Africa” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016; “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016-2017; and “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” in 2017-2019. This last exhibition, conceived by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2014 just before an explosion in popularity of African-print fashion, focused on the cloth and fashion of West and Central Africa, addressing their history and contemporary iterations while conveying the multifaceted networks of international trade that shaped them and the intricate expressions of identity that they embody. Its lavishly illustrated catalogue, with essays by numerous scholars, including the four co-curators: Suzanne Gott, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine, stands as a permanent record of a dazzling exhibition.

The terminology used to describe and the technology used to create African-print cloth vary between countries and over time. In the standard hierarchy of African prints, though, “wax prints” generally are the most desirable and are produced with a resist-dye process employing engraved metal rollers that results in fabric printed on both sides and showing characteristic undyed areas of crackles and bubbles; additional layers of color are applied through a variety of methods. “Fancy prints” are printed on one side of the fabric through numerous methods, but do not use the resist-dye process, while “imi-wax prints,” or imitation wax prints, are a kind of fancy print designed to imitate the effect of the resist-dye process. All of these boldly-patterned and brightly-colored fabrics are considered African prints.

MEMBERS OF A GROUP wearing the classic God’s Eye pattern for the Cape Coast Fetu Afahye Festival, Ghana, 2012. Photograph by Betsy D. Quick.

The motifs on African-print cloth range from alphabets to handbags, iPods to chickens, radiating spirals to elaborate hair braid styles. Some early designs derive from Indonesian images, like Tree of Life or Bunch of Bananas (also called Shell), which initially represented the wing of the legendary Garuda bird of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. Others reflect patterns from traditional African textiles, such as Sun Ray or Target, a design based on tie-dyed fabrics, or Angelina, also called Dashiki and based on Ethiopian tunics with embroidered neck yokes and borders. Especially popular motifs include a hand with coins, a human eye, and fingers, and these often relate to familiar proverbs like “The palm of the hand is sweeter than the back of the hand,” and “I am left with only my eyes to watch you.” Some designs reflect significant current events, like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule on March 6, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the visit of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009, or International Women’s Day. Others are produced for specific occasions such as weddings or funerals.

IN A VILLAGE NEAR BROBO, CÔTE D’IVOIRE, an unidentified woman wears a wax-print featuring the distinctive skyline of Abidjan, 1992. The three-piece complet, made from six meters of printed cloth, is considered by many to be traditional Ivorian dress and is associated with propriety, discretion, moral fortitude, and a high regard for tradition. Photograph by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Though the earliest African-print cloth was manufactured in Europe, companies began producing prints in Africa during the independence era (late 1950s-1970s), and by the early twenty-first century, countries in Asia, especially China, made their own versions of African-print cloth. In many African countries the “original” wax prints from the Netherlands are revered as the most prestigious, while at times the pride of local manufacture has taken precedent. The purchasing power of Africans declined radically following the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s, creating an opening for less costly products from Asia. The recent influx of inexpensive Asian imports has both strengthened devotion to higher-end products and spurred popular interest in and use of African-print cloths as it has made them more accessible. Anthropologist Nina Silvanus describes the cloth as “full of irony,” and “a true hybrid—at once Javanese, Dutch, English, African, and now increasingly Chinese,” adding, “the archive of wax cloth complicates claims about origin, originality, and authenticity.”

Regardless of where the cloths are printed, they acquire their names in Africa. In her essay, Kathleen Bickford Berzock explains that “the long-standing practice of the naming of wax-print patterns by the consumers who purchase, wear, and collect them is part of its enculturation into local frames of meaning and value,” adding that the popularity of a print increases once it receives a name. 

A cloth’s name, motif or related proverb speaks clearly to its wearer’s peers. One popular print for mothers, midwifes, or women desiring children is Children are Better than Money, while a particular fancy print from the early 1990s incorporates the proverb En attendant mon grotto (“Waiting for my grotto”—an Ivorian slang term similar to “sugar daddy”) below an image with a young woman pointing to the desirable possessions of a Mercedes-Benz and a single-family home, against a pattern of coins. 

Berzock quotes folklorist Susan Domowitz on how, among the communities she studied in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, prints based on proverbs sometimes offered “an acceptable public voice to those who are constrained to silence.” 

KEN TRAORÉ, DESIGNER. KENYA’S STYLE: Pagne et marinière of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.

African fashion was, and in many places still is, primarily custom rather than ready-to-wear, and Suzanne Gott, in one of her contributions to the catalogue, describes the process as “an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.” The first, and most crucial step, is for the woman to select the cloth. The woman then takes her special fabric to a seamstress or tailor to be made into a traditional form, like the ntoma (the equivalent of “cloth”) ensemble in Ghana with a sewn blouse, wrapper or sewn skirt, and an unsewn cloth (an outfit typically requiring six yards of cloth) or the taille basse in Senegal (a fitted top with a peplum worn over a wrapper), or into something contemporary. Examples of these garments featured in the African-Print Fashion Now! catalogue include Senegalese designer Ken Traoré’s taille basse and head scarf from 2016 in bright yellow with orange flowers and olive-colored leaves, and Ivorian designer/seamstress Delphine Kouassi’s trois-pagnes (the Ivorian national dress) in a brilliant print of greens, turquoise and brown with sparkling metallic trim edging the ruffles—the sparkles surprised Saundra Lang, who commissioned this as a daytime dress, but when she expressed that, Koaussi replied, “This is how we dress in the daytime!”

Portraits from the 1960s and 1970s—described as “West and Central Africa’s ‘golden age’ of black and white photography”—emphasize the role these fabrics and garments have played in communicating identity, status, wealth, style, and ideas. Images by Francis K. Honny, working in coastal urban Ghana, show relatives posed in formal settings wearing matching prints to visually emphasize their familial ties, while ones by Mory Bamba, an itinerant photographer from Mali, depict young subjects outdoors in elaborate, chic ensembles. The photographs give faces, emotions, settings, and accessories to the African prints, and bear witness to the Ghanian proverb, “A beautiful cloth does not wear itself.”

BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS: Portrait of man and woman by Francis K. Honny, Elmina, Ghana, circa 1975. Courtesy of Tobias Wendl. Portrait of young Peulh women and men by Mory Bamba, Sikasso region of southeastern Mali, circa 1978. Courtesy of Adama Bamba, © Mory Bamba. Portrait of woman and child by Jacques Toussele, 1970s. © Jacques Toussele. Photography spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s with people in rural villages inviting traveling photographers to their communities to take their pictures.

One of the key manufacturers of African-print cloth is Vlisco, which formed in 1970 with the merger of two much older Dutch companies, P. F. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co. and Deventer Katoen Maatschappij voorheen Ankersmit & Co. (DKM). In 2006, Vlisco changed its approach from “a production-focused to a brand-driven fashion textile manufacturer,” and through its dynamic advertising campaigns, established itself as a significant fashion force. Vlisco created numerous outstanding garments considered “communication fashion,” described in the catalogue as “one-of-a-kind outfits created solely to ‘inspire’ Vlisco’s targeted consumers—well-educated elite and upper middle-class African women.” A 2013 example of this type of garment is a dress ensemble, in red, yellow and green, by Dutch designer Inge van Lierop (who was looking to nineteenth-century tailoring for inspiration), which features a fitted, long-sleeve top with a high collar and puffed shoulders of one pattern and an extravagantly voluminous skirt of a second pattern depicting traditional icons of African-print design, like fans, hands with coins and Bunch of Bananas, on pedestals—regally celebrating the cyclical nature of African-print fashion.

Today many African fashion designers, regardless of whether they are trained and based in Africa or the diaspora, embrace African-print fashion, according to Kristyne S. Loughran, who notes that, “Its aesthetic creates a direct and immediate visual link to Africa.” Lisa Folawiyo created a short dress in 2016 that combines two prints with detailed hand-embellishment—small beads sewn on the wedge of leaf-patterned fabric in the skirt and in the white dots above the waist, while Ituen Bassey, an award-winning designer from Nigeria who is partly based in London, designed a short dress in 2009 with glowing rainbow bands of African-print cloth that reference a tradition of patchwork. A standout example of this transnational connection is a dress designed by a teenager in New Jersey in 2015 to wear to prom; Kyemah McEntyre captured the attention of social media with her long-sleeved, décolletage, full-skirted gown of the Angelina pattern, quickly becoming a fashion sensation and sparking a vogue for African-print prom dresses.

BÉATRICE MANOVAN, DESIGNER. DRESS, Abidjan, 2016. SALOME LENANA wears a two-piece West African-style taille basse outfit, locally made in Nairobi, Kenya, 1994. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine. NICOLE AMIEN, DESIGNER. TWO-PIECE ENSEMBLE, wax print, Uniwax, Côte d’Ivoire, 2016.

WALÉ OYÉJIDÉ, DESIGNER FOR IKIRÉ JONES. MAN’S JACKET, trousers and scarf of African-print cloth, Untold Renaissance collection, 2014.

Alex Temomanin, from Côte d’Ivoire, who established his Dent de Man brand in London, handpicks each print used in his garments based on its emotional resonance to his own experiences and its universal storytelling capacity. His trimly tailored man’s suit of a Vlisco spiderweb print, Les Toiles D’araignée conveys how as a teenager he felt trapped in a web—trying to figure out his identity, dealing with the fragility of poverty—and how he found comfort in fabrics, which were often his only toys as a child.

A man’s black-tie ensemble, designed by Nigerian-born Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia-based label he established with his partner Sam Hubler in 2013, features a red-printed jacket, black pants and a silk scarf. The scarf, from the Untold Renaissance collection, depicts an African man in eighteenth-century European garb against a collage of conventional European imagery. The textile raises issues related to immigration and, according to the label’s website, “the absence of persons of color in Medieval and Renaissance-era European art,” while relying on “the sampling method used in hip hop culture.” (A related Ikiré Jones scarf appeared in the recent blockbuster movie and fashion tour-de-force Black Panther.)

Diablos (Maguette Traore), a graffiti artist and designer from Senegal, explains, “I use African elements, like le wax. You just have to delve into your parental values, your ancestral values,” and Leslie W. Rabine writes that, “like other Dakar streetwear designers, he makes African print a deeply symbolic component of Senegalese hip-hop.” One of his outfits comprises a handpainted T-shirt with shrimp-printed chaya (traditional baggy, low-crotched pants).

DEEP DAKART, DESIGNER FOR MIZÉRABLES GRAFFF. HOODIE AND T-SHIRT of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.


In this increasingly interconnected world, African-print fashion is an appropriate rallying point for African cultural identity. The catalogue for African-Print Fashion Now!, as did the recent exhibition, allows room for and even celebrates the complexity of its subject. The project brought together work by award-winning couturiers, unidentified seamstresses and many young designers, augmenting it with selections of accessories wrapped in prints, photography and contemporary art to convey the range of production and the cultural permeation of African-print cloth. Hassan Hajjaj’s stunning Afrikan Boy from 2012, a large photograph in a frame of sardine tins, combines art with fashion, showing a well-dressed man with an umbrella and a myriad of patterns. Essayist Hansi Momodu-Gordon writes of “the empowered individuality of [Hajjaj’s] subjects, who are not bound by singular definitions but appear as citizens of a global exchange of ideas,” words that could apply to all who wear African-print fashion.

 
 

HASSAN HAJJAJ. Afrikan Boy, 2012, My Rock Stars Volume 2 series; Metallic Lambda print on 3mm Dibond in wood frame with Geisha maquereau tins, 136 x 93 centimeters. Private Collection.

 
 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The quotations cited are drawn from essays written for the catalogue African Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style.

SUGGESTED READING
Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine.
African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017. 
African-Print Fashion Now! Videos from the Fowler Museum: https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/african-print-fashion-now

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” showed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 7, 2018 - April 28, 2019; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 24 - August 12, 2018; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, March 26 - July 30, 2017.

 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts and craft. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. In 2015, the University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This issue, she writes about the use of Dutch Vlisco wax print fabrics by African designers, in an article entitled “African-Print Fashion: Transnational Flair.”

Smithsonian Craft Show 2019 Volume 41.1

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April is always a perfect time to visit our nation’s capital as the city shakes off the withering cold of winter and looks forward to the rest of the year; that is, if one skips over the blazing heat and humidity of a Washingtonian summer. March 20 may formally mark the first of spring, but it is April that everyone truly embraces as a year reborn. Aside from the blossoming of its magnificent cherry trees, originally a gift of three thousand specimens from Japan in 1912, and celebrated by the wildly popular National Cherry Blossom Festival, the month is filled with one wonderful event after another. Savor this small sample of intriguing museum exhibitions currently showing, like “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Freer/Sackler Gallery, and “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” on The Mall, at the National Museum of African Art. Located steps from the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery hosts “Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery.” This exhibition of particular interest to those who love craft contains eighty objects from the 1930s to the present, drawn from its own craft collection, and selected by Nora Atkinson its curator.

But the month of April especially shines with that annual celebration of American craft, the Smithsonian Craft Show, at the National Building Museum, a much lauded architectural beauty and elegant setting for displaying wonders. Each year three invited jurors hone applications of approximately a thousand craft artists from across the country to those considered to have excelled in the handwork of their particular medium. The public is not only afforded the opportunity to meet and talk with the talented artists but to purchase one-of-a-kind works, selecting from twelve craft categories in basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood. Many of the one hundred twenty-one artists have participated in prior shows and are well known to serious collectors who look forward to their return, but there is also the precious chance to discover new work. For this year, there are forty-five first time exhibitors like Gregory Burgard (glass), Constance Collins (wearable art), John Guertin (wood), Bill Jones (ceramics), Katherine Maloney (ceramics), Jennifer Nunnelee (jewelry), Deborah Polonoff (wearable art), Tamra Thomas-Gentry (jewelry), Kent Townsend (furniture), Genevieve Yang (jewelry), and Jean Yao (basketry). These entrants reflect the host’s determination to keep the craft world energized with vibrant creations, emphasizing that it is a powerful and lasting artform, always renewing itself. 

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The Smithsonian Women’s Committee, which has sponsored the show for thirty-seven years as a very successful fund-raiser for the Smithsonian Institution, has in recent years established the Smithsonian Visionary Artist Award. Starting in 2014, among those recognized for their achievements have been Albert Paley, Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, and Faith Ringgold. For 2019 the recipient is Joyce J. Scott who holds a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship as part of many points of recognition in her career. In announcing Scott’s award, the Fellowship stated that her jewelry and sculpture “repositioned beadwork into a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices.” By taking in the “Connections” exhibition at the Renwick during the run of the craft show, Scott’s work can be experienced among other artists who have also helped give voice to American craft as an instrumental embodiment of this country’s complex soul.

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This year sees the return of jewelry luminaries Roberta and David Williamson from Ohio whose work portrays the organic world in its most graceful and blessed. Skillfully wrought sterling silver frames, found objects and antique prints enhance the body in statement neckpieces, in some instances recalling pectorals of former eras. Their iconography is a place of enchantment where the imagery best reflects humanity and other life forces. For those who know the Williamsons or are familiar with their work, it is clear they understand how the world harbors darkness, inequality and injustice, but the couple intends to leave their mark with jewelry that respects what is good and honorable about life.

Massachusetts artist Amy Nguyen is another  award-winning participant in the show. Noted for  her textile work, she employs the art of dyeing through the practice of Japanese shibori. Her handwork is  one of deliberative and careful process driven by a prayerful attitude brought to the cloth from genesis to fruition. Nguyen sets a high bar in her garments and this has been rewarded by her recognition as among the most accomplished in wearable art.

New Yorker Mary Jaeger is a wearable artist who layers cloth for warmth and comfort but also for a certain sensuality in her unconventional arrangement of shapes and cuts through interesting patterns and various textures. Her application of color does not follow the usual path but shows an intriguing sense for the possibilities they might bring to a finished piece.

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The Smithsonian Craft Show is a panoramic example, over its four days, of the diversity of craft in America today. Technical expertise and brilliant craftsmanship reside in the meticulously carved and glazed porcelain objects, in celadon, oxblood and imperial yellow, by Cliff Lee, from Pennsylvania, whose work is on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shown on the PBS series of Craft in America or honored by the Renwick through its Master of the Medium award.

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Also a ceramist, Irina Okula, from Maine, produces more unconventional pieces. With fragments unified by clay transformed into statuesque vessels, she designs forms  that consist of piecing together broken clay shards, like quilts. “I decorate each shard,” she says. “I try to make interesting and compatible surfaces that dance and complement each other, making for a blend of expected and unexpected play upon the surface.”

There is a sophisticated yet warm and personal aspect to Judith Kinghorn’s jewelry in high karat gold, silver and precious stones. A lifelong Minnesotan, Kinghorn says that her work is mainly intuitive, but she has clearly been drawn to the aesthetic of the natural world and influenced by the beauty and singular characteristics to be found in the upper Midwest. Perfectly realized golden floral forms radiate from her brooches and neckpieces, and one thinks of untamed fields of wildflowers and of bouquets ready to present to a beloved.

Woodworker Peter Petrochko works in Connecticut and has studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and fine arts at Silvermine College of Art. While studying design, Petrochko says, “I became enthusiastic about making objects of wood, and chose wood as my craft.” He is challenged, as are most craft artists by the many possibilities that their medium might hold, and for him that is the vessel, one that many artists find themselves drawn to, whether in wood, clay, metal, and fiber.

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From Florida, Lucrezia Bieler astonishes by the brilliance of her papercuttings. Following a tradition from Europe, they are wholly her own. Mesmerizing in totality, one is compelled to enter her personal space, drawn to what seem to be thousands of intricate cuts emerging  in black and white. She has said that “I am intrigued to  create something really beautiful from a simple sheet of  plain paper. It is like turning paper into gold.” Bieler’s  work is another example of where meticulous process, concentration and precision are paramount to the successful realization of a handmade work.

Holly Anne Mitchell works paper in an entirely different manner from Bieler. And it is a fascinating exercise to see how one artist changes the quality of a medium compared to another. Now a resident of Indiana, in 1990 while  studying metalsmithing at the University of Michigan she  began exploring newspaper as a source of expression. Her assignment was to make a piece of jewelry which did not consist of any traditional jewelry materials—so, no metal and precious stones. Such began her journey into paper as a resource, and since those Michigan days Mitchell has been increasingly sought by collectors who want to see the latest in her wry, not cynical, but thoughtful observations on the social and political nature of the modern world.

Partaking of a show like the Smithsonian is to support artist contributions to the innovations that have always been integral to this country’s cultural evolution. During changing times, like the one in which we now live, it is helpful to take some moments to remember that artists help point the way to a more ennobling worldview. It is all about building up, not tearing down, always, but most especially, during the inevitable challenges that life presents to us all.

The Smithsonian Craft Show hosts  its thirty-seventh annual event at the National Building Museum, 401 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, April 25-28, 2019. Visit their website at www.smithsoniancraftshow.org.

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. The Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., is a destination that she looks forward to every year. From the plethora of museums in the city to the inspiring diversity of craft at the show (and of course, the company of good friends), this visit is one of her highlights. Drawn from her personal experience, this year’s article takes the reader through the show, touching upon artists from every media. Benesh also ponders the recent exhibition, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beadwork Adorns the World Volume 41.1

Clockwise left: LAKOTA “CREATION NARRATIVE” SHIRT by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of wool cloth, antique glass beads, 2016. Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unattributed. OBA’S “BARRISTER’S WIG” CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, 21.0 x 17.0 x 15.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Sara and David Lieberman Collection. Photograph by Craig Smith. BABY CARRIER PANEL, Kenyah peoples, Orang Ulu group, Borneo island, Indonesia/Malaysia, of cotton, glass beads, pineapple leaf fiber, 31.0 x 33.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. WEDDING MOCCASINS FOR BRIDE’S IN-LAWS, Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, of tanned hide, glass beads, 26.7 centimeters, circa 1930. MUKYEEM MASK, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, of hide, wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, plant fiber, 39.5 x 44.9 x 54.0 centimeters, pre-1935. Courtesy of the Field Museum. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Clockwise right:
LEOPARD HELMUT MASK, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of raffia, indigo-dyed cotton and trade cotton, glass beads, 53.0 x 79.0 centimeters, circa 1900. HORSE NECK COVER (ghughi), Kathi peoples, Saurashtra region, Gujarat state, India, of cotton, silk, glass beads, mirror, metal, 128.3 x 162.6 centimeters, circa 1930. David McLanahan Collection. OBA’S BRITISH CROWN-STYLE CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. GROOM’S WEDDING BAG, Banjara peoples, Wadi, Gulbarga, Karnataka state, India, of cotton, cowrie shells, metal, 49.0 x 30.5 centimeters, circa 1986. CHINA POBLANA BLOUSE, Puebla, Mexico, of cotton, glass beads, 62.3 x 53.5 centimeters, circa 1935. COLLAR, Saraguro peoples, Ecuador, of glass beads, nylon thread, 11.7 x 37.0 centimeters, 1963. BRIDE’S APRON (ijogolo), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of goatskin, glass beads, 60.5 x 42.0 centimeters, circa 1970. All photographs courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art and by Blair Clark, except where noted.

