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Object of the Week: Sarong (kain kapala)

When I first saw this Javanese sarong on display, its indigo dye was its commonality with other works on view in the 2016 Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibition, Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World. The label for this particular textile was striking: “step into a sarong and you enter via a network of symbols that support your place in a cosmic sacred landscape.” 

Every label for Mood Indigo, written by Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art,was beautifully informative and poetic, but this sarong was more than a costume or uniform: It promised to be fully transportive—beyond Earth—while recalling living things on our planet, with its plants and depiction of night and day. It is replete with delicate flowers on the trim, intricately veined flora against a dotted night sky, and a lighter sky contoured with broad diagonal lines, with butterflies and birds with trailing tails.

Batik—the Indonesian textile-based process in which designs are applied with wax to cloth that is then dyed—is a celebrated Javanese cultural tradition practiced on a national scale. In its early history, however, batik designs were tightly regulated as a court art, with certain designs reserved for reigning Javanese families to wear, signifying and legitimizing their power within a kingdom. To describe batik as only an aesthetic demonstration of the wearer’s authority, however, falls short of its greater ambitions as a means of contributing to the balance of the cosmos. 

Very generally speaking, in the context of the universe within ancient Javanese culture, bringing society to align with the harmony and balance of the cosmos also meant centering the aristocratic family, from which order and prosperity would follow. The practice of wearing certain batik designs differed between courts and regions, but certain symbols would be consistent, such as winged, long-tailed birds, indicative of royalty in reference to the prominent Hindu deity Vishnu, or his son, Skandi-Karkitteya. Patterns of plant life with animals, which were also part of the categories reserved for royalty, referred to fertility and the growth promised by Javanese sovereignty. The design might be dictated depending on the type of clothing (sarong were usually worn around the waist, and in full ensembles, with an accessory such as a type of knife known as a kris), and would complete a ritual ensemble aimed to place the wearer in greater cosmic alignment. 

These traditions far preceded this 19th-century sarong. The early symbolism of batik design, and its regulation, was highly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, and was worn for a wide variety of ceremonies and more mundane purposes as well. By the time of the production of this particular sarong, Java would have already been colonized by Dutch and British rule, interrupting certain categories of batik design, though the original meaning of specific symbols would persist. 

Given the centuries-long endurance of batik to its present-day status as emblematic of Indonesian culture (in Java in particular), its practice and lexicon of patterns are protected, and its practice widely encouraged. In 2009, batik was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity from Indonesia. 

Though it was not part of the original intention for this garment to be worn by just anyone, the transcendental state of being that was extended to the wearer asserts their place on a micro- and macro-cosmic scale: as participating in Javanese culture and sustaining Javanese traditions, as well as as their particular station in the broader context of the universe, as a point from which harmony and growth for a whole kingdom can emanate, wherever they go. 

Hannah Hirano, SAM Coordinator for Museum Services and Conservation

1 Robert Wessing, “Wearing the Cosmos: Symbolism in Batik Design,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2, no. 3 (1986): pp. 40-82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40860214
2 “Decision of the INTERGOVERNMENTAL COMMITTEE: 4.Com 13.44,” 2009, https://ich.unesco.org/en/decisions/4.COM/13.44
Image: Sarong (kain kapala), 19th century, Javanese, Cotton, factory plain weave; wax resist (batik); natural/synthetic indigo dye
87 x 42 1/2 in. Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 37.35.

SAM Creates: Bleu de Travail (working blues)

Get in the mood for Summer at SAM open studio sessions with this short video by artist and videographer, Rachael Lang featuring a hand-dyed Isvald Indigo dress and the whimsical evening sky of Seattle.

Every Saturday in July you can learn to dye fabrics with Izzie Klingels at the Olympic Sculpture Park. These interactive open studio hours explore traditional methods of indigo dyeing using natural, organic indigo to create a communal installation celebrating indigo and indigo workers.

“It’s such a multi-dimensional dye, with luminance and depth that you don’t find with other dyes,” Izzie Klingels told City Arts Magazine in a 2015 article on her hand-dyed clothing line, Isvald Indigo. Using repurposed clothing typically sourced from thrift stores, Klingels clothing line is the most recent of her many endeavors which have included illustration, video, branding, and nail art to name a few.

“My style is loose and experimental,” she says. “You stitch or tie a design and you don’t really know how it will look exactly until you untie it.” Be prepared to bring a sense of experimentation to the Sculpture Park as you create pieces for the installation. Inspired by Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World on view at the Asian Art Museum through October 9, we’re sharing the unique abilities of blue to evoke moods by offering a way to become intimate with the process of dyeing using indigo.

