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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.

Object of the Week: Story Scroll

Red is often associated with strong emotion, and not only anger, despite the name of a common red dye source: madder root.

A mid-18th century painting of Ganesh on cloth, from a village in Telangana, in the eastern Deccan plateau of India, is striking in part for its red background and red-bodied Ganesh. Painted with black outlines, with areas of yellow ochre, indigo, and white, it is enlivened with black and red dots. As Lord of Beginnings, this Ganesh was the initial image in a long vertical scroll of painted scenes, unrolled one section at a time in performances for a regional weaver community. The scroll, of which this is a section, would have originally been 30 to 50 feet long and depicted their origins from the celestial weaver Sage Bhavana. This ancestor fought off a giant demon weaver, and then created colors for the community’s use from its dead body—a scene depicted in the final image of the scroll also in SAM’s collection.  

The red of this painting may be from madder root—a dye from three species of the madder plant family that grows in areas of each continent. The few remaining painters of this Telangana tradition now use a ready-made ground red stone, but say that vegetable dyes were used previously.

At the time of this painting (ca. 1843), three red insect dyes were also available in India: lac from Southeast Asia, kermes (carmine) from an Asian beetle, and cochineal imported from the Americas. The insect pigments could produce deep reds, but kermes and cochineal faded quickly. These expensive reds required an enormous quantity of insects, as well. Madder was more available and inexpensive, more lightfast, and could produce many shades of red. A warm orange-red is perhaps the most common, with pinks and purples also possible. Madder root contains so many colors—five different reds, blues, yellow, and brown—that its dye produces a complexity not possible with synthetic dyes. It did, however, require special knowledge to make the dye and adjust the process for different shades.

Of the five red dye components in madder root, alizarin is primary, and was not created synthetically until 1869—long after several synthetic blues, greens, and yellows. Madder root eventually fell out of cultivation, and since then has been used in artisanal dyeing.

The process for creating the strong lightfast red developed in India (using a few unpleasant and smelly substances) was one of the most complex dyeing processes ever. A version known to Ottoman court painters was kept secret for several centuries.

To learn more about the history of dyes, pigments, and color in Asian art, the Gardner Center Saturday University series, Color in Asian Art: Material and Meaning, begins on October 3 with a talk by Jennifer Stager on the subject of a red pigment of the ancient world, titled “Dragon’s Blood or the Blood of Dragons.”

Sarah Loudon, Director, Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas

Da Fonseca, Anais. “Replication and Innovation in the Folk Narratives of Telangana.” ScholarlyCommons, 2019.
Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House, 2002.
Pavani, N. and D. Ratna Kumari. “History of Telangana Cheriyal Paintings.” International Journal of Home Science 2019: 5(2): 461-64.
Image: Section of a story scroll of sage Bhavana (Bhavana Rishi Mahatmyan Patam), ca. 1843, Indian, opaque watercolor on cloth, 58 x 34 1/4 in., Gift of Leo S. Figiel, M.D., Detroit, Michigan, 76.41

Object of the Week: Oiling

Faig Ahmed is a textile artist and sculptor based in Baku, Azerbaijan, who uses both traditional and modern carpet-making techniques to create something unexpected. His work, Oiling (2012), begins as a traditional wool-knotted Azerbaijani carpet, but then transforms and spills into a fluid, modern form as the pattern and weaving technique are altered.

Carpets have always occupied a place of interest for Ahmed. As a child, he entertained himself by rearranging motifs he found in the carpet on the floor of his grandmother’s home. Unable to keep his ideas contained solely to his imagination, he cut out symbols from the carpet and moved them into new positions. His interest in the potential of traditional carpets to carry and transmit new stories stayed with him into his professional artistic practice.[1]

For Ahmed, the carpet is a “cultural code, or DNA, incorporating a language of universal signs that has been carried across generations and cultures through the immemorial migration and intermingling of peoples, in this case along the Silk Road trade routes.”[2] Traditionally, in Azerbaijan, women were expected to weave a carpet before their marriage as part of their dowry. Today, those traditions and craft knowledge are no longer common, but there are still local weavers who continue to weave by hand. Ahmed works in collaboration with these women, based in the village of Bulbule not far from his studio in Baku. These weavers use the same hand-weaving techniques to create cut pile wool carpets that have been used in the area for hundreds of years. Ahmed explained in an interview that working with these women to realize his designs means he is constantly learning. “They teach me the meaning of symbols, but they are always trying to bring me back to tradition!”[3]

The title of the work in SAM’s collection, Oiling, might have a dual meaning referring both to the oozing shape in which the carpet’s design descends, and to the artist’s country’s relationship with oil. Azerbaijan has been connected to oil for hundreds of years. Medieval travelers to the region remarked on its abundant oil supply. In 1846, Azerbaijan drilled its first oil well in Bibi-Heybat—more than a decade before oil was discovered in the United States. By the 19th century, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world’s oil supply.[4]

In the words of the artist:

“The value of the Carpet for art is the fact that this object included layers of millennial stories that could be instantly translated into modern language. Through my work I am asking, where are the boundaries of craft and art? And carpet itself creates questions on cultural boundaries. As an artist, I was looking for a modern language of art to talk about the future, but I found an ancient one and started talking about the present. And in the present, there is no value more important than life itself.”[5]