European glass beads, as author and curator Marsha C. Bol explains, are “the ultimate migrants.” In her exhibit “Beadwork Adorns the World,” which recently closed at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and her accompanying book, The Art & Tradition of Beadwork, she explored how, in the nineteenth century, these trade goods not only went to the far ends of the earth, but also were transformed into an astounding array of cultural and social artifacts. In the West, beadwork became mostly decorative, more so these days in couture and formal wear. But elsewhere, beadwork endowed clothing and objects with formidable power and rich, metaphysical meanings. It became the most profound expression of ritual, of majesty, of identity, and of the spirit world.

Dr. Bol generously agreed to sit down and talk about the years-long process leading to the exhibit. The extended search for superb examples consumed many air miles and many conversations with artists, since so much knowledge has only been passed down orally, from mother to daughter or from an elder to an archaeologist or historian. Intended to dazzle and impress, the beadwork in the exhibit did all that and more.

WEDDING OUTFIT (ulu rajang), Iban peoples, Sarawak state, Borneo island, Malaysia. HEADDRESS of wood, paper, glass beads, cotton, sequins, 38.1 x 61.0 centimeters. DRESS of stone, glass and shell beads, 77.5 centimeters long, twentieth century. David McLanahan Collection.

Q.  What was your inspiration for “Beadwork Adorns the World?”

Actually, it was a book project first. Back in 2011, a tall, stately, white-haired man named Gibbs Smith walked into my office. He was a magnificent man. He wanted to do this; he thought that Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, had been out for quite a long time and he wanted to publish something new; not about beads, but beadwork around the world. He came to me partly because of my background—I did a Ph.D. in Native American art history with a dissertation on Lakota [western Sioux] women’s and men’s arts, and I continue to do fieldwork. And he knew, because of this museum’s holdings, that it was the right place for the project. I was the museum’s director, so it was going to take a while to get it done. Bless his heart; he died about the time the book went to press.




Q.  What types of beadwork were shown in the exhibit?

The whole exhibit included two hundred sixty beaded objects. I used a very broad definition of beads: metal, shell, ceramic—all different kinds of beads, from fifty-two countries and one hundred four known cultural traditions. There were many examples of women and men’s clothing, several crowns, jewelry, and masks. There was also a beaded pillow, boxes, a royal stool, voodoo flags, bowls, and quite a few amulets. The pieces ranged from the nineteenth century to the present day, so it was not just about the past. When you first walked in there was a “Grab Me” piece. Exhibit designers emphasize the importance of that, to pique curiosity and interest. An extraordinary piece, it’s a wedding dress from the Iban people, who live in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Fully beaded, it weighs about thirty-eight pounds, with very large carnelian beads.


HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940.  Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940. Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

Q.  Were there any surprises for you, while you were organizing the exhibit?

I always approach a project like this with two prongs. One is obviously that you need to work with the collections that you already have. But the other prong is to think about the themes and the content. The museum has an impressive collection, and I went through every drawer and every cabinet looking for beadwork. I ran through four part-time assistants during the project. The museum’s photographer, Blair Clark, and I would spend every Friday morning shooting pictures; we ended up taking about one thousand photographs.

As I was looking at objects, I started to realize that they fell into interesting groups of themes, beginning with life passages. It made me aware of something that I’m not sure that I had consciously understood, which is that beadwork is used for these peak moments in the lives of people in almost every culture. So if you start with childhood, from the cradle, then move on to puberty and adolescence, marriage and death, every beadworking society that I know of does it for an occasion, or to identify and set apart a king, a spiritual authority or someone of high status and position.

Then I got to thinking: beadwork is not a structure, like ceramics or textiles; it’s an adornment, an embellishment. It’s not something that can be used solely on its own—it’s almost always married with something else. That also pushed me towards thinking about how the embellishment, which did not stand alone, added to the effectiveness of the piece—maybe gave it more potency. The exhibit was arranged to follow those themes, which were developed in the book.

Click Image to Enlarge

BABY BONNET, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, 9.1 x 2.7 x 4.6 centimeters, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc. CHILD’S HAT, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, of cotton, silk, glass beads, buttons, metal, embroidered applied trim, 58.0 x 12.0 centimeters, circa 1950. BOY’S HAT, Bai peoples, Dali county, Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China, of silk, cotton, metal beads and objects, feathers, yarn, embroidered appliquéd applied trim, diameter: 14.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Photographs by Addison Doty.

Q.  What was the toughest part of the show to pull together?

Trying to be international! We were missing some areas and I couldn’t travel everywhere, which was frustrating. When I did get away for work, I searched for beadwork. I went to Uzbekistan, southwest China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to look at the African collection, which is absolutely mind-boggling. I found a wonderful private collection of Lakota beadwork that is in two homes, here and in San Diego.

What is also special to me about the exhibit and the book is giving more recognition to the beadwork of Borneo. The examples we included came from a private collection in Seattle. Pieces like those are considered treasures in Borneo. Before glass beads came in through the trade network, they were getting carnelian beads from Java. Their designs are very recognizable, especially for the Orang Ulu people. Among indigenous people in Borneo there’s a hierarchy; certain designs belonged to the aristocracy and certain ones to the middle class. The beadwork on baby cradles serves a double function, to reveal social position and for protection. Babies’ souls like to wander, so the beaded panels distract evil spirits and keep them away from harming the baby.

BOY’S VEST AND PANTS, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc.

Q.  No matter where you looked, Venetian and Czech glass beads seem to have gone all around the world. How did they become so widespread?

First it was the Venetian, and then the Czech glass beads. Beads were always expensive; they had a lot of value as prestige items. In fact in some places in Africa, like among the Zulu, the king controlled the rights to the bead trade; only the king and members of his court were allowed to wear beadwork on their headdresses and clothing. There are three desirable things about glass beads. First of all, they are quite durable, and last a long time even though they are glass; secondly, they have a luster and shine that is very attractive; and thirdly they come in many different colors, which is also extremely appealing.

On the Plains, seed beads arrived around 1850. You cannot say that, among the Lakota, there was nothing before then, because there was dyed quillwork, and many of the old geometric designs carried over into beadwork. Later on, during the reservation period for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes, there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to abandon traditional ways, including traditional clothing. There was a big florescence of beadwork then on the reservations, part of which I believe had to do with trying to preserve the identity of the children. That’s why you saw a little boy’s vest and pants, which are very Western in style, yet they are totally Lakota because they are not made out of cloth; they are made out of hide completely covered in beadwork. This kind of outfit would be more acceptable to the Indian agent and government people, yet it let everyone in the family feel a strong sense of their culture.






Q.  So wherever you go in the world, beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

There’s a fascinating example of that, which is well-recorded, from Zulu beadwork in South Africa. Zulu beadwork does the talking for the women when it’s involved in courtship. Young women would make beadwork bracelets, cuffs, ankle bands, or necklaces as gifts for the young man they had their eye on.

We call them “love letters,” though they were not quite that. The necklaces in the exhibit dated from the late nineteenth century and were loaned from the Field Museum. Scholars disagree about this, but from the colors and designs, proverbs could be discerned. It was not like a personal message, but let a young man know her intentions. A young Zulu man could pile on beadwork from many girls, all at the same time; a piece didn’t obligate him. And of course the more he wore, the more status he had.

One of the most exciting things about doing this project was that every piece has a story to tell, because they are all deeply imbedded in the cultures that make and use them. I tried to share those stories in the label texts, though of course you’re limited in the amount of space you have. But one day I was at the museum after the show had opened and I overhead a man—a man, no less—come out of the show and say to his friends, “That show! There’s a story about every piece!” He was very excited, and I was doubly thrilled because it was a man—often we think of beadwork as women’s work—and because he understood there was a story with everything.

“LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. “LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0-19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. Photographs by John Weinstein.

Q.  Let’s talk about Western attitudes towards beadwork as “women’s work.” There was a thought-provoking section of the exhibit and the book called “Gender in Beadwork.”

We underestimate beadwork’s importance in other cultures. The idea in the exhibit was to honor and acknowledge women’s artistry and creativity in beadwork. In traditional societies, there has always been a division of labor by gender. Women worked with materials for the home, like making pottery or baskets. The fineness and beauty of what women produced brought them respect and rank: it gave them status. Even in our culture doing beadwork was a practical skill; it demonstrated a woman’s housekeeping capabilities, how she could produce useful things. Certainly in fashion today beadwork is prized.


Q.  Some beadwork from Africa radiates drama and power and grandeur. There were examples from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Bamileke in Cameroon and the Kuba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why is that beadwork so imposing?

Those are magnificent pieces, all intended for the king. Again, the right to wear trade beads belonged exclusively to royalty. It’s very powerful, gorgeous stuff. Only a professional male beadworker can make the king’s regalia, and he actually does it at court. In hierarchical societies, the kings usually have both political and spiritual leadership. The star of that section was the great Yoruba crown. It reinforces the king’s divinity, separating him from other people; when he wears that crown, he embodies the oba, who can communicate with ancestral spirits. The long beaded veil covers his face, and he holds an elaborately beaded flywhisk to hide his mouth as he’s speaking. His feet can’t touch the ground, so they rest on beaded cushions. The faces on the crown represent the first oba, Oduduwa. When someone consults the oba, he is not asking about his future. In their belief system, you know everything that is going to happen before you emerge into this life. As you are born, you touch the tree of forgetfulness. You are asking the oba to remind you of what you used to know.

The king only wears that crown for major ceremonial occasions. He has day-to-day crowns, which resemble the British crown; Nigeria was a British colony during the nineteenth century. There are even beaded British-style wigs for court. That’s a good example of how traditional beadwork merged into modern society.

OBA ADEMUWAGUN ADESIDA II, in the courtyard of his palace, Akure, Nigeria, 1959. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art. OBA’S GREAT CROWN (adenla), Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of palm ribs armature (pako), cornstarch (eko), cotton, glass beads, thread, 114.0 x 22.9 centimeters, 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Dawson Gallery.


Q.  The world is changing so fast. Does beadwork still have a cultural role to play?

Beadwork is still essential to reaffirm identity. For instance, after the Boer War in South Africa, the Ndzundza Ndebele people were indentured out to farms all over the country, scattered far from their homeland and each other. Ndzundza Ndebele women, even under those circumstances, began again to hold puberty ceremonies for boys and girls in these faraway places, which involved beaded aprons. Ndebele women are identified by their age-stage beaded aprons: for little girls, as unmarried adolescents, and as married women, when the apron has five distinct lobes. They held onto making and wearing these beaded aprons and are known for them today.

It’s always evolving. Nellie Star Boy Menard from Rosebud on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and I were judging at an arts fair in Bismarck, North Dakota. She saw a piece of beadwork and said, “Oh, that’s not Sioux enough.” I have talked to Florentine Blue Thunder and Tom Haukaas, who make their own pow-wow outfits, and they keep to the more historic traditions, but they complain that the judges now don’t know how to tell the old styles and designs. The pow-wow and social-dance competitions help beadwork to continue. If you don’t have a market for your arts, whether internal, among tribal members, or external, among outsiders, they are not going to survive.

ZULU RICKSHAW PULLERS ON THE BEACHFRONT, Durban, South Africa, early 1980s. Photograph by Jean Morris.


Q.  How can these older cultures stay resilient and sustain their beadwork traditions?

One way is through re-invention. In South Africa, Zulu rickshaw pullers became celebrated for their outfits. In the 1890s, somebody from Durban went to Singapore and brought back rickshaws (this is before there were cars). Only Zulu men were allowed to pull them, but then someone said they needed to wear a uniform so the police could identify who they were.

The Zulu men themselves created these wild, wonderful, imaginative costumes with the enormous, amazing headdresses. The oxen horns associated the strength of the ox with the man. They were a tourist attraction, and the men would stage their own competitions for who had the best costume. In the past they were famous warriors, so it became a source of real pride for the Zulu men.

Another way is through the marketplace. A purposeful part of the exhibit was to let visitors know that beadwork is still very much a living tradition. Within various sections I included profiles of contemporary artists, or of women’s co-ops who are working today. An example was the netted-beadwork necklaces made by indigenous Saraguro women in Ecuador. They’ve joined together five local associations into one big co-op, for marketing purposes and for buying materials. They can still make part of their traditional ethnic dress and bring in income to support their families. Oftentimes they are the main breadwinners in their communities.

CHILD’S BLOUSE PANEL, northern Afghanistan, of cotton, glass beads, 38.0 x 32.7 centimeters, twentieth century. Anne and Bill Frej Collection.

I should mention here that the International Folk Art Market was a great help to me, because a lot of beadwork artists come to the market and I was able to connect with them. The world is getting smaller all the time, and more beadwork traditions are crossing into global awareness. Artists are finding ways to adapt their beadwork and introduce innovations yet keep it meaningful. As I discuss in the book, beadwork has even moved into contemporary art. At the opening, Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves told me she was so grateful to be included in an international show, and not strictly a Native American show. That made it all worthwhile.


Q.  As you were considering pieces for the exhibit and writing your book, you developed criteria for quality and excellence. Did you wind up with any personal favorites?

There were so many pieces I loved for different reasons, but some were standouts for me, because of the amount of incredible beadwork on them, the skill of the artists and the aesthetics. I’m thinking of Tom “Red Owl” Haukaas’s beaded Lakota cradles; the nineteenth-century double-headed elephant stool covered in red tube beads used by the king in Cameroon; the wonderful Brulé Lakota violin case; and a Ndebele married woman’s wearing blanket.

VIOLIN CASE, Brulé Lakota, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, of commercial wood case, native-tanned hide, metal trim, glass beads, 81.3 x 25.4 x 11.4 centimeters, 1891. Courtesy of Stars and Stripes Foundation.

“Beadwork Adorns the World” showed April 22, 2018 - February 3, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Visit their website at internationalfolkart.org. The 16th Annual International Folk Art Market takes place July 12 - 14, 2019, Milner Plaza, on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit their website at folkartmarket.org.


SUGGESTED READING
Bol, Marsha C.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Dubin, Lois Sherr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Liu, Robert K.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, CA: Ornament Inc, 1995.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher.
“The Language of Personal Adornment.” In The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979.
Sumberg, Bobbie.
Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

 

Click Image to Enlarge

FON’S ROYAL STOOL, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of wood, raffia cloth, glass beads, 41.0 x 45.0 x 50.0 centimeters, nineteenth century. Photograph by John Weinstein. MITAKUYE OYASIN CRADLE by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of brain-tanned elk hide, cotton, glass beads, thread, 68.5 x 23.5 x 30.5 centimeters, 2005. Marilyn Eber Collection. MARRIED WOMAN’S BLANKET (irari), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of wool, glass beads, 269.2 x 381.2 centimeters, circa 1970.


Leslie-Clark.jpg

Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is endlessly fascinated by the variety, intricacy, technical prowess, and rich beauty of beadwork. “I kept going back to the recent exhibit ‘Beadwork Adorns the World’ just to feast my eyes and try to understand more,” she says. “Once you discover the complex meanings of beadwork in other cultures, you come away with a real sense of awe and wonder.” She has taken the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition to a more revealing level, with her Ornament interview with Marsha C. Bol, curator of the exhibit, as Bol discusses how throughout the world beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

Dressed with Distinction Volume 41.1

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, tablet weaving, Ottoman Syria, nineteenth century. WOMAN’S JACKET (salteh) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, toothed tapestry technique, Bedouin peoples, Aleppo, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early to mid-twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century.

MAN’S COAT ( damir ) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

How we dress tells a story that, in the case of traditional clothing, can stretch back thousands of years. The world’s culture has been built, layer upon layer, as pivotal moments of history effect changes on textiles like the rings of a tree’s trunk. For a certain country residing in the Levant, that history goes farther back than most. Currently at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria” is an awesome display of clothing predating the rise of the modern Syrian state.

One California day, cloaked in the clouds of an unseasonably wet winter, I had the chance to see the garments up close and prior to installation, courtesy of Joanna Barrkman, Senior Curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific Arts. Donated to the Fowler by Dr. David and Elizabeth Reisbord, both of whom live in Santa Monica, their collection came as something of a mystery. In the spirit of properly documenting and identifying the twenty-eight garments that were donated (twenty-three are exhibited), the museum partnered with Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the nonprofit Textile Research Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, due to her expertise in Middle Eastern clothing and fabrics.

Syria’s long history and geographical position has served to enrich its textiles, lending an edge of refinement that can take one’s breath away. As the hub for multiple trading routes, Aleppo and Damascus received a bounty of raw materials and foreign influences. Two of the coats in the exhibition bear the vibrating patterns of ikat dyeing, where it is known by the Arabic term tarbit. Locally produced in both Aleppo and the city of Homs, these long, flowing clothes, with a narrow neck and a cut that tapers from a wide base to a narrowing beneath the arms, show the inclusion of lining cloth that originated from abroad. Barrkman mentions that a concurrent exhibition of Central Asian ikats at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also based on a gift by the Reisbords, features Russian cotton prints on the interior. From Uzbekistan to Syria, global trade made its mark on local textiles.

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) outer front and inside back, of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, hand embroidery, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. WOMAN’S SILK HEADCOVERING (hatta) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, lance, Homs, Kasrawabiye/Homsiyye style, Ottoman Syria, mid-to-early twentieth century.

 

The silk itself was a foreign introduction. Silk production eventually was cultivated in Syria, but had been originally introduced through the Silk Road and Chinese trade. One of these ikat coats, a woman’s garment known as a qumbas, is an outlier among the collection. From post-Ottoman Syria, around the 1950s, an identifiable trait is its vibrant aniline dyes, which were in widespread use in the Middle East by the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike its sister garment, the piece sports delicate crimson cordwork along the cuff. The cordwork is associated with the Jordanian town of Ma’an, but it was possibly a response to the influence of being introduced to French exports, including lace.

Standup collars were a notable adoption into Syrian fashion, brought on by Arab admiration for the stiff collars of French military uniforms. A Bedouin woman’s jacket, one of two appearing in the exhibit, coquettishly sports this cultural adoption. These jackets differ from the largely silk garments of Syrian Arabs by being woven from sheep’s wool. Their cut, while still bearing a rectangular shape, possesses short sleeves, a nod perhaps to the more rugged life of these nomadic people. Bright pink flowers nestled in sea-green leaves chase each other up and down the lapels, flanked by detailed geometric designs. By this time aniline dyes from Europe largely replaced the natural dyes that had been used for hundreds of years. Most of the clothes in the Reisbords’ collection are thus aniline dyed.

The close aesthetic kinship between the Bedouins and urban Arabs is immediately apparent when one is introduced to the mainstay of the exhibition, the glorious silk abaya. These open-faced robes with voluminous sleeves appear in repose like a flat square, cryptically remote from the items of apparel that they actually are. Their construction is not unfamiliar, with long rectangles of cloth pieced together, bearing a close resemblance to the kimono. They, like the kimono, are overgarments, meant to be worn over a blouse or shirt, and in use by both sexes.

When not being worn, abayas appear inert, like carpets or tapestries rather than items of clothing; but when draped on the human form, they transform the wearer into a canvas upon which intricate designs, shimmering surfaces and bold colors dance. One can imagine how the streets of Damascus and Aleppo must have been filled with a bright parade of fashionable men and women.

WOMAN’S COAT (  qumbas, kumbas  ) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

WOMAN’S COAT (qumbas, kumbas) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

Many of the abayas are recipients of tapestry-weave, a technique so-called due to its traditional employment in tapestries. The weave is weft-faced, with no warp threads visible, and discontinuous, having different colored threads only in the areas of the surface design. This allows for complicated imagery and geometric patterns, rather than a repeated motif that extends end to end. With its application to a piece of clothing, the results are nothing short of magical. Sweeping triangles of the most subtle shades trail off into spiderweb thin strands of the same, with stylized flowers and shafts of grain spilling bright colors across the background. This is just the tip of the legacy of textile production in Syria. Aleppo was well known as a center of textile industry since the thirteenth century, an eight-hundred-year pedigree of excellence.

Beyond its fame for masterful tapestries, Syria was also known for its tabby-weave, or hermezi, a method where weft threads go over and under each individual warp thread. Laborious and time-consuming on a scale that is difficult to comprehend, Syrian artisans made their trade weaving these superlative textiles, which were also incorporated into their clothes.