Indigo-bearing plants have had a huge impact on our visual world. Once artists discovered plants containing the gift of blue, an infatuation with indigo began. Nothing compares with this dye’s ability to capture the blues of nature—a midnight sky, early dawn, or an impression of the sea. It can also define a mood—of melancholy, of mystery in the dark hues, or joy and vitality in lighter variations. Show us your true colors beginning Saturday July 9, 11 am.

Object of the Week: Basinjom mask and gown

In one gallery of the Mood Indigo show at the Asian Art Museum—and you’ll know it when you find it—Basinjom presides. He’s an intimidating presence, often stopping folks right in their tracks. My wife insisted she couldn’t look too long at him, or else she would have nightmares.

Basinjom mask and gown

Here in the U.S. most of us have no problem understanding that a name is significant. Baby name books and websites and blogs are an expansive directory, allowing parents to match a name that means something with a vision for their child. Basinjom, literally meaning “God’s Medicine,” carries a purposeful name. He is not just a mask or costume, but a healing masquerade, appearing in Ejagham civilizations in Nigeria and Cameroon, where he acts as a powerful restorative force in his community. He has a spiritual aura that gives clear reason for the first part of his name, but the second part is more esoteric. It’s hard to conceive of him as a “medicine.”

Basinjom mask and gown

SAM curator Pam McClusky explains that “Medicine, in Ejagham terms, is a knowledge of plants and herbs that God provided to fight witches and criminals. Medicine can be manifested in the form of a mask or be located in a container or even a person.”1 When Basinjom is called upon, he acts as detective, judge, and healing agent. He points out the root of witchcraft, which is the seed of discord and ruin in the community, and then banishes it.

Like any medicine, Basinjom is made of many essential ingredients:

  • A knife (isome), an iron instrument whose blade has been perforated with eyes to enable Basinjom to see the place of the witches.
  • A rattle made of wicker to hear the sound that evil makes.
  • Blue feathers of a very strong “war bird,” or touraco, that cannot easily be shot by a gun.
  • Porcupine quills, which prevent intrusion from strong elements, even thunder and lightning.
  • Eyes that act as mirrors to see into other worlds, especially at night.
  • A snout like the mouth of the crocodile, which can speak for the people about controversial things. Eggs are broken over this snout to feed Basinjom.
  • Inside the mouth, a piece of the King Stick, the most powerful tree in the forest, used to protect bodies.
  • On the back of the head, many herbs that have been collected and pounded together with liquids to serve as a medicinal protection. On top, a mirror enables Basinjom to “see behind,” and a small upright peg with an amulet serves as a bodyguard.
  • Deep black and blue cloth, a color that will “not hold death,” because in darkness no human or witch can perceive you.
  • Raffia used for hair and a hem as an element from the forest, a dangerous realm that weak men should avoid.
  • A genet cat skin, invoking the spirit of an animal familiar who snatches fowls and shields Basinjom from harm. Next to Basinjom, eyes of the owl, alluding to enhanced vision in the deep forest and the bird’s long, strange legs.2

Basinjom is unforgettable. There’s a great chance to engage with him tonight at the Art Globally: Indigo Allure event, where there will be plenty of people around to make sure he’s on his best behavior and no nightmares are had!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Basinjom mask and gown, Ejagham, Nigeria and Cameroon, collected 1972, cotton cloth, wood, feathers, porcupine quills, mirrors, herbs, raffia, cowrie shells, rattle, eggshell, knife, genet cat skin, indigo dye, height: 85 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1977, Photo: Stephanie Fink. Basinjom mask and gown (detail), Photo: Natali Wiseman. Basinjom performs in Cameroon, 1973.
1 Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, p. 218.
2 Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, p. 220.

Rowland Ricketts: The Extended Interview

In our February-May 2016 issue of SAM Magazine, our member-only publication, we featured an interview with indigo textile artist Rowland Ricketts in anticipation of our upcoming exhibition Mood Indigo: Textiles From Around the World. Our space was limited in print, so we’re featuring the whole interview here on the SAM Blog.

Setting the Mood

The upcoming exhibition heading to the Asian Art Museum, Mood Indigo, honors the unique ability of the color blue to create many moods in cloth. Drawn primarily from the Seattle Art Museum’s global textile collection, Mood Indigo illuminates the historic scope of this vibrant pigment. The exhibition features a set of tapestries from Belgium, a silk court robe from China, a vast array of kimonos from Japan, batiks and ikats from Indonesia and Africa, and ancient fragments from Peru and Egypt. An immersive contemporary installation devoted to indigo by Rowland Ricketts will be accompanied by a soundtrack by sound artist Nobert Herber that unveils the musical nuances indigo can suggest. From the sultry darkness of midnight to the vitality of a bright sky, come let the myriad blues in their multiple forms surround you.

