Photo from Seattle Asian Art Museum website.
Photo from the Seattle Asian Art Museum website.

Cloth is raised from the dye vat; oxygen interacts with the indigo and the magical transformation begins. Gradually, before our eyes, the color mutates from a soft yellow-green to varying intensities of blue. But the magic is not just in this wondrous moment, it is in the long, labor-intensive process that starts as a seed, and in the battles over its possession throughout history. All around the world many cultures used this dye to show off their position in society, to protect themselves spiritually and physically and to identify themselves. Seattle Asian Art Museum’s new exhibition Mood Indigo: Textiles From Around the World (on display through October 9, 2016) reveals the many creative forms to which this dye was applied.

Walking into the exhibition we are first enveloped by the indigo-dyed work of Rowland Ricketts, an American contemporary textile artist steeped in the Japanese tradition of indigo, showing the many shades of blue and the structure echoing the grain silos of his mid-west home. Surrounded by the dried plants themselves (Persicaria tinctoria), we have a visual sense of where the process begins. It is hard to imagine the lengthy, skillful and stinking journey involved in turning these leaves into a dye used to color court robes and blue jeans. (A video in the next gallery reveals this process.)  Accompanying the visual installation is the techno-environmental music of Norbert Herbert, creating a moodiness of sound: of falling seeds, crumpling leaves, dripping dye, flowing water and synthesizing of data taken during the composting process.  Sensors activated by visitors meld these sounds into a variety of combinations.

The story of indigo is the story of a world history of trade, commerce, colonialism, slavery, war, peasant labor, taxation, industrialization, get-rich-quick schemes and valued spiritual practices.  A variety of plants growing naturally in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate areas of the world contain the key chemical substance processed by a number of cultures to create a color-fast blue–the color of sky and sea.  These skilled techniques were kept secret as long as possible, fooling rivals into thinking the blue came from a mineral stone! But as plants became an important crop on plantations in the Caribbean, South Carolina and Louisiana, fortunes were made and agricultural labor oppressed until chemists synthesized the dye in the late 19th century.  Finally, coming full circle, the popularity of blue jeans rescued natural indigo dye production because of the coveted variable qualities of this special blue.

Continuing through four galleries visitors are treated to an array of items dyed with indigo from bedding and wall hangings to ceremonial and workday clothing. Excellent labelling will satisfy the curiosity of inquiring minds.  Curator Pam McClusky and her team (Ping Foong, Chiyo Ishikawa, Xiaojin Wu, Barbara Brotherton and Lisa Mothersbaugh) take us through the symbolism and sacred lives of many cultures—from playful rabbits to profound religious garments. Awesome wearables, including robes, shawls and kimono, plus cloths and bedding feature a plethora of weaving and surface design techniques including many types of resist dyeing and stitching. Three exquisite 17th C. Belgium tapestries, that the museum has had professionally cleaned, take pride of place in the second gallery and represent a European world view which is, to say the least, strange to us.  

Textiles from East, Southeast and South Asia, Africa, and the Americas illustrate the close connection to their cultures and the high degree of skill and simple technology needed to produce these items of beauty and utility.  In the third gallery there are two figures which engage the viewer in the active use of these textiles. One is the Japanese fireman with his quilted hood, coat, trousers, and gloves ready to be wetted down to battle a fire. Standing opposite is an African ceremonial figure with mask and gown created from cloth, feathers, quills, mirrors, herbs, shells and cat skin to take part in an initiation ceremony to detect and expose witchcraft.

The final gallery displays some of SAAM’s fine collection of diverse kimono emphasizing the skill of dyers to make clothing for working people, the theater and the leisure class.  Many stories are contained in these garments and in the wide variety of special cloths found throughout the exhibition. Put on your blue jeans and travel the world of BLUE!  

‘Mood Indigo’ remains on view through October 9, 2016 at Seattle Asian Art Museum. Located in Volunteer Park at 1400 E. Prospect St. For more info, call (206) 654-3100.

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