One particular piece in the exhibition, a magnificent golden abaya with silvery columns enfilading in procession down the front and back of the garment, is an example of moiré and metallic threading. The otherworldly rippling surface of moiré is caused by pressing a wooden or metal plate or roller, incised with a pattern, to two layers of fabric under heat.

WOMAN’S BODY COVERING (çarshaf) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, interlocking tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century.

While these garments are different in cut, color and styling to modern wear in the twenty-first century, it is good to remember how much they inspired European dress at the turn of the twentieth century. Fascination with the Orient, that loose construct that played in one’s imagination as catchall for exoticism, led to a relaxing of the shape of European apparel. Boutiques took note of the voluminousness of Middle Eastern sleeves, a different approach to structure that no doubt had a few tailors stroking their chins thoughtfully. This shift away from tight corsets and forms that built upon and restricted the body was due at least in part to the interplay between cultures.

The message behind the exhibition is a subtle but important one; fabric weaves all of humanity together. The clothing in the collection, beyond its brilliant workmanship and sumptuous aesthetics, represents a culmination of historical trade, exchange and knowledge. Syria’s textile tradition has gone back over a thousand years, with the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus having survived over different incarnations. Throughout this expanse of time they built and refined an industry measured in lifetimes of skill. In this way it is rather like a tree’s rings, but in a form so beautifully abstract that it tugs the heartstrings.

This historical legacy has an impact on the present, one which Barrkman and Vogelsang-Eastwood are anxious to share. The living tradition of textile production in Syria has suffered greatly due to the civil war that has engulfed that region since 2011. These marvelous items of clothing represent a thread that may yet be severed. To the Syrian community in the United States, Barrkman hopes this exhibition provides them with a connection to their past, their memories and to their culture.

“Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria,” shows at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E Young Dr. N., Los Angeles, California 90024, through August 18, 2019. Visit their website at www.fowler.ucla.edu. You can read more about the Textile Research Centre at their website, www.trc-leiden.nl/trc.


SUGGESTED READING
GILLOW, JOHN. Textiles of the Islamic World.
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2010.
SULEMAN, FAHMIDA.
Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2017.
VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, GILLIAN. Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019.

Get Inspired!


PBL_Contributor-2018.jpg

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. His most recent journeys have taken him through two exhibitions, one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles. The common thread? World history in personal adornment. At the Neue Galerie, a private museum dedicated to Austro-German art and craft, a small one-room exhibition laid out the major players and the evolution of jewelry produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Building on the principles established by the Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte was instrumental in the development of contemporary art jewelry. A subsequent visit to the Fowler Museum at UCLA explored the influence of the Ottomans on Syrian clothing and textile production. From east to west, and west to east, he was impressed by the cross-section of human ingenuity and creativity.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.5

 
MARINA TERAUDS

MARINA TERAUDS

 

The five jurors for the 42nd annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show had their work cut out for them, selecting 195 artists from a total of 876 applications. Per tradition, the show has a number of special add-ons, including the guest artist program, which this year features a cohort of twenty-six craft artists from Germany. As the show gets under way at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a bounty of beauty and technical expertise awaits those who pass through its doors.

Once again the PMA Craft Show shines a light on some of the best and brightest in American art and craft in a dozen different categories. Fine art etcher Marina Terauds’s paper pieces stand out for their exquisite detail and precise lines, whether it’s a custom-made ex libris or a drawing of Queen Anne’s lace.

A Latvian by birth, Terauds studied graphic art at the Art Academy of Latvia and art pedagogy at the University of Latvia. After completing her studies she taught art and art history and worked as an artist-animator at the RIJA film studio in Riga. She currently lives in North Branch, Michigan.

LINDSAY LOCATELLI

Terauds uses original hand-cut copperplate intaglio prints and handmade paper as a basis for her three-dimensional compositions. She is a fantasist, a maker of inventive assemblages that sometimes bring to mind the work of Joseph Cornell. In one recent piece, a dress form is decorated with all manner of evocative imagery: a vintage clock, a mirror-holding bird-woman, an iguana, mushrooms, and butterflies.

Another newcomer is Lindsay Locatelli from Denver, one of fourteen “emerging” artists selected for the 2018 edition. The Philadelphia show has been at the top of her list for a while and she is excited to be going to the big dance to exhibit her contemporary art jewelry.

Locatelli works primarily in handcarved polymer clay and fabricated silver. She is drawn to creating organic and “intuitive textures” and applying bright colors, as witness a pair of spiky hoop earrings of polymer clay accented with eighteen karat lemon gold leaf. She loves the clay because she can sculpt it while it’s soft and carve it once it has hardened. She also likes the fact that it takes paint and other finishes well, “allowing,” in her words, “for the medium to mimic lots of other textures and materials.”

Diane Harty, a fiber artist from Frisco, Colorado, will be making her second trip to Philly, with some of her straw hats in various shapes and sizes ready for display, as well as chenille and felt headwear for colder weather. She employs about a dozen different kinds of braid in her hats, each one lending itself to a certain hat style. Harty recently obtained a few rolls of buntal, a fine white fiber produced in the Philippines from the leaves of the talipot palm. She has used the fiber to create cocktail hats. 

DIANE HARTY

Harty likes to approach each piece as sculpture; “I think it is a proper description,” she explains, “because I do not use any form or blocks to make the hats.” Instead, she shapes each hat as she is stitching it from the strand of braid. However, calling her pieces “sewn straw braid hats” is not quite accurate, she notes, although it suffices to describe functional work that “always has a touch of fun and interest.”

Another fiber artist, Deborah Cross from Freedom, California, has been to the Philadelphia show off and on over the past twenty years. She always looks forward to the enthusiastic reception given the artists and the high level of appreciation shown by the people who visit her booth. 

To achieve her complex designs Cross hand dyes and overlays pieces and appliqués silk fabrics. Her husband and partner, Gordon Heinel, helps with weaving and dyeing. The pair won the Ornament Magazine Prize for Excellence in Art to Wear at the 2013 show. 

This year Cross will be showing her newest limited edition wearables. She loves working in silk and wool, with houndstooth among her favorite fabrics. Indeed, she considers black and white to be “the most flattering fabric to wear.” On each of her new pieces she has airbrushed a gradation of black to striking effect. Some of the pieces also feature a stenciled discharge paste design. 

DEBORAH CROSS

Another couple in artistic cahoots, Nancy McCormick and Paul Monfredo have made around seven trips to Philadelphia over the years, bearing with them the fruits of their studio on Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine. McCormick looks forward to seeing the work of fellow artists and admires the way the museum’s Women’s Committee organizes the show.

McCormick and Monfredo have been collaborating on decorative mirrors going on thirty years, inspired by images from the natural world, illuminated books, art history, and architecture. Their joint practice entails many steps, from building the frame to applying tempera paint. Monfredo handcrafts the panels from basswood, poplar and other woods, then applies several layers of hand-mixed clay, called “bole,” which he sands and polishes before applying gold leaf. McCormick creates the ornamental designs and paints them using tiny brushes. Elegant trees and stylized fish appear in several new pieces.   

Ani Kasten, a ceramist from Shafer, Minnesota, has been a prize-winner in previous PMA Craft Shows, including Best in Contemporary Clay in 2009 and Best in Show in 2016. Using wheel-throwing and hand-building techniques, she creates one-of-a-kind and small gatherings of sculptural vessels that, in her words, “explore the meeting point between natural and man-made worlds.”

PAUL MONFREDO & NANCY MCCORMICK

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ANI KASTEN

Kasten’s pieces often have a weathered look as if they had been discovered at an archaeological site. This appearance of what she calls “organic deterioration” evokes “the cycle of life, death, decay.” She embraces a minimal aesthetic she first encountered as a student of British ceramist Rupert Spira in 2000. The Nantucket-born artist has never lost her sense of the inherent earthiness of her medium, from her years in Nepal developing a stoneware production facility to the studios she established in Oakland, California, Mount Rainier, Maryland, and the St. Croix River Valley northeast of Minneapolis, where she works today.

Another jeweler, Seung Jeon Paik from Annandale, Virginia, will be returning for his second showing in Philadelphia. He has fond memories of meeting collectors and gallerists and receiving helpful feedback from them. 

SEUNG JEON PAIK

Among Paik’s offerings are brooches and pendants made from eighteen karat gold and sterling silver. He has turned to the cosmos for inspiration, creating “naturally occurring galaxy and swarming forms” through the representation of “small particles.” And as with Lyons, technology and tried-and-true techniques go hand in hand: Paik uses traditional granulation, Rhino 3D CAD and laser welding to produce his ornaments.  

In the mixed media category, Amy Roper Lyons from Summit, New Jersey, is returning for her sixth show, honored to be juried in again. She combines precious metals and enamel, seeking, she says, “to capture a tension and balance: the transparent fragility of glass, the strength and subtlety of the matte surface of the metal.” 

Roper Lyons is showing jewelry and larger objects: goblets, cups and bowls. Of note are several examples from her current series of Women’s Work goblets, “reimaginings” of what she calls the “historical trope of decorative female figures used ornamentally in sterling hollowware.” She turned to a mix of digital technologies and traditional methods to create these pieces. She used CAD to model the figures and cup frameworks, which were printed in resin on a 3D printer. She then made molds and cast the parts in sterling silver. The final step entailed enameling them by hand, employing plique-à-jour, a vintage method for creating a glowing surface. 

AMY ROPER LYONS

Meanwhile, Roper Lyons’s recent jewelry, in eighteen karat gold and enamel combined with gemstones, is inspired by outer space. Her cloisonné technique allows for subtle layering of colors over a textured base while creating areas that flash and glint.

William Alburger from Barto, Pennsylvania, won the Best New Artist award at last year’s craft show, earning him an automatic invite to the 2018 gathering. He calls himself a “repurposing eco-artist,” creating art from wood rescued and reclaimed in his part of the Delaware Valley. Most of his pieces are “eco-art” sculptures that can be displayed on the wall, but can also serve as shelf or mantel. He makes console and coffee tables too.

Alburger likes to imagine the life of the wood he works with, “the endless stories that lie buried in its rings and chiseled in its bark.” He also rescues barn boards. “To me, the deep texture and markings of decay are pure art.” The wood itself seems to direct him as he follows “the flow of the wood and tries to place in the spotlight the interesting grain or markings.”

Like many of the artists in the Philadelphia show Alburger is passionate about his materials and has made a personal connection to them. In this regard, Alburger and company fulfill one of the main criteria of the jurors, as noted by one of them, Perry Price, executive director of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, in an interview for the show. “At this level,” Price states, “the mastery and accomplishments of the individual artists is almost a given, but makers who I tend to recognize with higher scores are the ones who draw me into their work by virtue of the originality and authenticity of their voice as artists.” That’s the common thread here: the original and authentic voices of these remarkable people.

WILLIAM ALBURGER

 
The five jurors for the 42nd annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show had their work cut out for them, selecting 195 artists from a total of 876 applications. As the show gets under way at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a bounty of beauty and technical expertise awaits those who pass through its doors.
 

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Carl Little has previewed the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show for Ornament before and loves the opportunity. “The show’s remarkable variety and the stellar quality of the work makes it a daunting task to select a few craft artists to highlight,” he notes. Upcoming for Ornament is his review of “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” at the Fuller Craft Museum. His third collaboration with his brother David, Paintings of Portland, came out in June. He also contributed an essay to Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore. Little lives and writes on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery Volume 40.4

TRUTH IS BEAUTY by Marco Cochrane of stainless steel rod and stainless steel mesh, 2013. Photograph by Eleanor Preger, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery. THE 10 PRINCIPLES. Night scene: BURNING MAN PARTICIPANTS, 2013. Photograph by Neil Girling, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

Creativity is the principle that lies at the fiery heart of Burning Man. It is the sacred act that is celebrated by this neo-Pagan, techno-Hinduist, born-again-hippie festival, which represents to participants the absolute freedom to be one’s true self. It is appropriate that the hellishly hot, sandy basin in which the event sits is called the Playa. Metaphorically, it’s located on the boundaries of modern civilization and the vast unknown, between proverbial sea and sand. Effectively, it’s humanity’s sandbox, a place to play without all of the artificial constraints and prejudices we humans have made for ourselves.

      That word, play, is a much underappreciated aspect of human nature. Nora Atkinson would probably agree. As the Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft for the Renwick Gallery, Atkinson put together the landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” for many reasons, ranging from the personal (a former resident of the state of Washington, she felt a longing for West Coast culture) to the idealistic. As the quintessential outsider event, bringing Burning Man to the nation’s capital had more than a touch of subversiveness to it.

Burning Man was born in San Francisco, on the original Playa, Baker Beach, in 1986. It all began when carpenter Larry Harvey and his friend, Jerry James, knocked up a crude wooden effigy of a human being, dubbed the Man, bundled him up into the back of a Ford pickup truck, and carried it down to the shoreline. There, they and a group of friends raised the combustible figure, doused him with gasoline, and the rest is history.

WINTER IS COMING... by Manish Arora of silk and metallic armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, chain-linked by hand, 2015. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

THE PLAYA PROVIDES NECKPIECE from various artists, assembled by Jennifer George, of metal, plastic, crystal, abalone, wood, and sterling silver, 2006-2017. The gifting economy that underpins the entire foundation of Burning Man, both literally and figuratively, leads to a continual and constant exchange of medals, pendants, badges, brooches, and other memorabilia as signs of affection, friendship, community, and shared memories. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Well, not quite. The catalysts that transformed the Baker Beach gathering into a temporary settlement nestled in the sweltering sands of Nevada desert were the po-po, and a group of like-minded malcontents, thrillseekers and iconoclasts known as the Cacophony Society. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the Society came from a small group of friends who dubbed themselves the Suicide Club—after surviving, according to local lore, a stint hanging precariously from a loose railing over the crashing Pacific Ocean below Fort Point. Afterwards, Gary Warne and three compatriots recovered to safety, with a solemn oath to live each day as their last. These dwellers of the fringe, inhabiting the periphery of the human experience, would attract more like-minded individuals. Happenstance (and word of mouth) brought the flotsam and jetsam of San Francisco together on Baker Beach, celebrating the immolation of the Burning Man.

The festivities were interrupted in 1990, as the local police informed the revelers that the party was over. The community did not waste any time; during Labor Day weekend, a procession set out from Golden Gate Park, to find Burning Man’s new home, in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, far to the north of Reno. Here, in the middle of nowhere, underneath the blazing sun, a member of this band of merry adventurers, Michael Michael, marked the boundary between worlds with a foot dragged through the dirt, baptizing it with the words, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.”

AERIAL VIEW of Burning Man gathering at Black Rock City, 2012.  Photograph by Scott London.

      Black Rock City is the real final frontier (pardons to Gene Roddenberry). There might be a lot of wild, unexplored and untamed land left on planet Earth, but Burning Man dives deep into the social, spiritual and ethical territory that lays far out in uncharted waters. Ten Principles girdle the philosophical foundation of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and last, but absolutely not least, Immediacy. It is radical in that most honest of ways, by being a pure expression of what it preaches.

What may surprise those who view the festival as frivolous is the amount of work that goes into organizing Burning Man, and the structures that have grown up around it. The Department of Public Works (whose insignia is the Man circumscribed by the spokes of a tire wheel, embedded in a great black gear) has a laundry list of tasks that include “Building logical roads, creating and placing signage, maintaining approved potable water systems, providing portable and stationary electrical power, assisting with major art projects, and setting up the small-plane airport and runway.” The fact that between all those practical considerations, nestled surreptitiously, is the art, illustrates how the boundaries between practical life and art grow thin and merge together here. Like in many indigenous and folk traditions, there is no separation.

It was this challenge, of authentically presenting the spirit of the event, presenting the glitz and glamour without obscuring the substance, that Nora Atkinson faced in mounting the exhibition at the Renwick, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like a living flame, its temporary nature and spontaneity is its essence. How do you communicate that to an audience inside a building that is more than a century old?

 

BEFORE I DIE by Candy Chang (New Orleans, Louisiana), 2011. As an experiment in community building, and healing, Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood of New Orleans. A response to a loved one who had just died, now these participatory installations, like David Best’s Temple, allow its audience an intimate relation with the art. In fact, the audience is part of the art itself. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

 

      The key, Atkinson reveals, is collaboration. “I reached out early on to the Burning Man organization. I had already had in my head a number of artists that I wanted to include, many of them being perennial artists that I thought really represented the aesthetics that have come out of Burning Man. But I also wanted to make sure that the community felt heard, and that the internal community favorites made it into the show, and that we had a really wide spread.” She makes reference to the populist nature that is at the root of Burning Man, an “Anything You Can Do I Can Do” ethos that sees MFA trained artists creating installations alongside carpenters and death metal heads.

Some, like Michael Garlington, graduated from Burning Man University by first working in the Department of Public Works, then apprenticing to celebrities such as David Best, who created the temple made of recycled wood that takes over the Grand Salon on Renwick’s second floor. Now Garlington’s work is exhibited by a gallery, and he erects his own sacred structures on the dusty surface of the Playa. For Atkinson, revealing this network of connections and relationships that develop through the festival was vital, as was giving Burners (a term for Burning Man attendees/devotees that is as contentious as it is ubiquitous) a voice in the show. “We actually put out a call in the Burning Man community, through the Burning Man organization, asking people to submit artists that they thought were important, artists that were some of their favorites, to us. And there were some pieces in the exhibition that made it in that were discovered through people’s suggestions.”

TEMPLE by David Best and the Temple Crew of recycled wood, 2018. Best creates wooden temples, spiritual structures, that are lit on fire each year at Burning Man. The Renwick commissioned him to create a temple for the exhibition, which Best dedicated to people who have lost, whether it be a loved one or something else. Visitors were encouraged to write on small wooden plaques that could be placed at the various altars around the temple. Best has said that there are few sacred spaces where people can reflect on loss and to celebrate and remember our deepest emotions. Photographs by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      While the art installations may be the most memorable aspect of the festival’s visual milieu, Atkinson wanted to present the experience of Burning Man in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and what is a day on the Playa without body paint, glow-in-the-dark fabrics and otherworldly outfits?

READY TO LOVE ENSEMBLE by Manish Arora of thread, silk, beads, crystals, faux patent leather, felt, sequins, and iridescent armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, hand-appliquéd, chain-linked by hand, 2016. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      Normally we associate costumes and clothing as being different; one is unserious, fun and fantastical, while the other is outerwear to protect ourselves from the elements. Both however are the same in one very obvious respect: they are objects worn on the body. It is the gentle and not-so-gentle continuous pressure of society that makes certain outfits “costumes,” generally because they are too outlandish for people to comfortably accept as clothing. 

In fact, we are rejecting the validity of the wearer’s humanity. A person wearing something so outside the norm that we don’t recognize them as part of “our group” anymore becomes a caricature. Whether it is the loose, voluminous clothing of a clown, replete with red hair and rubber nose, or the dazzling ethnic attire from a foreign culture, for many people that invokes The Label of Other.

The costumes and clothing generated by Burners speak to the dissolution of societal labeling, just as the gifting of food, water and services represents an intentional shift away from a heartless status quo towards a healthy one. What you wear on the Playa is an expression of self; a statement of both exploration and identity where the message is simply, “This is who I am.” Whether the image you are projecting is what you want to be, what you actually are underneath society’s baggage, or the self you are finally, after many years, comfortable with revealing, Burning Man, for all its carnival illusions, is rather more real than the circus it superficially resembles.

With limited space and a huge breadth of material, Atkinson had to establish criteria for what pieces she wanted to display in the exhibition. The route she chose was to present artist and designer-made costumes to highlight the more unusual and fantastic wearables seen at Burning Man, while using photographs to give visitors an idea of what the every day Playa-goer looks like. She jokes about how when she has taken Burners through the exhibition, the most audible criticism is “Where’s the duct tape?” For many, who don’t know how to sew or cut fabric for clothing, ensembles are assembled from thrift-store purchases and random gear shimmied together with glue and a prayer.

NAGANA BRASS GOWN by Gelareh Alam of hand-cut leather, and custom metal work by Jungle Tribe, 2014. Although resembling something out of Mad Max, Alam’s intention for both pieces in the exhibition were born of a desire to express her thoughts on the emotional investment, both good and difficult, that love requires in a wearable piece. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      That is not the case with the specimens on display here. Even though they appear like the regalia of alien queens, Gelareh Alam’s Cocoon Gown and Nagana Brass Gown, along with Caley Johnson’s collaborative piece the Crown of Nagini, are more than simple costumes. Rather than being made for theatrics or pretending, Alam’s clothing is meant to raise the stature of the wearer, and to create an aura of confidence that elevates them. They are also deeply personal. Alam, who grew up during the Iranian revolution, has been going through a journey of self-realization since she arrived in the States.