Fields of Indigo by Rowland Ricketts

Rowland Ricketts’s Historical Processes For Creating Contemporary Textiles

Artist Rowland Ricketts adapts historical processes to create contemporary textiles. He came to indigo by way of a two-year apprenticeship in 1996. Today, Ricketts works with his wife and fellow artist, Chinami, as they handle indigo in all the stages of its inception: growing, processing, vatting, and dyeing. Read on to learn about this artist’s journey with indigo, from seed to cloth.

SAM: Hi Rowland! Thanks for speaking with us.

Rowland Ricketts: No problem!

SAM: What would you say your work is about at the heart? What are the central themes inherent in it?

Ricketts: On some level, it’s awe and wonder. That is a huge, meta-interest for me. Indigo is imbued with mystery. It’s an enigma of sorts in that it is a dye found throughout the world, and a dye found in synthetic forms. People have been drawn to it for millennia, working with it for millennia, and the end of the day, the color is immaterial, a wavelength of light. There are myriad connections indigo, from history, to plants and the environment, to art, time, etc. We (indigo makers) create these connections and at the end of the day, we’re making something immaterial. Part of the human condition is the drive to create beauty, and yet it is so immaterial. It’s all part of the bigger picture. On a smaller scale, planting, harvesting, and dye-making are all central to what I do.

Installation by Rowland Ricketts, Sound by Norbert Herber Museum of Fine Arts Boston August 28, 2015 - January 8, 2016. Dried indigo plants, indigo dyed hemp, interactive sound.

SAM: What inspired you to work with indigo? When did you start?

Ricketts: In 1996 I did a two-year apprenticeship in Japan, and spent one year working with a farmer and one with a dyer making indigo out of composted leaves. What inspired me was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I did photography, taught high school, and was developing black and white photos. I stopped eventually, pre-digital photography. I thought that there’s got to be more ways to create. I met people who were very conscious of their environment, very direct with it. I met them folks who dyed indigo, and worked with them on plants. They first told me about indigo and said to visit the Folk Art Museum in Osaka. When I went, there happened to be an indigo dyer exhibit up. I just started gardening and thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” It brought together my interests: working in a sustainable way with the environment, gardening, and farming.

SAM: Tell us about the work that you’ll have on view as a part of Mood Indigo.

Ricketts: The installation was a part of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Crafted: Objects in Flux, which was on view through January 10, 2016) and it will be reconfigured to fit the space. It’s coming SAM’s way next. It’s called “Mobile Sections.” For it, I collaborated with a sound artist, Norbert Herber, for an audio component. It’s made up of a large, indigo-dyed textile, 11½ ft. tall by 30 ft. circumference, dried indigo plants, and possibly a video projection. The inspiration for it was drawn from the process: field recordings of the harvesting, planting, drying, and positions of sound. It is playing with materiality and immateriality and it’s a thing that’s so much bigger in person.

SAM: For those of us who have yet to dye things with indigo, can you walk us through your indigo-making process?

Ricketts: Sure. There are four main steps:

STEP 1: GROWING
I plants seeds in late March, and transplant seedlings in early May and tend them, then harvest them in early July by cutting at the base to allow the leaves to dry.

Growing Indigo

STEP 2: PROCESSING

In the fall, these dry indigo leaves are put in a special shed, mixed with water, and composted for one hundred days to make the traditional Japanese indigo dye-stuff known as sukumo.

Processing Indigo

STEP 3: VATTING

By January, a concentrated compost with dye is left behind.

Vatting Indigo

STEP 4: DYEING

To dye cloth, I take the composed leaves, add wood ash lye, and mix them. Indigo bacteria removes oxygen to make the dyeing possible. The dye lasts from four months to a year, and the leaves used to make the dye are returned to the fields to nurture the next planting. With this process, the only thing taken from the leaves is the dye.

Dyeing Indigo

SAM: Okay, last question: What do you think people should know about indigo?

Ricketts: One connection people should definitely make: that the color they’re seeing comes from plants. I grew up in suburban America, and was driven by cars. I only became interested in plants after living abroad. People have been making indigo for millennia! I hope that after they leave the installation visitors think about what the color is, where it came from, and how it got there.

Mood Indigo will be on view at the Asian Art Museum April 9–October 9, 2016. Don’t miss it!

Images: Photos: Rowland Ricketts.