The Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition, Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth is a stunning visual experience. The museum’s large fourth floor galleries are filled with colorful, gorgeously patterned textiles: quilts, hangings and garments from all over the world. But take the time to immerse yourself in the individual artworks and they will reveal their stories: how, why and by whom they were made.
We live in a world of fast fashion. Our clothes come to us ready-made from a store or website. We know even less about our clothes than our food. Are the materials in your shirt or your shoes from an animal, a plant, or a chemical factory? From what country? Two hundred years ago, clothes were made at home by family members, usually women, who sewed garments, wove fabric, even raised animals or cultivated plants and spun thread from the fibers they yielded. Today, petroleum-based synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, acrylic) make up about 60 percent of our clothing, manufactured on other continents, often by people working long hours under unhealthy conditions for subsistence wages.
“This exhibition comes out of my own frustration that textiles are undervalued as an art form that we use every day, on our bodies, in our homes, everywhere,” says Pamela McClusky, SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic art. The majority of the cloth in this exhibition is of natural fibers: silk, wool, cotton and linen, colored with plant-based dyes and woven by hand. Sourced from five continents, dating from the 17th century to the present, all were created using a technique known as ikat. One of the oldest and most labor-intensive of cloth-making processes, ikat begins with the painstaking dyeing of each thread. Thread is measured out for a whole piece of cloth, bound off in tiny bundles, and dyed in a process similar to tie-dyeing of fabric. The colored threads must then be carefully aligned on the loom to maintain the pattern during weaving. Colors shift slightly from thread to thread, giving ikat designs their soft cloud-like edges.
“Ikat embodies a commitment to slow and meaningful creation,” says McClusky. The skill and creative expression that go into these pieces make each a work of art, a precious cultural artifact. Their designs are imbued with the meanings, history, and symbols of their country or even their village of origin.
Futonji, traditional Japanese bedding, are large cotton-filled rectangles used as both mattress and duvet. The examples in the show are deep indigo blue decorated with plants and animals that are symbolic in Japanese culture: bamboo means prosperity and purity; tigers are courageous and ferocious; tortoises are wise and long-lived. All designed to calm, comfort, and protect the sleeper.
An Agbada is an outfit for a Yoruba chief. Bands of ikat weaving are embroidered over with Islamic knot designs. Unlike the clothes of their European colonizers, in which cloth is cut down to fit the wearer, Agbada are assembled from whole pieces of cloth. The chief fills his banner-like garment, visually increasing his stature.
Thanks to the historic trade route known as the Silk Road, ikat proliferated from the Pacific to Europe. This show includes fabrics from a dozen Asian countries. Kingdoms, villages, and tribes cultivated their own styles and uses of ikat. Techniques and designs migrated across shifting borders in a maze that fascinates textile scholars. Indonesia, a nation comprised of some 17,000 islands exemplifies this diversity. An entire gallery is filled with Indonesian ikats, from everyday cotton sarongs to precious, ornately patterned silks reserved for rituals: a shawl to protect a pregnant mother or a mourning widow, a shroud to honor a deceased parent.
Entering the exhibition, the viewer is immersed in ikat. Textile artists Rowland and Chinami Ricketts have created an environment of over a thousand bundles of indigo-dyed cotton yarn, a giant ikat spanning the length of the gallery from floor to ceiling. That feeling of immersion continues through the show. Most of the works hang freely above platforms of wooden slats that keep viewers at a safe distance without glass barriers. Many pieces can be viewed from the front and back. Delicate silks move with the air.
A gallery adjoining the exhibition holds a dozen ikat fabrics created in the 21st century by artists in Indonesia. Each is accompanied by a detailed description of how it was made and the story of its creator. These works were acquired from Threads of Life, an organization working to sustain weaving as a living tradition in Indonesia. Three video documentaries on the work and artists of Threads of Life run continuously. Videos within the exhibition illustrate the creation of the Ricketts’ installation and the ikat technique as practiced today in Japan, Uzbekistan, and Cambodia. Together, they offer an appreciation of the skill and commitment required to make this beautiful cloth.
Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth is on view at the downtown Seattle Art Museum through May 29. Information at 206 654 3100 or SeattleArtMuseum.org