When Alam first came to the U.S. to study fashion design at the Art Institute of California, she was moving from a degree in psychology to a new world, without being able to speak English. She found her voice through visual communication, which she feels led to her emphasizing sight above the other four senses. America gave her the room to explore and grow as a human being. When Alam went to Burning Man in 2007, as she was completing her degree, it was because a friend gifted her with a birthday ticket.

What that visit did for her self-confidence was profound. She brought some of her clothing to the festival, and the recognition she received from total strangers was like the cosmos giving her the proverbial wink and nod. “I could not believe the response I was getting. It was amazing to see. Suddenly I was being praised for the creativity that I was not allowed to practice growing up, and that was a huge transformation.

“Burning Man was so natural for me, it felt like home,” says Alam. “Expression in the elements. Sublime. Here was a culture screaming that radical self-expression was not just good, but demanded. It was a place to re-define myself, and align with peace, equality, human empathy. It was transformational and deeply empowering. As an artist I am constantly in search of inspiration and constantly trying to break through those barriers. At Burning Man, this is the whole point of everything anyone does there.”

THORAX, AMBASSADOR OF THE INSECTS by Tyler FuQua of reclaimed materials, 2015-16. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

     Tyler FuQua has been constructing giant puppets for over fifteen years as his true passion, while making a living as a contractor. Building things is in his blood, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or creating large metal installations. “Of course, it’s way more fun to build a giant robot instead of remodeling a bathroom,” he explains, “but sometimes I get projects that combine art and functionality.” His wearable costume, grandly titled Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects, was inspired as he mused about the speaker grills on his stereo, which resembled alien bug eyes. “I made the first helmet using these grills but it was just too ominous. I build fun things for all ages so this just wasn’t doing it for me. I went back to the drawing board and made what you see now. I really wanted to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, so the creation of Thorax was really determined by what I could find on the shelves at thrift stores. I would just walk around with an open mind until I found something that would work for what I needed. A lot of my art is creature-based, and I am a huge superhero fan, so Thorax is a conglomeration of those two things.”

There is also an element of self-invention. For many, Burning Man is that rare time in their life when they can be someone else. The straitjacket of their work, home or family life is temporarily lifted, and they are free to experiment with who they are. On the Playa, Burners find themselves anew, break apart previous conceptions of self, and come back together, rejuvenated, in some cases reborn, no LSD or ayahuasca required.

That isn’t to say everyone who comes to Burning Man finds it a transcendent experience; indeed, the point is the festival represents different things to different people. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a uniquely American phenomenon. Atkinson notes one of the reasons why she chose it as the subject of an exhibition was that Burning Man is as American as apple pie. “It was born in this very frontier culture, this sort of West Coast culture and Silicon Valley, believing that just because something has been done one way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done. The idea of being out in a vast, empty environment and creating something entirely new from scratch has a lot to do with the entire American dream and the spirit of what we are as a country.”

TOTEM OF CONFESSIONS by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti at Burning Man, 2015. Photograph by Michael Holden, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

      Such a multidimensional entity as Burning Man isn’t meant to be pinned down by taxonomists, although many will try. One flailing wing of the butterfly might be identified in that the festival is a radical social experiment. By undergirding the laboratory with strong, actively exercised principles, the Mad Scientist is unleashed into “the real world.” This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a society without rules that is the nightmare of many a dystopian take on the future. In fact what we have here is a nascent utopia, taken to its practical heights by the wild and untameable spirit of the people involved. But the dream doesn’t die with the end of each year’s festivities; it keeps being passed on by those who lived it, out there on the dusty earth of the Nevada desert.

SUGGESTED READING
Bruder, Jessica.
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Christians, Karen and Christine Kristen. Jewelry of Burning Man. Santa Rosa, CA: Global Interprint, Inc., 2015.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York: RacePoint Publishing, 2016.
King, Nicholas. Burners. Cochiti Lake, NM: Laughing Coyote Press, 2017.
Galbraith, Carrie and John Law. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013.
Jones, Steven T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2011.

LORD SNORT by Bryan Tedrick, 2016. Photograph by Duncan Rawlinson, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is showing in two phases, with the full exhibition through September 16, 2018, then certain works will be viewable through January 21, 2019, at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
Visit their website at www.americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.

Burning Man debuts annually; for 2018 it met from August 26 - September 3.
Visit their website at www.burningman.org.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A scene hopper, Benesh-Liu has spent time in a variety of art and craft-based communities, from millennial pop culture fan groups like Anime cosplay and furry costumes to outsider art museums like the John M. Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. While in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery’s landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” he realized his interests were all leading to one place, Black Rock City. After interviewing Nora Atkinson, the Renwick’s Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft, as well as artists whose work was featured, the interconnectivity of this event with creative communities became apparent. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Feathers and Fashion Volume 40.4

ROSEATE SPOONBILL WATERCOLOR (Platalea ajaja) by John James Audubon (1785-1851), circa 1831-32. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Photographs courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is a milestone for the field of ornithology, but the fashion world deserves to share in the celebrations, too. The passage of the Act—which prohibited the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds and regulated America’s commercial feather trade—was the direct result of women rallying together to resist the fashion for extravagantly beplumed hats that had devastated bird populations worldwide.

      In honor of what the National Audubon Society has declared the “Year of the Bird,” the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibition “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” blended fashion, activism and conservation science to honor the early environmentalists who helped turn the tide of public opinion against so-called “murderous millinery.” At a time when “ethical” and “sustainable” are once again trendy style buzzwords, the show served as both a cautionary tale and a call to action.

THE BIRD ON NELLIE’S HAT SHEET MUSIC, 1906. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, hats were essential year-round accessories for respectable women. But they were more social conventions and decorative accoutrements than practical sources of warmth or protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote French art critic Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise Art in Ornament and Dress (L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement). Hats increasingly incorporated not just feathers but bird’s wings, heads and even entire bodies.

Far from being seen as barbaric or macabre, these avian accessories were initially admired for their natural beauty, artful craftsmanship and scientific interest. At a time of rapid urbanization, they brought city dwellers closer to nature; there was a corresponding fad for terrariums and aquariums. In February 1900, Vogue described a chic Parisienne wearing a “little toque . . . adorned with a few upright wings of some sort of South American bird, the sleek feathers of which gleamed like jewels.” The dead birds might be mounted on wires to create the illusion of movement. Sometimes they were framed in a bucolic mise-en-scène of leaves, twigs, dead mice, and reptiles. Advances in taxidermy in the 1880s and ‘90s affected hats as well as hunting trophies.

Hats served as posthumous perches for everything from petite songbirds like starlings, parakeets and hummingbirds to large and flamboyant birds of paradise, peacocks and even owls, reanimated with glass eyes. Milliners might amp up their exoticism by assembling Frankenfowl hybrids from the head of one bird and the wings or tail feathers of another. Plumes were dyed colors unknown in nature, or formed into trompe l’oeil flowers.

RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER EARRINGS of preserved hummingbird heads, gold, metal, unidentified maker, probably London, England, circa 1865. Animal parts and insects decorated late nineteenth-century jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans. 

      “Colibri”—the French word for “hummingbird”—was slang for a frivolous person, making the diminutive creatures especially fitting fashion emblems. In 1889, the Parisian milliner Madame Josse created a toque trimmed with cut jet and “a dragonfly made of the breast-feathers of humming-birds,” according to the Millinery Trade Review. The English called hummingbirds “flying gems,” referencing their value as well as their beauty. The birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats, fans and pieces of jewelry; in 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method of setting them in gold and silver mounts. An example in the exhibit showed a pair of hummingbird-head earrings circa 1865 with the beaks tipped with gold.

Indeed, feathers adorned every part of a fashionable woman’s body. The enormous Roseate Spoonbill was a favorite of fan-makers; it was nearly extinct by 1920, though it rebounded after the Audubon Society dispatched protection wardens to its colonies. A bustled ice-blue satin evening gown of 1885 featured a swansdown-trimmed collar and train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, making their feathers an appropriate feminine ornament. Like the gown’s velvet underskirt and lace cuffs, swansdown was both expensive and sensual. It also played a part in beauty rituals, formed into powder puffs. Just as birds use their extravagant plumage to attract potential mates, so do people. 

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

      A delicate gold and diamond tiara—worn by a bride on her wedding day in 1894—sported trembling egret feathers instead of an aigrette, the feather-like spray of jewels named for the white bird who wears a lacy cape of plumage during nesting season. Egret feathers were scornfully dubbed the “white badge of cruelty” by wildlife advocates. They were worth a princely twenty dollars per ounce in 1915, according to The Tropic Magazine; as a result, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1902, about a ton and a half of egret plumes were sold in London, representing around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs).

 

GREAT EGRET WATERCOLOR (Ardea alba) by John James Audubon, 1821. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early twentieth century. With conservation laws, the species has rebounded. AIGRETTE HAIR ORNAMENT (from a Snowy or Great Egret) of egret feathers, gold, gold wire, diamonds, J.H. Johnston & Co, NYC, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Mary S. Griffin, 1961. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during their breeding season. Because of this fleeting growth, these feathers were among the rarest milliners used.

HERRING GULL WATERCOLOR (Larus argentatus) by John James Audubon with George Lehman, 1831. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. ACCESSORY SET OF HERRING GULLS, feathers, silk, including muff and tippet, unidentified maker, USA, 1880–99. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds.

 
At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone.

      Birds and birds’ wings were popular trimmings for the low, brimless hats called toques that trended in the Edwardian era, lending dimension and visual interest to minimalist style. “It’s the toque that dominates,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. “Birds, alas! entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat.” Though seagulls may not seem exotic today, the large Herring Gull species nearly went extinct due to its popularity for hats and other accessories around the turn of the century. A gruesome highlight of the show was a matching muff and tippet set made of carcasses from four adult Herring Gulls; their distinctive red markings indicate that the gulls were killed during breeding season, when their plumage was at its most spectacular.

 

MME. FAUCHÈRE TRADE CARD, circa 1894. Numerous feather traders, importers and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers. 

 

      Women were not the only fans of feathers, however; the nineteenth century was the great age of men in uniform, and the exhibition included a military hat brandishing an exotic scarlet plume. But it was women—often the very elites who helped popularize feathered fashions—who were the first to respond to the trend’s alarming consequences for the environment.

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including  Birds Through an Opera Glass  (1889), became important field guides. 

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides. 

      At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone. South America and Africa (particularly France’s African colonies) provided the lion’s share of exotic birds. By 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of 300 million birds per year. This grim toll was exacerbated by the fact that birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent—that is, during mating and breeding seasons, which magnified the problem of hunting birds by disrupting their reproductive cycles and dooming their orphaned chicks to death.

GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL (1849–1938). Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”

      The growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Plumage League (later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889 and, in America, a series of regional Audubon Societies, named for ornithologist John James Audubon. (Fourteen life-sized watercolors of birds—depicted living, flying and in their natural habitats—from his landmark 1838 book The Birds of America were on display.) The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905; in 1953, it adopted an egret as its symbol.

In Gilded Age New York, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall staged tea parties to try to persuade their rich friends to stop buying hats with real plumage. Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, campaigned passionately against wearing feathers during a residence with the Metropolitan Opera, offering her fans autographs in exchange for a promise not to wear feathers. Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithology student at Smith College, established a campus Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned her classmates’ hats.

Politicians and many in the fashion and feather trades pushed back against these protests; after all, jobs were at stake. A cottage industry of “willowers”—often Italian immigrants, sometimes children—who specialized in lengthening the short strands of inferior ostrich feathers were among those affected. The Act impacted these laborers as well as feather importers, hat manufacturers and retailers. Surprisingly, some naturalists and ornithologists rallied to the defense of the feather dealers, pointing out that their destructive tendencies had been exaggerated by ignorant if well-meaning activists, and it was not in their financial interests to hunt birds to the point of extinction.

However, the feather trade was not just devastating to bird populations but to the greater environment; gulls, for examples, are instrumental in keeping shorelines clean. It also impacted the fashion workers who toiled in dangerous conditions in tenements to create feathered hats. Eventually, these widespread moral and environmental concerns were codified into law in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This landmark legislation is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. It also paved the way for later legal protections of wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A similar statute, the Importation of Plumage Act, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1922. In France, where a guild of plumassiers—the artisans who dyed, shaped, processed, and sold feathers for use in apparel—had been active since the sixteenth century and retained considerable political power, change was slower to come. But it was undoubtedly hastened by formation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in 1912, as well as by World War I, which inaugurated a new era of minimalism in French fashion.

UNKNOWN WOMAN WEARING AN AUDUBONNET. American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. The Audubon Society also addressed the feather craze by promoting “birdless hats” trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric.

      Feathers from game and poultry destined for the dinner table remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. Milliners found creative ways to lend exoticism to non-endangered farm fowl like ducks, geese and chickens, or create artificial exotic “birds” out of commonplace feathers and glue. Ethical “Audubonnets” were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and twists of fabric; Audubon chapters commissioned leading milliners to design them.

The tradition continues today. Paris-based Lemairé, which has been supplying feathers to haute couture houses for more than a century, routinely makes feathers from common barnyard birds look like exotic specimens. British milliner Stephen Jones, whose work has crowned the heads of Princess Diana and the new Duchess of Sussex, has long used farm fowl feathers and artificial feathers in his elaborate headpieces, in compliance with Audubon Society guidelines.

As feathered hats and frocks have cycled back into fashion in recent months—seen at royal weddings, on the red carpet and on the runways of design houses like Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Alexander McQueen—the morality of wearing feathers is once again being debated, just as many women are reluctant to wear fur or leather. Even down-filled winter coats are increasingly advertised as being “ethically sourced” and “cruelty free.” In February of this year, the Trump administration reversed a key provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it poses a burden for utilities and energy companies; wildlife advocates argue that this move effectively guts the law. Maybe the Audubonnet will make a comeback?

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” showed April 6 – July 15, 2018, at the
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024.
Visit their website at www.nyhistory.org.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she explains the history behind the “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, tracing a fascinating line between exploitation and activism.

Vanishing Traditions: Miao Textiles Volume 40.4

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

Dependent on the material accumulations of others, museums around the world have long been recipients of the passionate predilections of collectors. A day arrives when it is time to pack up one’s stuff and leave prized possessions to some established institution for, hopefully, responsible conservation. That storage issue has a history stretching over the millennia. In Britain, the Ashmolean at Oxford University, the world’s oldest university museum, became in 1677 the first public museum when it received its first collection with Elias Ashmole’s “cabinet of curiosities.” The collection was divided between the “wonders of nature” (naturalia) and the “handworks of man” (artificialia). Here could be viewed a variety of natural life, from a salamander, a flying squirrel, shells, and birds from India, to the stuffed body of the last dodo seen in Europe. Artificialia contained agate goblets, rhinoceros horn cups, a bead abacus, Chief Powhatan’s mantle (Pocahontas’s father), Chinese boots. One can readily surmise that these objects were collected with a wondrous excitement that discovery inspires when encountering the formerly unknown. Significantly, while the larger purpose of the Ashmolean was to enhance preservation of knowledge, with these objects recorded and systematized; specifically it was their public display that had an equally great benefit, so the greater populace could participate and benefit. Admission was open to all, with a fee, and not restricted only to the few elite. These actions, dating from the seventeenth century, have long impacted the museum world and the cultural and social ramifications have been incalculable.

MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Yahui Township, Danzhai County, Guizhou Province, China, twentieth century. MIAO WOMAN’S APRON of cotton, silk, Job’s tears, chicken feathers, embroidered, Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton and silk, embroidered, Guiding County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Behind the jacket is a pleated, indigo-dyed Miao woman’s skirt. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO YOUNG MAN’S JACKET of silk, cotton, metal bells, Job’s tears, embroidered, Suoga Township, Liuzhi County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      In a much more contemporaneous example, a recent exhibition at The Textile Museum at George Washington University demonstrated the importance of material gifts to a museum’s identity and mission, and how in resulting exhibitions they inform and educate the larger public. In 2015 Bea Roberts, a collector from California, gifted her 284-piece Chinese minority textile and ornament collection, from Guizhou Province in Southwest China, to the museum. On her trips to this mountainous, subtropical region, Roberts quickly learned just how evanescent cultural traditions were in our swiftly changing present-day. Beguiled by the handcrafted works she found in Guizhou, she was determined to collect and preserve what she knew would “vanish” from the many cultural groups that make up Guizhou. Understanding that traditional cultures are rapidly being absorbed by larger, more dominant ones, perhaps even within a generation, has spurred many collectors to acquire sooner rather than later. (The Han account for almost ninety-two percent of the Chinese population, with fifty-five other ethnic minorities officially recognized.) Cultures that once had little contact with the “outside” world are now sometimes unrecognizable in their original form. It’s the what’s here today is gone tomorrow syndrome of loss.

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

      Given a keen eye and an instinct for both the singular and the representative, Roberts collected some amazing and instructive physical examples of textiles and jewelry, primarily from the Miao. One is an astonishing Miao festival jacket from the 1950s, an embroidered tapestry of rich patterning, with figures from Miao folklore surrounded by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Practically every bit of surface is embellished with musicians, flowers, birds, and more than twenty butterflies referencing the “Butterfly Mother,” the primal ancestor of the Miao people and a central focus of Guzang Festival rituals (celebrated every thirteen years, although more festivals are now annual). Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader.

Textile surfaces exhibit the rich profusion of transformative iconography that permeates minority cultures—bats symbolize happiness and good fortune; hybridized silkworm dragons and fish dragons, other abstracted shapes indicate the importance of achieving a successful birth; birds are also important as protectors and divine messengers. Dress with such totemic imagery enhances the possibility of communing with ancestors or with spirits of the natural world where everything is thought to be alive and interconnected.

DONG CHILD’S HAT, decorated with pompoms and the eight Daoist immortals, of cotton, silk, silver alloy, embroidered, Liping or Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Baby carriers, intrinsically functional, are also opportunities for other potent imagery—eight-pointed stars, sunrays and octagons symbolize protective maternal deities who will attract light, warmth and energizing lifeforce to the infant. Children’s hats especially incorporate symbolic motifs to safeguard the growing youngsters and they are often embroidered with auspicious motifs such as lions, fishes and butterflies. One Dong charmer is festooned with pompoms and appliquéd bulging eyes intended to trick evil spirits into thinking the child is a ferocious animal and, leaving nothing to chance, has the twelve Daoist immortals in silver alloy attached.

Trained by female family members and starting early, young girls will learn everything about her clan’s textile techniques—handweaving, indigo dyeing, embroidering are among the critical skills to learn. It can take as long as five years to make a profusely decorated outfit to wear during one’s wedding and the festival cycles, so it is crucial that a garment is beautiful and well made. Technical and aesthetic proficiency is closely linked to attractiveness and desirable marital outcomes. The design and making of an apron as a gift from a young woman to a young man specifies her interest and shows off her accomplishments. Worn by men as well as women, aprons memorialize Miao daily life, its landscape and flora, its folklore—one embroiderer revealed the influence of local songs on their pictorial representations: “If you only embroider and don’t sing, you won’t know the stories of your patterns. Someone who doesn’t sing well doesn’t embroider well.” 

GEJIA WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET, front and back, of silk, cotton, embroidered, indigo-dyed, Matang Village, Kaili City, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum. Installation photograph of back of jacket by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Subtlety is never the point. Mastery of techniques is to be visibly demonstrated in every possible way, from a festival jacket’s sturdy construction to finely embroidered (and removable) patches that decorate shoulders, sleeves and aprons (and can be passed through generations). More is more and more is highly desirable for a successful garment and similarly true for minority jewelry. Silver is preferred for its power to throw off evil or demons. While textiles are the complete purview of women, jewelry is made by men trained in metalworking who design the neckpieces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, hairpins, and festival crowns, in silver or more typically a silver alloy, that are integral to the success of a festival costume. They are as exuberantly abundant in their design as the lavishly decorated textiles. With auditory attributes bestowed by jingling metal components, nothing should stand in the way of boisterously announcing a family’s wealth at something as important as the Guzang Festival in Guizhou Province.

SUGGESTED READING
Exhibition Catalog
. Contributing authors Angela Sheng, Deng Qiyao, Xi Keding, Li Qianbin, Zhang Xiao, Stevan Harrell, Kate Lingley, Huang Ying Feng. Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2009.
Roberts, Bea. Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China. Davis, CA: UC Davis Design Museum, 2010.

“Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China” showed February 24 - July 9, 2018 at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Visit their website at www.museum.gwu.edu.

 

MIAO FESTIVAL CROWN of silver alloy, cotton and silk streamers, Leishan County, Guizhou Province, China, 1980s. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

International Folk Art Market Volume 40.4

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Click Images To Enlarge

STENCILED INDIGO-DYED CLOTHING, SCARVES AND ACCESSORIES by Wen-Chun Tang (pictured) and Wan-Lee Chen, Taiwan. OAXACAN SILVER FILIGREE JEWELRY by Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez, Mexico.

For fifteen years the International Folk Art Market (IFAM) has perched on Museum Hill, part of historic Santa Fe, a seductive, enchanting city in the Southwest’s high desert of New Mexico. Ninety-eight countries have participated in the annual July festival since its genesis in 2004; and the 2018 festival brought together fifty-three countries, two of them, Azerbaijan and Greece, for the first time. Originating as a counterpoint to our fiercely competitive, economically global world of corporate dominance, technical, mechanized and digital masteries, IFAM has become another kind of powerful voice, one that celebrates, encourages and supports the handmade.

GULZAT CHYTYRBAEVA, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

      Numbering among those who are showing for the first time, Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, from Kyrgyzstan, brought her sophisticated skills in embroidery to the venue. Her beautifully and carefully constructed soft merino wool slippers are traditionally worn in the Kyrgyzi home. She and her team of artisans design and make them, and all parts are handworked from the initial shearing of the sheep to final sewing of the slipper and its embroidery in their brightly colored, visually arresting designs. Under an apricot tree as her classroom, a young Chytyrbaeva learned Kyrgyzi embroidery techniques from her grandmother, and says, “Through embroidery I can convey my dreams.”

In Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, just outside of Oaxaca City, Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez makes finely detailed handcrafted jewelry, specializing in the ornate filigree work introduced by the Spaniards centuries ago. Her parents, goldsmiths Arturo and Marta Salgado Téllez, have been important mentors in her and her sisters lives, teaching them the exacting techniques and methods of jewelrymaking, such as the traditional “hoop” design replicated throughout Oaxaca. Now established in her own workshop, Téllez hones and increasingly introduces her own signature embellishments. She has gained more and more visibility in the craft world. Along with her 2018 admission to the market, a first, and as a participant in the Competition for Young Artists, held in Oaxaca, she recently received an award for “The Hoop,” a gold-plated pendant and earrings accented with freshwater pearls, rubies and semiprecious stones.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

GYULA BORSOS, Hungary.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

      Hungarian potter Gyula Borsos says that he was first taught by a master potter in his hometown during a weekend course. Now himself a proficient master of a regional style dating back several hundred years, Borsos makes functional vases, pitchers and stemware for informal daily use. Initially liturgical or commemorative vessels for the Reformed Church of Hungary, based on the Protestant theology of Calvinism, the pottery has evolved from its original purpose and is valued not only for its association with Calvinism but for its own unique aesthetic. Borsos’s application of a locally sourced green glaze brightens the surfaces with a seemingly magical interior beauty. Continuing to honor the past, the life of the present and the promise of the future, Borsos says that, “Someday, I would like to teach pottery besides making it, so as to keep this beautiful and very rich traditional profession alive.”

One of six regions showing at IFAM is East Asia and the Pacific, with crafts from eight distinctive cultures—Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Their traditions draw on an infinite reservoir of thousands of years of making baskets, beadwork, ceramics, jewelry, and most of all, textiles. These participating countries cumulatively contribute to the overall mix and material texture that makes IFAM such a valuable and meaningful destination. Two artists from Taiwan, Wan-Lee Chen and Wen-Chun Tang, specialize in sublime indigo-dyed garments, casual and wearable. While anchored in the traditional forms and motifs of their history, they also voice a relaxed, confident contemporary aesthetic, one that recognizes the global community as a source of inspiration. In addition to operating her own indigo farm and workshop, Tang is an indigo master dyer and teacher at the National Taiwan Craft Research Institution and her partner Wan-Lee Chen, a professor and designer of costume, received her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

In its aspirations, the International Folk Art Market can be viewed through many lens, but one is the influential role the United States continues to play at home and abroad. There are many differences and divisions keenly felt, and the struggle is strong and visible each and every day, but the US still sends a strong message of hope and possibility—and the world looks and listens, taking note. As individuals, there is common ground to be found in cooperation and compromise; and we can live together in peace and civility, respecting our humanity. While the market honors the gifts of creation, bringing together artisans from all over the world, its true value is cultural—the world is a place for you and me to share and to exchange with each other, to grow and to learn. And for one weekend in July there are many such possibilities to be found on a certain hill in Santa Fe.

IFAM next celebrates the global art of the handmade July 12 - 14, 2019.
Visit their website at www.folkartmarket.org.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

CLEB_Contributor.jpg

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

Smithsonian Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.3

JIYOUNG CHUNG

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National Building Museum
April 26-29, Preview Night April 25
www.SmithsonianCraftShow.org

In the Navajo tradition, master weavers would often weave a thin thread of a contrasting color in the outer corner. Called the ch’ihónít’i, this “spirit line” extended out to the edge of the piece. The Navajo believed that the weaver’s being became part of the woven cloth in the process of making, their soul forever entwined with the piece itself. The spirit line allowed a path for the artist to disentangle herself and move on to create even more works of beauty.

IRINA OKULA

      This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living. It is an act of divine creation, linking heart, hand and spirit. It is also an act of vulnerability. Sharing your work opens you to criticism, extending the conversation beyond you and your materials to an outside audience. For makers, there’s arguably nothing better than when viewers appreciate and are moved by your work.

The artists participating in the 2018 Smithsonian Craft Show are well poised for this kind of exchange between maker, object and viewer. Now in its thirty-sixth year, the annual show presents one hundred twenty of the country’s premier craftspeople, and welcomes an educated and seasoned audience of craft lovers each year. Presented by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, jurors make careful selections, choosing from some one thousand artists working in twelve different media—basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood—making this one of the most influential craft events in the nation. For many artists, acceptance in the show is a big moment in their career. Having the chance to exhibit here inspires them to push boundaries, to explore new bodies of work, and to bring their very best to show.

Paper artist Jiyoung Chung relies on tradition, making her painterly, deconstructed paper works using the joomchi method—a Korean artform mixing hanji, or mulberry paper, with water and agitating it to break down and combine layers into one strong, fabric-like entity. It is akin to felting, and over time it ages to an almost leather-like texture. In Chung’s floating sculptures, the paper is layered, with holes like portals to the worlds below, and loose strands, frayed edges and furrowed surfaces. It draws the viewer in and feels both natural and otherworldly. Each piece is one of a kind, and some are large in scale. “It gives me more ground to explore and develop my ideas, as well as challenging my physical limitations,” Chung says of her play with size. “It opens new doors and possibilities for me to discover more about joomchi—what it can do and how far I can push it.”

LAUREN MARKLEY

      In Chung’s eyes her work is driven as much from her own creativity as it is from joomchi itself. She credits much of her design sensibility to a sort of collaboration with it. “I usually have a concept to start with. However, the process has surprising characteristics. It wants to be certain ways. I don’t feel like I am dealing with material, but with a person. So I often negotiate between my original thought and what joomchi wants to do.”

For ceramist Irina Okula, acceptance to her first Smithsonian Craft Show in 2015 was “almost like a dream.” Okula’s fragmented vessels have a quiet, emotive quality, with landscape imagery, text and abstract markings pieced together in simple, pleasing forms. Black bird silhouettes soar alongside snowy hillsides, repeating patterns, excerpts of text and a soft color palette. Her signature technique of piecing together broken clay shards came about by accident, after a pot she was working on broke into several pieces. Rather than mourn the piece, Okula fired the fragments separately and later epoxied them together to reform the original shape. Intrigued by the results, Okula began to break her work on purpose. Each shard is decorated with different surface treatments—using slip, stamps, copper tape, wire, and words—then packed into saggars, or covered clay containers, and fired with combustible materials soaked in solutions of salt, iron, cobalt, or copper oxides. 

The element of chaos brings a narrative quality to the vessels, fragmented like the memories and stories that make up one’s life. “My work emphasizes the relationships of the pieces to each other and to the whole,” Okula says. She welcomes the randomness of her process, each result pushing her to explore further. “There is an unpredictable quality to the breaks and the firing, which play a critical role in the outcome. I like the surprises. After I break the pieces, I tape them back together in the original form and do a drawing, front and back. I love how the pieces contrast and complement each other. They help me tell a story, often my story.”

MEGHAN PATRICE RILEY

      Impulsivity and disassembly are also central to jeweler Lauren Markley’s creative practice. In addition to sterling silver and brass, Markley works with reclaimed wood, textiles and enamel, constructing jewelry inspired by architecture, plans and schematics, spaces and structures. A pair of earrings is made from intersecting bits of sterling silver, reminiscent of angled steel. A brooch of layered wood has metal bars extending out like askew scaffolding. Segments of blackened silver overlap like roof tiles, an accent of golden yellow silk thread adding a touch of softness. “I get asked a lot if I’m a frustrated architect—I’m not!” Markley jokes. “Someone once looked at one of my big, chunky, geometric rings and said ‘Oh! I want to live in there!’ It’s still one of my favorite comments.”

Markley’s jewelry starts in sketch form. “Very loose and gestural, just getting an idea of an appealing shape,” she explains. “From there, I cut the material into smaller pieces and spend time figuring out how to reassemble it to achieve the shape I’m aiming for. It’s fairly improvisational, and I don’t have a clear plan or pattern for how I’m going to solder the metal or glue the wood back together.” Like sculpture or architecture, the “site” of her pieces is just as important. “I want my clients to be comfortable with their pieces. There is always a negotiation with weight, proportion, depth, scale, when figuring this out.”

Jeweler Meghan Patrice Riley also enjoys this relation of jewelry to the body. “I love the idea of the body as site—meaning that jewelry is fashion, art, design, and everything in between. A piece that looks like non-wearable art that belongs on the wall comes to life on the body. And I love the idea of people taking a personal approach; they can play with wearing my pieces in traditional ways or push their own ideas.” Her Blanc and Noir lines are made from steel cable cord and aluminum connectors or crimp beads—typically used in beaded necklaces to secure the stringing material to the clasp. But in Riley’s work, the cord, connectors and crimps take center stage; the stones, when used, are secondary, almost like jewelry turned inside out.

 
This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living.

The two-dimensional, line drawing feel to her work is not accidental. Some of her pieces almost read as blueprints for other complex structures. “It’s definitely jewelry about jewelry, which can be pretty meta,” Riley explains. “I have always loved all of the mechanisms, small parts, connectors that go into the making of jewelry. I love what I can create with this paired down process. I think of all of the crimps as stars in a larger constellation, creating order amidst chaos.”

CHIE HITCHNER

      Riley often starts with sketches derived from physics and mathematical concepts. She then translates them into her materials, often incorporating new items like the industrial ball chain interwoven with stones and pearls in her Gris line. A result of her obsession with ball chain and safety pins in her “grungy-goth-punk” teenage years, the series demonstrates Riley’s ability to turn traditional jewelry concepts on their head. The line was featured in a runway collaboration with Mariana Valentina, and caught the eye of large retailer Free People, who picked up Riley’s work. Riley designed epaulettes, arm and hand chains for the collection. 

Color is an important factor for Chie Hitchner, who uses natural dyes in her loom-woven fabrics. Working with raw fibers such as silk, wool and linen, Hitchner dyes the threads in small batches in her studio, often using materials she finds nearby. “There is something special about discovering the dyeing properties of plants that are right around you,” says Hitchner. “Fig leaves make a brilliant yellow. Camellia blossoms become a steely gray. Japanese maple leaves usually give me a beautiful gray, but last fall they gave me a beautiful green. Depending on the time of year and location, the color can be different.”

While part of the show’s Decorative Fiber category, Hitchner also creates wearables. This lends versatility to her design process. She imagines the pieces displayed cleanly and flat on the wall or a table, and also considers how they will bunch and flow with the curves of the body. Worn or flat, Hitchner’s firm grasp on design and technique and her debt to Japanese traditions is evident. Her patterns are crisp and exact, in calming neutral tones and soothing repetitive patterns one can get lost in.

Hitchner learned to weave at eighteen and attended a Japanese university that placed a heavy emphasis on technique and methodology. “My work is deeply influenced by Japanese craft techniques,” Hitchner explains. “I like to use kasuri, the Japanese form of ikat, in both warp and weft. I also use sukui-ori, which is a technique of pick-and-weave, where I use manual techniques to insert additional colors and threads into the weft. These techniques broaden the range of the designs that I can produce using a simple four-harness floor loom.” 

MARY JAEGER

      Understanding one’s work in the larger picture of the fashion and commercial market is an important part of survival as a craft artist. Clothing designer Mary Jaeger has been sewing since just four years old, and recognizes the complexities of the fashion, craft and couture worlds. In her NYC atelier, she creates everything from dramatic scarves, shawls and jackets that play with proportion, pattern and shape, to classic cut, shibori-dyed indigo tank tops, hoodies and tees that are perfect for everyday wear. The latter are made to touch a broader client base, but the goal of Jaeger’s garments is the same: to empower the wearer. “My couture garments address the need for thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed clothing to communicate individuality in our culture currently exploding with fast fashion,” Jaeger reflects. “Fashion design incorporates multiple aspects of today’s culture and can foreshadow the future through the use of colors, shapes, materials, make, fit, and styles. In turn, fashion communicates messages we individually interpret and consciously or unconsciously adapt to make our own style of dress.”

Jaeger’s Accordion Bonbons do feel a bit like a glimpse into the future. Part of her Unfolding series, multiple colors of silk dupioni are pieced, pleated, dyed, and edge-stitched to drape around the neck and shoulders. Their smart construction folds compactly like a fan for traveling, like something out of The Jetsons. Made from repurposed silks, they combine her love for the visual transformation between flat patterns that become three-dimensional when worn, reducing waste, and using color as an accent to her neutral black, gray, white, and indigo palette.  

TREFNY DIX AND BENGT HOKANSON

      Collaboration is key to Trefny Dix and Bengt Hokanson’s blown glass vessels. Working together since 1996, the duo is inspired by everything from 1920s purses, to graffiti and computer circuits. Their work is varied, calling on Italian methods like the use of murrine and canes for pattern, and Swedish influences in their employment of thick, clear glass and large spots of color to frame and offset their colorful murrine.

Their designing works in stages—often starting with discussion of a new murrine or surface texture they want to explore; then moving on to color choice; what form expresses the pattern best; and finally how to achieve the design in mind. “We work out issues with the size, form, surface application, blowing, and shaping techniques, trying to achieve the concept behind the piece,” Dix explains. “Sometimes the piece goes through such a transformation from the idea one of us started with that it becomes a true collaborative effort.” Skilled colorists, their glass has an energetic movement and fluidity, and the heavy use of color demonstrates their skill in the glassblowing. Like all the artists in the show, Dix and Hokanson are thrilled to be returning this year. “We consider exhibiting in the Smithsonian Craft Show to be a high career achievement. The artists have been selected because their work represents a high standard of creativity and technical mastery within their mediums. It is an honor to show our work with the other artists.”

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Jill DeDominicis is a former Ornament staff writer and editor whose love for wearable art and all things craft remains strong. She works at Mingei International Museum, a craft, folk art and design museum in lovely Balboa Park in San Diego, California. DeDominicis is delighted to be covering this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show held in the nation’s capital at the National Building Museum. With its one hundred twenty artists in all craft media, the show provided an ample opportunity to write and learn more about some of her favorite contemporary artists who are showing their work.

Iris van Herpen Volume 40.3

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IRIS VAN HERPEN. Photograph courtesy of Jean Baptiste Mondino, Iris van Herpen and the Phoenix Art Museum.

A great deal of passion must reside within Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. An initial stroll through the capacious Steele Gallery, turned over to van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” at the Phoenix Art Museum, makes an immediate visceral jolt that gathers strength visually. Instead of succumbing to an ambiguous desire to flee what appears to be a disturbing alien command center, time begins to slow and the exhibition increasingly captivates, exercising upon one a more cerebral curiosity over the installation. Fifteen distinct collections of forty-five ensembles, dating between 2008 and 2015, are arranged mostly along two very long rows staged with vocalless sentinels garbed in the astonishing, unsettling aesthetic that physically transforms them. But the real experience takes place internally, as the world van Herpen has created is housed in a phantasma of dreams, revelations, nightmares, hallucinations, visions. It is unlikely that many will embrace it; observe it yes, willingly enter it, probably not.

      Since the young designer’s first collection in 2007, at the age of twenty-three, her work has transcended the shock value she is known for in the “gowns” designed for celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Björk, and Tilda Swinton. Her works are designed for the female form of which we are accustomed, but the body is really a springboard for sculptural compositions that serve her drive for incorporating modern discoveries and innovations into her collections. They have become an important vehicle for arriving at a place where her experimentations reveal something seminal and descriptive about the nature of the human body through the power of dress. A dialogue considered necessary, she has described, as being “between our inside and our outside.”

      Science and technology are her muse and the primary stimulus to her creations. And it is here that van Herpen’s evolving aesthetic vision is most consistent, reflecting a personal desire to plunge into and plumb the depths of what modern technology offers the human experience, positively and negatively. We have been living in such a world for some time; so van Herpen’s work is a venture in making sense of our quickly changing temporal landscape. It is one that no longer quantifies life in futuristic imaginings but in the daily here and now, whether we embrace it or endeavor to escape.

MICRO DRESS from 2012 collection of metallic coated stripes, tulle and cotton. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      “Looking around me,” she has written, “I consider what I can’t see as much as what I can see, and that transformative focus creates freedom in my work. Each garment and every collection is an embodiment to new understanding and discovery, on the conceptual level, on the level of materiality and on the level of femininity. It’s my search for new forms of femininity through organic silhouettes, delicate craftsmanship, innovation and the collaboration with other artists, architects and scientists.”

In her collections, van Herpen uses 3D printing for garment construction and materials such as laser-cut acrylic mesh and resin. More recently in Lucid, from 2016, one of her more fascinating iterations, she chose lucid dreaming as the subject, where the dreamer, while exercising some sense of control, is aware of dreaming. “When I design,” she says, “the draping process most of the time happens to me unconsciously. I see lucid dreams as a microscope with which I can look into my unconsciousness.” In a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, Lucid manifests what van Herpen terms “the fine line between reality and unreality,” a useful theme that can be drawn throughout her collections. Astonishingly, one of the dresses was composed of five thousand TPU-92A-1 transparent hexagonal laser-cut elements, a thermoplastic polyurethane. This use on a grand scale of a modern material inspires some sense of awe.

From 2012, Micro is a collection inspired by scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner’s works. Gschmeissner uses Scanning Electron Microscope  (SEM) technology to reveal the plastic universe of microorganisms and how beautiful they are in their infinite diversity. With this collection van Herpen set about trying to make visible a world unseen by us but still an equally vital one, inhabiting and sharing the same plane as our own.

Gschmeissner’s photographs are taken of specimens that are chemically fixed to preserve their inherent structures, but van Herpen veered in a different direction, interested in taking another path, desiring rather to create more imaginative organisms than ones that actually exist. It too is a plastic world and the forms swirl, grow and change, bulge, encapsulate, shoot off into space. Whatever the collection, the overarching theme is repetition and reiteration. It is everywhere in van Herpen’s work and sharpens her desire to exalt and honor the inner and exterior movement that all living organisms possess.

 

RADIATION INVASION DRESS from 2009 collection of faux leather, gold foil, cotton, and tulle. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      2009’s Radiation Invasion marked the beginning of the challenging themes that resonate throughout her annual collections and van Herpen’s grappling with some understanding of technology’s role in society (and perhaps, rule thereof) and how it inevitably affects the physical body and spirit. The idea seemed to stem from an intercontinental phone conversation that caused van Herpen to question the unimaginable flow of digital information that takes place and how it is everywhere, ubiquitous in its presence, drowning us, but also lifting us to spheres we cannot possibly anticipate. She began to develop more thoroughly a simple concept based on repetition, endless repetition, communicating energy and powerful forces, both fascinating and repulsive. It has dominated her work ever since, possessing her, driving her passions.

How can humanity possibly survive in such an environment? Van Herpen’s answer seems not to be reticent: survive we must; just make it work for you in the best way creatively possible.

“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” shows at the Phoenix Art Museum,
Phoenix, Arizona, through May 13, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEWS. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Benesh reviewed the astonishing Iris van Herpen show at the Phoenix Art Museum this March, during a stay in the city to attend the Heard Museum Indian Fair. Both museums have fascinating and probing permanent collections as well as temporary, such as the van Herpen show at PAM and the jewelry of Richard Chavez at the Heard.

Aileen Ribeiro Volume 40.2

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HABIT DE PEINTRE by Jean Lepautre, Jean Berain, Jacques Lepautre, French, of handcolored engraving on paper, circa 1682. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914 is the latest—and possibly last—book from fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro, author of seminal studies such as Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe; Dress and Morality; Fashion in the French Revolution; Ingres in Fashion; The Art of Dress; Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England; and Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art.

      Published by Yale University Press, ambitious in size and scope, clocking in at five hundred seventy-two pages, Clothing Art unleashes the full range of Ribeiro’s powers as an interpreter of art and dress, offering new insights into her areas of established expertise as well as deep dives into new scholarly territory, such as the Dutch Golden Age, the Venetian Carnival and fin-de-siècle Japonism.

The book’s broad temporal and geographical reach allows Ribeiro to make illuminating connections that would be impossible in a more focused study, as she draws parallels between the Black Prince and the Romantic dandy, between Jacques-Louis David and Arthur Lasenby Liberty. It also makes room for hundreds of sumptuous images, including many that will be new to even seasoned students of fashion history. 

Ribeiro pays close attention to items of clothing stashed in the backgrounds and margins of these artworks, which are often overlooked or considered to be mere props. She gets inside the minds of artists, examining how they coped with the physical distortions caused by corsets and crinolines. William Hogarth, the eighteenth-century artist who figures prominently in the book, wrote in his book Analysis of Beauty that dress “is so copious a Topick, it would afford sufficient matter for a Large Volume of itself.” Clothing Art proves his point. 

MARCHESA BRIGIDA SPINOLA DORIA by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, of oil on canvas, 1606. Samuel H. Kress Collection. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

      The rise of fashion history as a discipline began with artists, who sought to give their historical paintings authenticity, often by using period garments as props or recreating them in their studios. Ribeiro points to the intense thought and debate artists have historically devoted to fashion, and the ways it has informed their work. Society painters like Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Alfred Stevens—often dismissed as “etoffistes”—were sensitive to not just the surfaces but the social nuances of clothing. The Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte designed clothes that embodied their artistic philosophies; painter Mary Cassatt wore Paquin. For twentieth-century artists, fashion functioned as both signifier and scourge of “modernity.”

Bridging the still-wide gap between art historians and fashion historians, Ribeiro admonishes fashion historians to “never lose sight of the fact that works of art are works of art first and not just repositories of fashion references,” encouraging an art historical approach rather than indiscriminate cherry-picking of images. “As for art historians,” she adds, “who are sometimes too prone to think that, since we all wear clothes, they can easily understand them in art and interpret them accordingly, it has to be said that clothes in the past are nothing like the ones of today and cannot relate to them in any meaningful way.” But she cautions both groups that “every visual and textual description in the end relates to real clothes”—many examples of which are illustrated and analyzed in the text.

Ribeiro retired from her post as Professor of History of Dress at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in 2009, but continues to be in demand as an author, speaker and consultant. She recently worked on an exhibition of portraits from the late 1880s to 1945 that coincided with London Fashion Week in September. She spoke with Ornament about her new book, the culmination of her long career of scholarship.

THE EMPRESS EUGÉNIE by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, German, of oil on canvas, 1854. Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow Gift. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      How has the field of dress history changed since you published your first book, Visual History of Costume: Eighteenth Century, in 1983?

There are two answers to this. The first is that the academic standards of much (not all) writing on clothing have tightened up, partly due to the impact of theory which, when used with perception and knowledge of the history of dress, makes for a more nuanced discussion on the subject. The downside of this is when writers on dress, particularly those working on twentieth and twenty-first century fashion, use theory without understanding, resulting in misleading and garbled work. 

The second is that periods before the twentieth century are no longer studied to the extent they should be, which limits the possibilities of historic clothing as an essential element of discourse in the humanities.

How has its relationship with art history changed? Have art historians fully embraced the importance of fashion history, and have fashion historians risen to the challenge of becoming art historians?

The abandonment of the earlier periods in the study of the history of dress has led to art historians entering the field, realizing the importance of dress and textiles to their work. 

I’m pleased that this is so, especially when they have knowledge of the subjects they write on—or feel free to ask relevant specialists for help—but sometimes this isn’t the case and errors, along with unscholarly work, are the result. On the other hand, when it comes to dress historians, they often seem frightened of art historical sources, unsure of how to make use of them in their work. Only when the history of dress is taught more widely—and more professionally—in art history departments at the university level might the situation be improved to the benefit of both sides.

HOMME DE QUALITE EN HABIT D’ÊPÉE by Nicolas Arnoult, French, of handcolored engraving on paper, 1683-1688. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

      Can you describe your research process? 

The research process begins with an idea, a concept, which requires quite a lot of work before a synopsis can be written. This doesn’t always mean I strictly follow the synopsis; thoughts and ideas change as part of the research process. But it provides a kind of template. Then comes a great deal of research into texts and images, the latter especially so with regard to Clothing Art. I like to collect all the information before writing as I need to see the book as a whole, as a unit.

Did you know this book was going to be five-hundred-plus pages when you began writing it? 

No, I didn’t. But about halfway through writing the book, I realized that I’d been over-ambitious in the scale of my project and thus needed many more words, and lots more images.  My wonderful editor Gillian Malpass [to whom the book is dedicated] agreed to an extended volume but was slightly taken aback at the length when I handed it in! As ever, she took it in her stride and produced a beautiful book, for which I’m most grateful.

In the book you discuss the “emotional aspects of clothes.” How does one research that elusive subject?

With difficulty! It’s still a somewhat nebulous notion in my mind, partly to do with the emotional charge of a great painting; Alfred Stevens referred to painting as “nature seen through the prism of an emotion.” To the historian of dress, things are important as ideas are, and surely emotions can reside in clothes and accessories. Lionel Trilling put it well when he talked of the “strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire.” I’ve been thinking about the Five Senses recently—the subject for my keynote paper at the most recent Costume Society conference—and posit a sixth sense when looking at art, which might encompass ideas of love, understanding, memory, and so on. 

 

SELF-PORTRAIT by Judith Leyster, Dutch, of oil on canvas, circa 1630. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

 

      You studied under the late Stella Mary Newton, the pioneering dress historian who founded the graduate program in History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute, and eventually replaced her when she retired. How did she shape your approach to the subject? 

What seems so obvious now—that artists depict the clothes they see around them and that paintings can be dated by the clothing depicted in them—was Stella’s great and innovative contribution to the history of dress. This wasn’t surprising, as she had been married to an artist and art critic and spent many years at the National Gallery in London analyzing dress in art, identifying the clothing and textiles, and suggesting dates to undated works of art. To me, having studied history as my undergraduate degree with a focus on political events, it was a revelation to look at painting, to be totally immersed in it and how clothing made up such an important aspect of it. This approach inspired me to examine dress in art, what relations there were between truth and imagination, what meanings clothes might have, and so on.

MADEMOISELLE SICOT by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, of oil on canvas, 1865. Chester Dale Collection. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

      What was it like stepping into her shoes at the Courtauld?

As one might expect, it was somewhat intimidating. Although I was determined to follow her approach linking art and dress, I wanted to follow my own way, and to create my own style of writing. For this reason, I never asked myself: “What would Stella do?” Although I thought it was important for students to know about the history of dress from classical antiquity onwards, I was never enthused by medieval or Renaissance clothing, which was Stella’s forte, and I positively refused to teach the study of regional or folk costume.

In this wide-ranging study, were you consciously trying not to repeat yourself? There are significant investigations into periods and subjects not covered in your previous books. Are these new areas of interest or long-term projects that haven’t appeared in print before?

I didn’t want to write a survey of the history of dress—too old-fashioned an idea. So the answer was a general introduction, a chapter on portraiture and then a series of case studies in periods with which I was familiar—the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—and to write considerably larger chapters on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the last fifteen or so years, I have been involved in a number of exhibitions of nineteenth-century art—most recently Renoir at the Phillips Collection in Washington—and this has become a source of great interest and pleasure.

Do you have a favorite period or artist?

Tastes change. A few years ago, if you’d asked me this question, I would have said the eighteenth century, and possibly Jean-Etienne Liotard, not just his sumptuous portraits but the wonderful Levant paintings. And I still love Goya very much. But my favorite period now is the second half of the nineteenth century; it contains many of my favorite artists such as Manet, Whistler, Vuillard, and Lavery. In terms of a favorite period in fashion, I think I would go for the 1870s, which seems to me elegant and graceful, not too extreme like the crinolined 1860s or the harsh lines of the 1880s, with the square bustle.

PENELOPE by Charles-François Marchal, French, of oil on canvas, circa 1868. Gift of Mrs. Adolf Obrig. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      You caution that “it is through familiarity with surviving historical garments that we begin to understand what the artist aims to do in depicting clothes in his or her work.” Obviously, this becomes difficult with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from which relatively few garments survive. Even from later periods, surviving garments may be inaccessible to researchers for a variety of reasons. Do you have any advice for scholars on how to get around those obstacles?

Of course, the historian of dress needs to examine extant clothing where this is possible or desirable, but in periods before the late sixteenth century there are few surviving garments. Even in later periods, clothing in museums is often limited to garments worn by the elite, high fashion, ceremonial robes, and so on. The only advice I can give (and it may sound rather odd) is for the scholar to learn about the physicality of clothing by learning how to sew—not necessarily dressmaking skills, but an ability to note how clothing is constructed and to see how clothes work on the body. While extant clothes are limited in number, far more early textiles survive in museum collections, and a study of these, allied to contemporary documents such as inventories, and close examination of works of art, should help the scholar in getting to grips with early dress itself as well as working out “what the artist aims to do in depicting clothes” and how.

You point out that art historians often misapply labels like “showy” and “brazen” to dress in Victorian art, because it’s showy in comparison to what we wear today, while subtle class clues—like a top hat instead of a bowler—may be lost on modern viewers. How do we, as students and viewers of historic clothing in art, avoid projecting our own prejudices?

As creatures of our time, we cannot totally avoid projecting our prejudices; after all, critics and artists in the past did this, too. What we can do in mitigation is to familiarize ourselves with the social behavior—manners, etiquette, class, status, cultural assumptions—of the periods in which the artists we are working on lived. A knowledge of history is crucial in providing the background to any work of art.

ARRANGEMENT IN FLESH COLOUR AND BLACK: PORTRAIT OF THEODORE DURET by James McNeill Whistler, of oil on canvas, 1883. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      Why begin the book in 1600 and end in 1914?

Clothing Art does include references to images of dress before 1600 and after 1914, but I decided to concentrate on the Early Modern period, a vast span of years in itself! From the seventeenth century, artists seemed to be engaged in a greater variety of ways to depict clothes, including a growing sense of how dress could depict the past. From the late eighteenth century, I sense artists thinking at a deeper level than before about the ideas behind clothing, a process intensified throughout the nineteenth century. Why 1914? This isn’t easy to answer; a case could have been made for continuing up to the outbreak of the Second World War, and possibly to the mid-twentieth century. I think I felt 1914 was a symbolic date, the beginning of the “war to end all wars,” after which a very different society emerged, and radically new forms of art were on the horizon.

Artists have historically concluded that dress could be “artistic” but not “art.” Do you agree? In the book, you conclude that “art and clothing can be seen as indissolubly linked and yet at the same time separate entities, and this is how we should appreciate them.”

I certainly stand by my statement here. I’m not yet convinced that fashion—being so intimately linked to the body—can be art. But of course jewelry is art, or can be, and there may be a case for thinking that a suit of Renaissance armor—which, after all, is metal clothing—is art. It did cost more than, say, a portrait by Titian of the man who wore the armor. 

Do you consider yourself an art historian or a dress historian, or both? 

Both. The work I do, whether writing or lecturing, relies on being both. When I began my career, I thought of myself as a dress historian, but gradually I came to wear two caps, one as a dress historian, the other as an art historian. I suppose I’ve become more attracted to art than extant clothing, although I can appreciate the skill of a dress by Worth or Poiret, and there’s a frisson when I see garments with a historical resonance such as Lord Byron’s famous Albanian costume, which I discuss in Clothing Art, and was lucky enough to examine.

LA PROMENADE by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, of oil on canvas, 1870. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

 

SUGGESTED READING
Ribeiro, Aileen
. Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.
—. Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.
—. Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
—. Dress and Morality. London and New York: Berg, 2003.
—. Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress and Appearance in Ingres’s Images of Women. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
—. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750-1820. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
—. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988.
—. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715-1789. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1985.
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. For this issue, she interviewed her former mentor, Aileen Ribeiro, who recently retired as Professor of History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London. Chrisman-Campbell’s probing questions delved into the tensions inherent between fields, issues of academic research and the boundaries between art and fashion.

Beads: A Universe of Meaning Volume 40.2

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875.  Private collection. Photographs   by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway),   courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted.  GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940.  Private collection.  MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE   by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875. Private collection. Photographs by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway), courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted. GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940. Private collection. MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

"Beads: A Universe of Meaning,” currently on exhibit at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, explores the diversity of Native American beadwork traditions practiced throughout the United States. Almost since their introduction to the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, glass beads have been used by Native artists to convey ideas about tribal, community and personal identity; wealth and status; beauty and spirituality; as well as about popular culture, resistance and relationships. Featuring more than seventy pieces dating from circa 1800 to the present, the exhibition presents beadwork as a fundamental medium of artistic, cultural and personal expression.

BAG DEPICTING A WHITE-TAILED DEER by Sandra Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), 2011. Private collection. 

      The first piece encountered in the gallery is an early nineteenth-century man’s outfit, consisting of a painted  hide shirt and leggings embroidered with porcupine quills and beads. The leggings resemble those worn by Perishka-Ruhpa in Karl Bodmer’s portrait, Moennitarri Warrior, In the Costume of the Dog Danse, painted in about 1840. The quillwork strips that line the shoulders of the shirt and the outer edges of the leggings are trimmed with the type of large blue beads that early traders and explorers first brought into Native communities after about 1670, with the opening of the North American fur trade. In exchange for beaver pelts, which were highly valued in Europe as a material for felted fur hats, French entrepreneurs provided their Native American trading partners a variety of European-made items. Metal tools and cookware, cloth, ribbon, and thimbles were welcomed and readily incorporated into Native life. But glass trade beads, whose lustrous colors evoked natural materials—crystal, shell, copper, and stone—that already held profound cultural and spiritual meaning, resonated in a way that other goods did not. Beads fit easily into existing ideas about ornamentation and design, and they required no preparation. As they became available, women increasingly combined them with traditional embroidery materials, such as bird or porcupine quills, to decorate clothing, bags, cradleboards, and dwellings, thus enhancing their families’ material and spiritual standing within their communities. They also brought honor to themselves: a woman’s artistic contributions in the form of beadwork and quillwork demonstrated her virtue, and was valued to the degree that women’s craft societies were equal in status to men’s military societies. Women who showed artistic promise were subjected to rigorous tests of skill, accompanied by extensive ceremonial initiation, feasting and recognition that involved the entire community.

MÉTIS CREE COAT, 76.2 x 71.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Although the cut of this coat suggests that it was made during the late nineteenth century, it is possible that the beadwork is earlier and has been repurposed from another garment. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

      A significant portion of the exhibition is devoted to beadwork traditions of the Pacific Northwest. By the early nineteenth century, Native trade networks had carried European and Chinese glass beads to indigenous people living in the Columbia River Plateau—the area comprising interior Oregon, Washington and western Idaho. The first migrant trains carrying Euro-American settlers began to arrive during the 1830s, after a wagon trail had been cleared from Independence, Missouri, to Fort Hall, Idaho. By the 1850s newcomers flooded into the territory, converting open land into farms and towns and compromising sites where Plateau women customarily gathered basketry materials and edible plants. After 1855 Plateau people were increasingly confined to reservations, and the annual cycle of foraging and hunting became more difficult to maintain. As women spent less time gathering, processing and preparing basketry fibers and traditional foods, they turned their attention to beadwork, developing a unique tradition that, then as now, encouraged innovative and individualistic design. Floral patterns, inspired by imagery on commercially printed cotton cloth, transfer-ware ceramics and other products traded from or seen in the possession of white newcomers, began to appear by the 1870s. Horses were the subjects of the first pictorial designs, reflecting local equestrian traditions that date to the 1700s. These were followed by depictions of other animals, birds, fish, and people. During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog. 

VEST by Plateau artist, 50.8 x 40.6 centimeters, circa 1900. The beads have been sewn onto commercial cotton fabric. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

 

 

In 1910 a group of Oregon businessmen organized the Pendleton Round-Up—a celebration of the town’s frontier heritage that featured horse racing and riding competitions. Modeled after popular entertainments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the success of the event depended upon the participation of Native American performers and demonstrators, who attended annually. In 1916 at the age of fifty-three, Nez Perce rodeo rider Jackson Sundown won the “all around” bronc riding competition, beating men half his age and securing his place as a legend of the sport. His victory roused tremendous enthusiasm among Plateau people. 

As other rodeos and round-ups followed, they not only became opportunities for Native people to gather and compete for prizes, they also inspired lavish displays of beaded clothing, accessories and horse gear. A horse collar beaded with bright orange flowers, made by Irene Onepennee during the 1950s, and a circa 1930 flat bag with the image of a bronc rider emblazoned against a bright blue sky, attest to the importance of these events and to Sundown’s continued popularity.

The mounting of an exhibition such as this one, in which the qualities of the featured pieces include fragility, weight and a range of ages and techniques, presents challenges that require a high level of skill and craftsmanship on the part of museum technicians, as well as on that of the artists. This is especially true in an institution the size of the Wheelwright, where staffing is limited and budget is always a challenge. For most installations (including this one), we rely on the expertise of a team of contractors: exhibitions designer Louis Emmanuel Gauci of Knoxville, Tennessee; lighting designer Todd Elmer of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and preparator Jack Townes of Estacada, Oregon. For this exhibition, Jack was assisted by artist and volunteer Cathy Short (Citizen Potowatomi) of Santa Fe.

 

WOMAN’S BEADED YOKE by Plateau artist, 132.1 x 101.6 centimeters, circa 1950. Detail shows the lovely beaded flowers enhancing the yoke. Private Collection. Photographs by Ornament.

      Normally the Wheelwright’s fifteen-hundred-square-foot changing exhibitions gallery is gutted and redesigned for each new project. For “Beads,” time and budget prevented us from building new casework from scratch, and we were challenged to adapt both storyline and object placement to a pre-existing design. We decided to place the shirt and leggings in a tall, narrow case at the entrance to the exhibition because they represent the beginning of our story. Their age and condition meant that they could not be displayed on a mannequin; instead they required the full support of a padded slantboard.

Using cotton fabric and polyester batting, Jack and Cathy designed padded inserts for each part of the outfit. Powerful magnets encased in tyvek pouches hold the shirt and leggings, with their inserts, on to a slanted panel of medium-density fiberboard upholstered with batting and polyester fleece. The result is that the outfit is fully, but invisibly, supported. Magnets are similarly used to mount bags, pouches, beaded cuffs, and other pieces throughout the exhibition. They safely bear the weight of fragile objects, and spare the expense of creating individual armatures for each piece.

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During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog.

      In an effort to emphasize that beadwork is a living (and thriving) tradition, the exhibition avoids a strict chronology, and frequently juxtaposes nineteenth-century pieces with contemporary work. A Sandra Okuma bag depicting a white-tailed deer shares a case with a nineteenth-century pouch bearing an image of a Federal eagle. Jaime Okuma’s beaded and ribbon-appliquéd coat is placed opposite a heavily beaded Plateau dress of blue wool trade cloth. A large case at the back of the gallery, devoted to beadwork made especially for children, holds a pair of circa 1870 Columbia River Plateau cradleboards with lavish floral designs, Jamie Okuma’s contemporary Baby on Board cradleboard, and Teri Greeves’s and Dennis Esquibel’s collaborative Ahday Chair. Modeled on the design of a Kiowa cradle, the chair is designed as a small throne for an ahday child. In Kiowa tradition, this favored child receives all of the best that a family can give—insurance that should the worst happen, one family member might survive. Greeves writes, “Though this practice may seem unfair to the other children within the family, I believe it has a very serious function in relationship to the fragility of life both in the past and the present. The ahday is the child that might have a greater chance of living, of surviving the brutality of genocide. The ahday becomes the beauty of life, a being to make beautiful things for, a being of hope in all that is beautiful in Kiowa life.”

KEN WILLIAMS POWWOW REGALIA, consisting of headdress, choker, vest, collar, tie, belt, shirt, breechcloth, leggings, beaded mirror bag, and Eagle tail fan that were provided by Williams’s many friends. Williams is Northern Arapaho and Seneca. Photograph by Ornament.

      To illustrate the importance of beadwork as a signifier of contemporary Native identity, the exhibition includes clothing and accessories currently in use by Wheelwright staff and associates. Arapaho/Seneca artist Ken Williams is a renowned beadworker, and also the manager of the Wheelwright’s museum store, the Case Trading Post. Ken’s knowledge of beadwork traditions and his expertise as a collector informed much of the exhibition, but museum protocol prevented us from including his work in the show. However Ken’s personal regalia—the outfit he wears for powwows and other events—is an assemblage of work by many other artists, acquired mostly as gifts from family members and friends. Ken generously agreed to lend it for the exhibition. 

While it is possible for museums to acquire specially designed mannequins made of archival materials, the cost of these is prohibitive. Instead, the Wheelwright has assembled a collection of female forms, purchased primarily at local “going-out-of-business” and garage sales. We customize these for museum use by padding them with polyester batting and Ethafoam, an inert polyethylene foam used extensively in exhibitions and to store museum objects safely.  To support Ken’s outfit we purchased an inexpensive, commercial male mannequin made of shiny white plastic. We expected to cover the mannequin with a neutral-colored knit material. But with limited choices at our local chain fabric store, and in consultation with Ken, we decided instead on a gold lamé jersey—a reference to Ken’s outgoing personality and his love of sparkling gold jewelry. Cathy Short set about creating a handstitched hood and gloves to cover plastic parts that would not be hidden by regalia.

The creation of the “Kennequin” (as it was dubbed by museum staff) was enjoyable for the exhibitions crew, but it also helped us to address ideas related to contemporary Native identity, and the continued importance of beadwork in Native American life and culture. One of the most striking components of Ken’s outfit is a feathered headdress that he received as a gift from Kiowa-Comanche elder, the late Jeri Ah-Be-Hill, Teri Greeves’s mother. When Ken received the antique Arapaho headdress it was in poor condition: the only salvageable parts were the feathers and a strip of beadwork. Ken removed these, cleaned them up, attached them to a new cap, and added decorative elements of his own—a treatment that both Greeves and Williams agree is an appropriate use of treasured antique materials. The spirit of the artist inhabits regalia, making it a living creation. Through renewal and reuse, it lives on.

REFERENCES
Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth Bliss Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Grafe, Steven L. The Origins of Floral-Design Beadwork in the Southern Columbia River Plateau. PhD Dissertation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999.
. Beaded Brilliance: Wearable Art from the Columbia River Plateau. Oklahoma City: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2006.
Penny, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1992.
 

“Beads: A Universe of Meaning” is on view at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian,
Santa Fe, New Mexico, through April 15, 2018.

 

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Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle is the Marcia Docter Curator of Native American Jewelry at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. As the curator of a small museum that originates all of the exhibitions it presents, she works with an exceptional team of designers, preparators, museum staff, and volunteers. Her current projects include exhibitions with printmaker Melanie Yazzie, and silversmith Norbert Peshlakai; as well as a catalog of the Jim and Lauris Phillips Collection of Native American Jewelry.

Veiled Meanings Volume 40.2

DETAIL OF GREAT DRESS (BERBERISCA OR AL-KISWA AL-KABIRA) of silk velvet, gilt-metal cords, braided ribbons, Fez, Morocco, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S OUTER CLOAK (ABAYA) of silk with gilt-metal thread, Baghdad, Iraq, later 1920s/early 1930s. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S ATTIRE of silk, silk velvet, cotton satin, and gilt-metal cord embroidery, Mashhad, Iran, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

DETAIL FROM COAT OF RABBI SALIMAN MENACHEM MANI of broadcloth and gilt-metal-thread couched embroidery, Hebron, Ottoman Palestine, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

Housed in Felix Warburg’s former Fifth Avenue mansion on New York City’s “Museum Mile,” The Jewish Museum is one of the world’s oldest museums dedicated to the presentation of art and Jewish culture. Founded in 1904, and featuring collections from the ancient to the contemporary, its current focus highlights apparel from the collection of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Over twenty countries and one hundred examples of Jewish costume from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries illuminate the diversity and complexity of Jewish identity and culture in “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.”

      Staged in a darkly lit room for protection of its textiles, the lighting serves as a successful aid to what turns out to be a fascinating and immersive ambiance. We understand that clothing serves to functionally cover our bodies (a form of shelter from our nakedness and to separate us from the natural world); but its cultural dimensions are far deeper and wider wherever it is worn, gaining ever more complicated meanings as it emerged from the mists of time. With Jewish migration historically worldwide, “Veiled Meanings” addresses this subject thematically in the exhibition’s four sections: Through the Veil; Interweaving Cultures; Exposing the Unseen; and Clothing that Remembers. Largely subsumed by non-Jewish cultures, it is not surprising that Jewish clothing was identical to, or a tweak of the dominant nationality, as well as having characteristics identifiably Jewish, such as badges, the color yellow, the Judenhut (the Jewish hat), and specific types of robes and face gear marking them as different from Christian and Muslim societies.

 

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      Female outdoor body wraps were the custom throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Through the Veil shows the degree that body wraps primarily masked female personal identity, shielding it from public scrutiny. As indicators of status or religion, one display of differentiation was the wearing of veils; in Baghdad, Iraq, Christian women did not cover their face, but Jewish women wore a fine-mesh black horsehair veil for more total concealment. 

Especially interesting is the amalgamation of cultural diffuseness brought about by migrations over time and place throughout the world. In the section Interweaving Cultures, there is seen a zesty embrace of contemporaneous internationalized fashions, motifs and materials in the making and wearing of dress. One delightful representative is an ensemble where the skirt was inspired by a ballet tutu. This shalita gained popularity and imitation after a European visit in 1873 by the Shah of Persia and his (favorite) wife.

As both a protection from evil and symbolic of fertility, a bride’s palms were painted with henna dye and reflected ongoing traditional beliefs. Sewn by her mother, the Henna Dress was made for Dakhla Rachel Mu’allem, who was married at eleven, and worn to the child’s henna ceremony prior to the marriage ceremony itself. The dress shows a mixture of cultural influences from the Ottoman coatdress worn by Muslim and Jewish women to the European-style gathered long skirt sewn to a long-sleeved top. Like this one with its decorative flourishes, many garments pointedly emphasized and amplified the breast area. Interestedly, and a curious conundrum, in a culture that was sexually restrictive and proscribed modesty as a critical indicator of the virtuous female, these dresses were not considered immodest. Today they might be considered a mixed message of what is a women’s traditional role in a culture experiencing worldly influences, vacillating between tradition and modernity.

WOMAN’S COAT (KALTACHAK) of brocaded silk, ikat-dyed silk and cotton lining, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, late nineteenth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

HENNA DRESS of silk satin, silk and lace ribbons and tinsel embroidery, Baghdad, Iraq, 1891. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. GROOM’S ATTIRE WITH AMULETIC SYMBOLS of indigo-dyed goat hair and brocade jacket and trousers with silk-floss embroidery, cotton shirt, artificial silk sash, Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

      Two stunning garments, a woman’s kaltachak from Uzbekistan of brocaded silk and ikat-dyed silk, and from Iraqi Kurdistan a groom’s attire decorated with diamond-shaped amuletic symbols, are breathtaking examples of craftsmanship at work. In Zakho, from where the groom’s outfit derives, Armenian weavers were renowned for the high quality of their patterned goat-hair fabrics. The woman’s coat is a superb example of the compelling presentation that ikat-dyed fabric makes; and the combination of brocade and silk is elegant and luxurious. This kaltachak likely reflects the political and social changes that were taking place in Bukhara following the Russian conquest and Jews were free to emigrate to Ottoman Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century some one hundred eighty Bukharan Jewish families had resettled in Jerusalem and it is surmised that this extraordinary coat is from one of these families.

The importance of family in Jewish life, ensuring its continuance and stability, is another feature of the exhibition with its examples of children’s clothing. Symbolic weddings of five-year-olds were held in Moroccan communities on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and was meant to strengthen the children’s connection to the Torah and its commandments. Imitating a real groom’s attire, the boy’s suit here is decorated with hamsas (hand symbols), a North African emblem to ward off evil.

“Veiled Meanings” shows the degree to which Jewish dress is akin to other periods of history in timeless, essential struggles between religion, tradition and modernity, East and West, freedom and equality. Yet the exhibition’s power is its ability to synthesize what is visually unique and specific to Jewish life, experience and culture, by how dress has not only been regulated by those cultures that controlled Jewish daily life but the “way of life” (orah hayyim) proscribed by Jewish law itself.

In a subtle and understated way, the exhibition invites questions about how we live with a sense of respect, tolerance and accommodation for those who make up this world. How do we live safely and well in a turbulent world with forces that we, ourselves, cannot control, yet still rise to the challenge of expanding the inherent possibilities of what it means to be human? Many questions are there for answering.

“Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,”
shows at the Jewish Museum, New York City, through March 18, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEW of Interweaving Cultures, Section Two of “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress,” at The Jewish Museum. Photograph by Jason Mandella, courtesy of The Jewish Museum, Jerusalem.

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Bonus Gallery

These photographs were taken at the Veiled Meanings exhibition in New York, November 2017.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. In the waning months of 2017, she made her annual trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, a much beloved annual stop, adding a visit to New York City for more work. After one delightful morning spent at the Neue Galerie’s Cafe Sabarsky with artist Reiko Ishiyama, Benesh went on to The Jewish Museum to review “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.”

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show Volume 40.1

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show 2017

THOMAS MANN

The craft world does not define itself through a particular medium but through the connection between the hand, the heart and the mind. For those in craft, it is vital to receive satisfaction from its pursuit and to appreciate, even revere, the materials, tools and techniques that give rise to finished work. The stimulus, the drive to create, is based on exploration of the unknown and what can be revealed from each singular search. A direct response to the desire for making life more meaningful, it is for an artist an anchor to the ever-surging flow of existence, perhaps most especially in troubling and chaotic times. The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, now in its forty-first year, is an important conduit where the best in craft is once more reaffirmed and validated by the uniquely talented artists who showcase their works. Here, the handmade in thirteen different media can be seen, appreciated and taken home to live again within one’s own personal experience.

      The craft categories—basketry, ceramics, emerging artist, fiber decorative, fiber wearable, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, and wood—are represented by almost two hundred experienced and talented American artists selected through a rigorous, annual jurying process based on originality, innovation and technical expertise in a medium. To support them is to encourage and promote the value and importance of art by hand as it is passed on, nourishing the planet with the limitless possibilities of human creativity, linking us over the millennia from generation to generation.

Long a major player in the contemporary jewelry movement, New Orleans-based Thomas Mann established his “Techno Romantic” branding in the 1970s as a means of both merging and diverging the material world with that of the human spirit. With a fondness for the found object, and the propinquity it can bring to jewelry, he was freed to improvise his constructions and to make compositions in unlikely and surprising juxtapositions. He eschews precious metals and gemstones, and his jewelry ingredients have been drawn from surplus stores and supply houses, from electronic instruments and costume jewelry parts, whatever might catch his eye. His preferred metals are aluminum, brass, copper, nickel, silver, and stainless steel; and he utilizes acrylic, fiberglass, micarta, and nylon, often carving them.

Mann’s jewelry has been influenced by his peers in the close community of fellow artisans, but is also inspired by other assemblists and collagists—Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Braque, whose visual similarities are redefined into personal adornment. There is a great deal of humor and irony to be found, but, make no mistake, pay close attention to Mann’s craftsmanship; it is the platform from which his idiosyncratic voice carries a very personal and wondrous message. His jewelry lacks the existential angst of some other metalsmiths and embraces the more positive aspects of being human, echoing a purity and naturalness that come to mind when we think of Adam and Eve before their and consequently our fall. His evocative tributes to our hearts and hands show a tenderness and belief in the ultimate power and goodness of the human spirit.

LISA BELSKY

      The malleability of ceramics, among its more notable characteristic to alter, change and modify, makes the medium an especially fascinating one to explore. Ceramist Lisa Belsky is on a personal quest to test clay to its fullest capabilities. Belsky, a Philadelphia transplant to Columbus, Ohio, received her MFA from Ohio State University and stayed to set down personal and professional roots. These roots have taken hold and grown under Belsky’s artistic hand, maturing in her distinctive, sculptural ceramic forms.

For Belsky working with clay is also intertwined with her appreciation of fiber, especially knitting and crocheting. The threads of these practices are tied to her love of family; and her emotional connection to them stems from her childhood, watching her female relatives knit and crochet, passing the craft from one to another, and then following in their footsteps herself. 

Her pieces begin as handknit or crocheted fabric that are then manipulated, shaped and dipped into porcelain slip; the firing process burns away the material leaving the ceramic. What remains are basket-like vessels, leaving an abstracted sense of its inspiration, yet singular, no longer connected to its former fibrous state. “I view this body of work,” she says, “as a metaphor for embracing change while preserving memories.” As with many artisans, the result is a success when it elicits a deeper appreciation for the handmade object and the internal motivation that brought it forth.

 

STEPHEN ZEH

 

      Stephen Zeh, from Temple, Maine, plies his craft from the subtle tones born of the brown ash tree, following the traditions of Maine Woodsmen, Shakers and Native Americans. His finely woven baskets are made for use, whether to carry apples from the fall season, eggs from the hen or storing yarn for wintertime knitting. The brown ash has to be carefully selected for the right grain and flexibility to start the process for the hand scraping, other methods and tool use that takes place. A drawknife, shaving horse, ax, froe, and hornbeam maul will shape and release the wood’s natural sheen that over the years will grow a lustrous patina lasting into the future. 

Zeh also makes sweetgrass trays that turn a blond straw color over time and perfume the air with its natural scent. Also part of the repertoire are tea, cracker, bread, muffin, Italian breadstick, and French bread baskets, each with their own unique shape. Working with his partner and wife jewelry designer Tamberlaine, Zeh also designs exquisite diminutive jewelry; pendants inspired by the oak acorn, vegetable and fruit basket shapes, handwoven in eighteen and twenty-two karat gold. Their delicate forms, discrete visually, are so beautifully executed that they catch and arrest the admiring eye.

MEG LITTLE

      Meg Little, from Newport, Rhode Island, says it is up to you: walk on her one-of-a-kind rugs or hang them on the wall as an art object. Little specializes in hand-tufting, a process of punching strands of wool with an electric tufting gun into a backing stretched on a frame that she works, from the rear, in an upright position so that she can reach across the canvas into its design more easily. Her extraordinary color palette, sophisticated and elegant, is based on an expressive amalgam of geometrical shapes: triangles, squares, lines, circles.

 Little is a proponent of more is more, mixing colors that can go up to twenty-five different combinations in the tufter. All the yarn is commercially spun and dyed for the carpet industry and she uses two and three ply wools made for carpets and rugs. She says hand-tufting is an industrial process and she follows its guidelines in making her work, but the design and embellishment is due to her own creative sensibility. 

Her passion for hand-tufted rugs dates from 1984 when she moved to Cornwall, England, after earning her Master’s Degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. During the six years she lived in Cornwall, she met Grace Eckhert, a tapestry weaver who was beginning to experiment with the process, and introduced Little to the medium. Life was never the same and the designing and production of hand-tufted rugs became Little’s craft. She succeeds in making something extraordinary from the ordinary—that of the art of walking on rugs.

New York City-based Mina Norton was originally trained as a painter in her native Iran and studied commercial textile design in England before moving to the United States. From a family of doctors and lawyers, Norton was expected to proceed into one of these professions, but she had other ideas and moved instead in the direction of the arts. It is here that she has received her fulfillment and satisfaction, earning, in over thirty years of dedication and hard work, a widely-appreciated reputation. Her coats and jackets accomplish the feat of being both dramatic and refined. With her exacting nature, Norton fashions garments that are carefully and precisely structured. In her studio, they are hand-loomed with high quality merino wool, dyed and felted by hand. Improvisation occupies an important position in her vision, and she trusts her instincts when she introduces touches of color against an understated palette of grays and black. 

MINA NORTON

      Refining and re-defining, the clothing reaches a level of rich minimalism, in addition to a classicism transcending this modern age, but also most certainly acknowledging it. Her work is an infusion of world cultures, Iran, to be sure, but also Africa and India. It is not only the design but the comfort and wearability of her apparel that are exceedingly important to the success of a piece. Norton is determined to ensure that her clients receive a lifetime of beauty and practicality.

In a career that has led from teaching art to creating her own clothing and accessories, Andrea Geer, from Rochester, New York, does what it takes to achieve consistent results within her creative control. But it is experimentation with texture, form, color, and movement that ultimately propels her love of the process; she says, “As I learn more about my craft, my ideas evolve. I am most interested in how fabric moves around the body and how architectural form can be created using yarn.”

A combination of informed skills and physical tools, some unusual to clothing, are the manifestations of her pushing the standard, recognized boundaries of designing knitted garments for the female form. The goal is to enhance the body and to imbue the fabric and its ultimate shape with a seeming spontaneity and playfulness. While some of her clothing is hand-loomed on vintage punch card knitting machines and sewing machines, she also uses paintbrushes, digital styluses and Photoshop. For Geer, it is all about finding what will best express an idea she is formulating. 

The visual impact is a strong element in Geer’s work and it presents a commanding, vibrant presence. She received both a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and a Master of Fine Arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Perhaps due to the influence of both degrees in graphic design and painting, her designs reside in a more abstracted yet highly structured realm. As an additional flourish, she handmakes her buttons and pin closures, further customizing her mostly one-of-a-kind clothing, with a bit of limited production.

ANDREA HANDY

      Do not ask furniture artisan Bradford Smith whether he works in familiar styles, like Shaker or Arts and Crafts, because he will tell you that in the over thirty years he has been designing, the driving force has been to develop his own voice and not to be “pigeonholed” by any traditional style, or contemporary variations for that matter. His comfort level is to be found in combining the old with the new, intertwining craftsmanship and practicality with aesthetic expression.

From Worcester, Pennsylvania, Smith was raised on a farm where he helped his family by fixing and building things on the land. After high school graduation, for four years he worked in area woodworking shops and in them learned the basics of woodworking. And, he says, a strong work ethic. He went off to the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen and graduated with a BFA in woodworking and furniture design. That same year, 1980, he started Bradford Woodworking with his wife Sandy, who also graduated from the school.

A special touch of Smith’s is his use of recycled and salvaged lumber and old farm equipment in his furnishings which encompass a full range of beds, benches, bookcases, cabinets, tables, stools, whatever will enhance the domestic environment in a distinctive way. He will use ax handles for chair legs, taking advantage of their S-curve and knobby foot. Pitchforks, he describes, “make ideal supports for chair backs and have some spring when you lean back.” With their generally farm-related themes, the pieces attract with an authentic rustic charm and warm presence.

 

BRADFORD SMITH

 

      Nick Leonoff’s glass works are luminescent and magical as they respond beautifully to light, a platform varying from opaque to translucent in a dazzling array of colors and gradations. In 2011 he established his glass studio in Brooklyn, New York. But a range of experiences have led him from his native California, where he was first introduced to the medium by apprenticing to renowned stained glass artist Alan Masaoka on the Monterey Peninsula, with whom his passion for glass began, to the east coast where he attended the Corning Museum of Glass and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. His fervor for glass began with Masaoka as mentor and deepened over the years as he has worked with other notable artists like Kait Rhoads, Greg Dietrich, Davide Salvadore, and Martin Janecky.

NICK LEONOFF

      Leonoff has been attracted to glassblowing since the day his first gather of glass emerged from the furnace and he experienced the breathtaking change of a molten form transition into a solid state. He specializes in Swedish overlay techniques to create layers of colored glass in the walls and on the surface of his glass forms. After annealing and cooling, he carves the pieces with diamond wheels to remove layers of glass, exposing colors within. This is where he designs and creates the patterns and textures that distinguish his work—the focus of his artistic concentration. 

Jeweler Tara Locklear finds her materials in the everyday, from concrete shards to skateboard fragments, reinforcing the particularly contemporary concept that jewelry can be made from anything, not just from the realm of precious metals and gemstones. A student of noted jeweler experimentalist Robert Ebendorf, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Metal Design from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and continues to reside in North Carolina, making Raleigh her hub. Not long ago, considered to be part of the category called Emerging Artist, Locklear has quickly established an active presence in the show, gallery and museum worlds. Her exhibition and workshop schedule, aside from the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, includes the American Craft Council shows, Smithsonian Craft2Wear, and galleries J. Cotter Gallery in Vail, Colorado, and the former Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco, as well as instructor at the Brooklyn Metal Works and Society of Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. Already in her relatively young career, Locklear is so well considered that her jewelry is now part of Racine Art Museum’s permanent collection.

 

TARA LOCKLEAR

 

      With a sharp visionary sense of the unusual, Locklear explores the nature of beauty beyond the primary purpose of her materials, refashioning them into unexpected statements. She peels away, for example, the personal, autobiographical references an old skateboard might have meant to its skater and uses its wood to make a necklace. The same is true of hand-plucked cement found on roadways, detritus to most, trod on by the unknown, innumerable passings of people and traffic, but translated into a ring and clever kind of jewel. These seemingly insignificant substances are not only cost effective for Locklear to refashion, but by specifically choosing them for her bold and imaginative jewelry, she still values their original intent and also raised them to a new level of definition and meaning.

Some passions begin early in life and Michael Shuler’s goes back to that of a six year old, when he discovered that wood held his curious attention. That youthful focus never wavered as he progressed through his teenage years, figuring out how something, like a family heirloom chair had been built, then exploring, learning, making. The Santa Cruz, California, artist has maintained his studio since 1973 and since that time earned a highly respected reputation in wood turning.

With his record for superb craftsmanship dating to the 1980s, his resume is fulsome, including, to name a few, excellence in wood awards from the Smithsonian Craft Show, American Craft Exposition, Washington Craft Show. His works are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the White House Collection of American Crafts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Arts and Design, and Yale University Art Gallery. This year marks Shuler’s sixth appearance as an exhibitor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.

Creating lathe-turned vessels have become his life’s work. His “segmented” vessels are exactingly cut from exotic hardwoods, like zebrawood, pink ivorywood, birdseye maple, gabon ebony. The result is an amazing patterning of colors and grain native to the wood itself, with perhaps up to five thousand segments of wood utilized in a large bowl and two thousand pieces in smaller ones. His second body of work, also drawn from nature’s bounty, “organicas”, is drawn from pinecones, Banksia protea, thistles, and artichokes. In both types of vessels he reveals an awe-inspiring beauty originating in the natural world; and, in the hands of this wood master, manifested by the power of imagination and infinite possibilities emanating from the human spirit.

 

MICHAEL SHULER

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the United States in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. As her travels take her throughout the United States, there are many places which are dear to her heart, one in particular being the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show that provides a venue for beautiful handmade art every November. Her delving into the work and philosophy of the craftspeople who exhibit is another testament to the creativity of the spirit.

Wayne Wichern Volume 40.1

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland,   and parisisal straw cartwheels ,  imported from China.

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland, and parisisal straw cartwheels, imported from China.

Wayne Wichern has a lot of heads. He does not know the exact number, but it is more than a thousand, he estimates, divided between three studios. The cozy tribe greeting visitors to his suburban Seattle studio is comprised of four to five hundred of the sleek wooden forms, all about the size of a human head and all suggesting anthropomorphic sculptures, as though Constantin Brancusi decided to carve a village of people, leaving the details of bodies and faces to your imagination.

WICHERN using the Singer cylinder arm sewing machine to sew a head-size ribbon into the hat. Photograph by Jason Wells.

      Wichern is a hatmaker and the heads are hat blocks, the essential building units of traditional hatmaking. To make classic shapes, such as fedoras, using couture quality hat materials, like wool felt or parisisal straw, you need hat blocks. Wichern has spent thirty-two years collecting the blocks and they have been his constant companions as he has built a career as an artisanal hatmaker. A former ballet dancer whose interest in costuming led him to hatmaking for theater before leaping into couture millinery, he is happy to report that today hats are very much in style.

“The interest in hats has grown,” says Wichern. “There have been very interesting and popular costume shows, like the big fashion shows at The Met. And then there was Downton Abbey and other TV shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where everyone wears hats. And there are the young royals,” he adds, referring to Queen Elizabeth’s grandsons and their photogenic wives, often photographed wearing eye-catching chapeaux. “I think one thing the young royals have done is to give young people permission to wear hats. It’s not just something that your grandmother did.” Hat shops carrying commercially manufactured hats are doing well, especially with young customers, Wichern notes, and the broader vogue for hats is reflected in his own business. “For the boutique milliner, working in a smaller, artisanal way, it’s never been better.” 

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      Wichern makes individual hats, by which he means handmade hats that are an elegant mix of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary attitude, often made for a specific customer. He makes such classic shapes as cloches, which are bell-shaped and suggest the 1920s or 1930s, and skimmers, which have crisp, flat-topped crowns and flat brims. He makes toques, turbans, fedoras, toppers, and hats whose large, outrageously swirling brims resemble crashing waves. He makes evening hats with names such as Wicked, Dahlia and Evening Rose. Any one of his black evening hats would transform the shyest wallflower into a femme fatale. Not long ago he created a skull-hugging black velvet cloche trimmed with fringes of dangling beadwork for a client with a taste for dramatic fashion. More beadwork rises like an opened fan at the front. Cleopatra could have worn such a headpiece to seduce any of her Roman paramours.

ANASTASIA of sage parisisal straw, dupioni silk, silk and velvet magnolia, and vintage silk veiling, 2010.

      Wichern makes hats on a speculative basis, hoping someone who drops by his Burlingame, California, studio will find one they like. He also holds trunk shows and participates in millinery and craft shows. Early in his career he made hats on a wholesale basis for small manufacturers, and he has made hats for millinery boutiques. But his favorite projects come from regular customers, some of whom commission him on a seasonal basis and for special events. “I have clients I just love. One is prone to bringing me bags of goodies. It could be a bit of fabric salvaged from the hem of a favorite dress. She wants to collaborate. It’s great. She presented me with a particular challenge when she brought me some beadwork that was white with a gold border, two pieces about eight inches each in length and triangular. They had been a neckpiece on something, and she wanted me to use them in a hat. She’s very much about telling me to do what I need to do. I thought and thought, couldn’t come up with anything, and was going to give the beaded pieces back. But then I started playing around with them, and sometimes something magical does happen.” The resulting chapeau is a cream wool felt cloche nearly hidden by the two beaded collars, which Wichern draped over the felt to make a turban shape. As a final touch he added a six-inch gold tassel from his vast trim collection. 

“My customers are people who have a sense of style,” Wichern says. “They are mature enough to know what to wear. People who buy my hats are people with experience. Most people who come to me are dedicated to hats, whether it’s for a special occasion or just to wear.” People who buy his hats are also women. The men’s hat market is entirely different, Wichern says, and would require different hat blocks and different types of felts. “When a man asks me if I would make a man’s hat, I usually tell him that if there’s something you really can’t buy commercially, maybe a bicorne, I’d be happy to work with you. But men’s hats are different, and you can’t be everything to everyone.” Wichern himself wears what he calls “low-key men’s shapes and berets,” none of which he makes.

Wichern creates hats the way professional milliners always have. He buys felt or straw basic hat shapes, called “cartwheels”, from commercial millinery suppliers, then molds them over hat blocks into an infinite number of sizes and styles. Because the brims and crowns of the blocks separate, he can create unique silhouettes by mixing and matching crowns and brims. The felt is wool or rabbit. The parisisal straw is from the sisal plant, and is the standard material for couture straw hats because it is finer than other straws and can be molded into more complicated shapes. 

WICHERN blocking a felt body over a wood hat block; the final task is using the compress tool to press the felt into the recess detail carved into the block.

      Making a hat is surprisingly physical. Millinery ateliers conjure images of artisans adjusting silk flowers on romantic, feminine styles. But hatmaking requires physical strength and an ability to work with high heat. To mold either felt or straw Wichern applies moisture to the material. For felt, he also needs the extreme heat produced by an industrial steamer. The moist hat forms then are tied down tautly with cord at the crown and the brim to create the basic silhouette. When Wichern demonstrates this he throws his shoulders, arms and hands into knotting the cord. Depending on the style, the hats also must be sculpted by hand, in the manner of a ceramist shaping a hunk of clay. If styles have areas that curve in and out on the crown, creating those shapes requires pressing removable parts of the block back into the felt, and tying or tacking that down as well. By happy coincidence, Wichern’s youth as a Wyoming farm boy followed by years of ballet training appear to have prepared him for the physical rigors of hatmaking.

When the hats are dry the next day, they are removed from the blocks, a process that can require a little wrestling. Wichern cuts excess straw or felt from the brim, finishes the brim edge on one of his several sewing machines, and sews a sizing ribbon into the inside crown. He then trims the hat, which could mean anything from sewing silk flowers to the brim to creating leaves and feathers out of salvaged bits of trimmed felt or straw. He saves every scrap of excess material to be repurposed into trim. He also collects beads, feathers, braid, ribbons, scraps of luxe fabric, silk flowers, bits of costume jewelry, and just about anything that might someday be useful as trim. In his Seattle studio he has turned a small bathroom into his trim room, and even the shower stall is stuffed floor to ceiling with plastic storage boxes filled with trims—an Ali Baba’s cave of adornments.

Wichern has always been motivated by aesthetics and artistry. After high school in Cody, Wyoming, he moved to Seattle to study floral design at a community college known for horticultural programs. His degree landed him a job at a floral shop in Bellingham, north of Seattle, where he worked happily for several years. “Then I discovered dance in about ‘78 or ‘79. Movies like The Turning Point and Chorus Line really made an impression on me, and though I was old to be taking up dance, I enrolled in ballet school in Bellingham. After a while my teacher told me I should move to New York to keep studying, so I did. Eventually I was in some regional companies. At those companies I would put in extra time in the costume shop. I had great hands, thanks to my work at the floral shop, and I enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the extreme aesthetic of ballet comes through in my millinery; the attention to line and gesture that goes into hatmaking is related to ballet.”  

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      By 1985 the life of a professional dancer with its constant travel had lost its allure, and he moved back to Seattle, where he made hats for professional theater companies and worked in visual merchandising for what was then Seattle’s most prestigious department store. He found studio space and decided to learn all he could about couture millinery. He began taking classes from John Eaton, a milliner who had been one of Seattle’s most successful hatmakers in the mid-twentieth century, a time when no well-dressed man or woman attended a formal event without a hat. “John was retired by then and was giving classes casually in his basement. Then, at the point where he could no longer teach, he suggested I buy his stuff, so I did, and dragged it all over to my studio.” Eaton’s blocks were the beginning of Wichern’s collection, though he has added many hundreds since then via eBay and other internet sales sites. “Blocks have a way of finding me. People will be cleaning out grandma’s attic and find a few, and they find me on eBay. Over the years I’ve also purchased hundreds at a time when hat factories close or go offshore. I’ve sold off a lot, since I end up with duplicates.” His oldest blocks are from the 1930s, though many are newer. They have all become more precious as hat block production in the United States has nearly vanished. Most hat blocks today are manufactured in England or Australia.  

 

WICHERN Studio and classroom in Burlingame, California, Museum Studios, Peninsula Museum of Art.

 

      When his husband’s career took the couple from Seattle to the Bay Area in 2001, Wichern found a studio near San Francisco Airport. The location is ideal for the frequent workshops he teaches, which attract students from around the country. He also teaches at a shared studio he maintains in metropolitan Seattle, and at craft schools, including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. “I enjoy teaching, and I think it’s partly because I didn’t have an official academic base myself when I started out. And teaching always helps me learn.” He notes that there are very few full-time programs in the U.S. where students can learn couture millinery, so he likes the idea that his teaching passes on the legacy of millinery craftsmanship. He also tries to give his students tips about the business side of boutique millinery. “When students ask me about pricing, it’s always a little awkward, but I understand the question. You can go with time and material, but that doesn’t always work. I tell them I’ve created a range of work for a range of prices. When people duck into my Burlingame studio and ask how much my hats are, I always smile and say they are one hundred twenty-five to four hundred eighty-five dollars, but that I can certainly make a more expensive hat if they like. That usually breaks the ice and if they like hats, they come in.”

LOREDANA SWIRL STRAW of raspberry parisisal straw, silk and rayon brocade fabric, 2006.

      For now Wichern’s career is at full throttle. But he is in his sixties, and looking ahead to what might eventually become of his block collection and his antique tools, such as his very old Willcox & Gibbs machine for sewing hemp straw braid into spirals for certain types of straw hats. His hats are included in the collections at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and in the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

“I’ve worked long and hard to create something. I rounded up the equipment, created an artisanal market, been successful, and enjoyed it all these years. I don’t want it go poof someday and be gone.” And because he is always surrounded by his old friends the hat blocks, he finds himself thinking of their future. “I often find inspiration from the blocks. I just love them, even though I haven’t had the occasion to use all of them. But it is time to start thinking about where they will all go. Maybe they can go to several people, or a museum. The legacy doesn’t have to be personal, but I do want it to be about the craft.”

 

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Robin Updike is an independent, Seattle-based writer. She has been following Wayne Wichern’s remarkable career as a custom hatmaker for more than twenty years. In those days she covered fashion and style for The Seattle Times and Wichern was part of a robust artisanal Seattle hatmaking community. “I remember Wayne as one of the highlights of a show of independent fashion being held in a cavernous former railroad station in front of a very large crowd. Theatrically dressed and wearing some of his own more dramatic hats, he kept the show entertained by swiftly fitting hats onto the models as they stalked down the runway. He has always had great flair.”

Native Fashion Now Volume 40.1

DRESS, HEADPIECE AND CAPE by Orlando Dugi (Diné) of paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and twenty-four karat gold; porcupine quills and feathers; feathers, beads and silver, Desert Heat Collection, 2012. Model: Louisa Belian. Photograph by Thosh Collins.

Inset:
THE MESSENGER (THE OWL) CAPE AND HEADPIECE by Margaret Roach Wheeler of silk/wool yarn, metal, silver, glass beads, and peacock feathers, Mohatan Collection, 2014. Photograph by Greg Hall.
 

Fashion exists along an interesting spectrum—that of building personal and public identity. It is the overarching narrative, the sizzling, morphing cinematic of the mind’s eye that is constantly reinventing itself. While fashion as a concept exists universally, the institution’s birthplace, and the subsequent structure that was created from those beginnings, could fairly be ascribed to Paris. As such, fashion has been a European-dominated organism for most of its modern existence.

      As a sculptor of identity, then, it is perhaps most apropos that a people who have struggled with retaining and defining their identity have become the most recent insurgents within what has for the last century been a Western cultural enterprise. Represented in the exhibition “Native Fashion Now”, originating at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and ending this September at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian, the work of sixty-seven Native American artists and designers reassesses the topic of fashion, and introduces exciting possibilities towards where it is traveling.

The exhibition is better viewed through the lens of perspective and context to achieve maximum impact. Fashion is ravenous, devouring and subsuming participants in a high stakes competition for fame, recognition and income. But the greatest fashion designers have always been subversives—Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake shared a mindset that flouted rules and sensibility to change how the game was played. In doing so, they shifted the boundaries of the masculine and feminine.

What modern Native fashion designers are doing, then, is more clear within this setting. Seen not as minor titillations in a leviathan oeuvre, but as poking holes and proffering jests that subtly undermine the status quo, these designers are introducing a radical concept, bringing the legitimacy of non-European aesthetics into the world of fashion. The exhibit, in covering a diverse range of work, examined the many directions from which this change can emanate. Take, for example, the striking ensemble Desert Heat by Orlando Dugi (Diné).

In this dress, Dugi has carefully aligned the shock value of most contemporary fashion with a cultural aesthetic grounded in his own tradition. Desert Heat’s long, shimmering dress, dyed shibori-style with ardent crimsons, blotches of black and coronas of orange, is topped with a mantle of feathers, draped over the wearer’s shoulders and locked around the throat with a beadwork collar. A headdress of porcupine quills and feathers surmounts the whole like a wild woman’s crown. All of these elements contain traces of Dugi’s native world, and to those in the know it is hard not to see his outfit for what it is—a ferociously graceful costume that transforms its wearer into a bird of prey. Paying homage to the dancer’s ensembles of Native American tribal rituals, it also respects the animals of the earth. Indeed, although not indigenous to North America, Dugi’s piece resembles the snake-slaying secretary bird of Africa.

POSTMODERN BOA of stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, and feathers, by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné), 2009. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin. Photograph by David Gaussoin; courtesy of Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

      While Western contemporary fashion appears to be a monolithic construct of fashion labels and major design firms, contributors to it have differing ideas of what fashion actually is. From those who consider themselves artists rather than fashion designers, to those who see no distinction between the two, and finally people who firmly see themselves as couturiers, the term, like art itself, is subject to interpretation. Native artists Wayne Nez and David Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné) work in a variety of media, and their contribution to the exhibition is Postmodern Boa, a serpentine rising spiral of enameled steel festooned with feathers.

As an item of adornment both sleek and slinky, coquettishly hiding its wearer yet revealing glimpses through dark crimson, Postmodern Boa evokes an aura of pomp and mystique. Yet despite its allure, the origins of this crafted object are deeper. The community-focused nature of Native culture was what brought about its creation. The Gaussoin brothers had been collaborating for a series of fashion show fundraisers, with the aim of raising money for a nonprofit that enabled Native American youth to attend the Santa Fe Opera. “These early fashion shows took place in a night club. I think that idea of opera and night club together kind of explains that piece,” Wayne Nez recalls.

These hidden roots, which despite being unknown to the outside observer exist regardless, are an integral aspect of Native fashion. The undercurrents of family, tradition and community are present in many of the works displayed in the exhibition. Niio Perkins’s (Akwesasne Mohawk) pièce-de-résistance, a blue cotton and velvet dress with cuffs, collar and belt decorated with intricate beadwork, in the traditional Woodlands Indian style, is demure, understated and attractive. Its modest demeanor, in comparison to more contemporary styles, belies the lush embellishment of vines, flowers and leaves, vivid against a stark black background. Two white birds resembling doves, accented with small pearls, meet in the middle of her waistband, their green beaks almost touching. It is a symbol of both beauty and peace.

EMMA ENSEMBLE by Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) of cotton, velvet, glass beads, and metal pins, 2010. Photograph by Ornament.

      All made by hand, Perkins’s ensemble could not have manifested without the influence and inspiration of her mother, Elizabeth. Perkins’s development as an artisan is strongly connected to the artistic environment of both family and tribal culture. “I learned to bead as a child in the lap of my mother,” she recollects. “She is a phenomenal seamstress and designer of traditional clothing in her own right. I was a needy baby; she had to hold me as she used the sewing machine. When I started to get in the way, she gave me a bowl of beads and taught me a few techniques to occupy my little hands. I grew up among families who beaded to supplement their income. It has always felt like a natural thing to do.”

A jacket embellished by Thomas Haukass (Sicangu Lakota) for his friend Kenneth Williams Jr. (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) is a statement on the importance of connections and relationships for Native Americans. While the cream-colored linen blazer is European in design and origin, it has been transformed into a canvas for ledger designs, an open book, as it were, that takes a quintessential Native expression of preserving identity in the face of assimilation and oppression. Each warrior on the jacket is a hero, a doer of mighty deeds and a collector of titles. The term “counting coup”, after the Native warrior tradition of striking an opponent with a coupstick, speaks to the recognition, and recollection, of courage. For Haukass, this garment was his way of honoring the accomplishments of his fellow artist.

Sometimes the roots of something mighty come from a single seed. Louis Gong is of the Nooksack tribe, who share the Northwest Coast of Washington with other Coast Salish peoples. He is also French, Scot and Chinese, and this unique mix has led to exploring his own identity through art.

The prelude to this story came from junior high. Sometimes what we lack can give rise to passionate desire later in life, and so it was with Gong. “I grew up poor, so in seventh and eighth grade, when everyone was wearing Vans, I wanted to own some but couldn’t afford them,” he explains. “Fast forward twenty years, I saw a coworker wearing a pair of Vans, and it brought back that sense of wanting to buy one.” Gong went to the store to search through rows of shoes, but nothing he found seemed to represent him, and who he was. He bought a blank, white pair, brought them home, and took a sharpie to the sneakers with gusto. As his hand put ink to canvas, formline designs grew and flourished until Gong was left with an elaborately decorated piece of footwear that spoke to his unusual and complex heritage.

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      These sneakers would be the seed for Gong’s business, Eighth Generation, a vehicle for empowering Native artists. A farseeing philosophy guides his vision for the company. Seven generations is an intertribal concept for making decisions, a framework of sorts that says every action should be considered for its impact on the next seven generations. The name Eighth Generation imparts Gong’s personal touch, relating both to his Cantonese background, where the number ‘8’ phonetically sounds like the word prosperity, and his gesture of respect to the preceding generations that laid the foundation for where he stands today. 

Giving back to the community, both national and local, is natural for him. “I’ve heard it referred to as a culture tax,” he says. This understanding, that we are part of the fabric of a creative world, is shared by most Native artists, and is perhaps the greatest disjunct from the world of contemporary fashion, where famous names and big labels, with commercialized products that have unknown makers, stands today. The real scoop is not only how Native artists will change the outward aesthetics of the fashion industry but its processes as well. In that, “Native Fashion Now” is a portent of things to come.

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. Earlier in the year he made the trip to New York, where he visited the National Museum of the American Indian, a peaceful space for insightful exhibitions on Native art. There he had the chance to see “Native Fashion Now”, an enterprising and innovative show organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. That viewing laid the foundation for an exploration into Native art as it relates to contemporary fashion. Speaking with Native artists, he was amazed at the stories that lay underneath the surface of each piece. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.