– Faig Ahmed

Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Jessica Hemmings, “Faig Ahmed,” Surface Design Journal, Spring 2015: 38-43.
[2] Cathryn Drake, “Faig Ahmed at Yarat,” [exhibition review] Artforum (February 2017), https://www.artforum.com/inprint/issue=201702&id=66123, accessed September 2, 2020.
[3] Hemmings, Ibid.
[4] Mir Yusif Mir-Babayev, “Azerbaijan’s Oil History: A Chronology Leading up to the Soviet Era,” Azerbaijan International 10.2 (Summer 2002): 34-40, https://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai102_folder/102_articles/102_oil_chronology.html, accessed September 2, 2020.
[5] Interview with Maria Rosaria Roseo: “The Carpet as a Cultural Metaphor: Interview with Faig Ahmed,” Artemorbida Textile Arts, https://www.artemorbida.com/il-tappeto-come-metafora-culturale-intervista-con-faig-ahmed/?lang=en, accessed September 7, 2020.
Image: Oiling, 2012, Faig Ahmed, hand-knotted wool, 59 × 39 1/2 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 2013.13 © Faig Ahmed

Object of the Week: Needlework Sampler

“What does it actually truly mean to be educated? And what would it mean to decolonize the idea of being educated?” – Chris Jordan

Every artwork has a story. For our Object of the Week Tacoma-based artist Chris Jordan shares Charlotte Turner’s story and asks us to question what education looks like in the face of the violent history of the slave trade. Consider this and more when you visit SAM’s collection and see Needlework Sampler in person. Want to hear more from local artists and creative community members? Check out our My Favorite Things playlist on YouTube for more perspectives on SAM’s collections.

Memorializing Trans Lives in Project 42 at SAM

At the center of Project 42: Molly Vaughan stands an elaborate dress with a 25-foot-long train hanging down from the ceiling. Created for the 2017 Betty Bowen Award winner installation at SAM, it is one of artist Molly Vaughan’s most ambitious pieces in the series that will eventually include 42 garments memorializing murdered trans individuals.

Seattle-based artist Molly Vaughan made this particular garment in collaboration with Lesley Dill in memory of Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza. Created using a vintage victorian form for a bustle, the train is covered in a reorganized poem by Emily Dickinson. Lesley Dill selected “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments” and stenciled it by hand as she rearranged the text and broke stanzas.

“Lesley was an inspiration to me and to Project 42,” says Molly Vaughan. “As a docent at the the Orlando Museum of Art I toured a dress of Lesley’s and it left a big impact on me. As a printer, it’s my job to replicate the hand of the artist who intentionally hand-stenciled the text, rather than digitally reproducing it.” Look closely and you’ll see the pen strokes of Lesley Dill’s process. What you won’t see when you visit, is the embroidery on the interior of the garment that Molly has created just for Lorena that is meant to convey her inner life and extravagance.

Lesley Dill says that she works with Emily Dickinson’s text often because “Dickinson’s writing is the door I walked through to become an artist.” After reciting a stanza of this specific poem over the phone she continues to explain: “It’s a gothic poem and speaks of a poetic persona whose identity is haunted and exhilarated. A large part of the entire Project 42 is about the vivacity of life and bandages of the soul. I feel that Lorena and the project are deserving of intensity and multiple layers of meaning.”

Formatted on the train of the garment in the gallery the poem is difficult to read so we’re sharing it here for you.

The Soul Has Bandaged Moments

The Soul has Bandaged moments –
When too appalled to stir –
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her –
 
Salute her, with long fingers –
Caress her freezing hair –
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover – hovered – o’er –
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme – so – fair –
 
The soul has moments of escape –
When bursting all the doors –
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings opon the Hours,
 
As do the Bee – delirious borne –
Long Dungeoned from his Rose –
Touch Liberty – then know no more –
But Noon, and Paradise
 
The Soul’s retaken moments –
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the song,
 
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue –
 
– Emily Dickinson1
 
 
A large part of Molly’s collaborative process involves asking her collaborators to research the individual being memorialized. The process left Lesley Dill reflecting that “Lorena Xtravaganza was trying to find and name her true self in a world that had no room for this search. Her murder is a catastrophe of culture. Molly is giving us a chance to memorialize individuals who wanted to simply exist inside of their nature. When our culture murders trans people, I feel our belief in human goodness is wounded. With Molly’s work we are given new faith, we are reinvesting in faith.”
 

Find your faith renewed in humanity with a visit to Project 42. If you are looking for another reason to come, the garment created for Lorena Escalera Xtravaganza includes an interactive element where visitors are invited to tie fabric flowers to the train. Visit often if you hope to catch one of the unannounced performances that will take place in the galleries.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

1 Emily Dickinson, “[The soul has bandaged moments]” from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Copyright © 1998 by Emily Dickinson.  Reprinted by permission of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Images: Installation view of Project 42: Molly Vaughan at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering)

In Korea, gifts and food dishes might come wrapped in decorative cloths called pojagi. This tradition shows respect for the receiver of the gift as well as for the gift itself—and I wish my gift-wrapping game were this good!

SAM’s Korean Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), dating to the late 19th century, bears intricate designs stitched into bands of luminous color, all neatly organized. The rectangular pieces of fabric act like nesting blocks of diminishing size, each fitting perfectly inside the last as our eye moves toward the center of this carefully crafted textile. The little tab at the middle of the cloth would have been used to lift it off of a tray.

The five colors present in the Pojagi—blue, red, yellow, black, and white—corresponded to five blessings: longevity, wealth, success, health, and luck. Whatever your gift wrapping looks like this holiday season . . .

May all these blessings and more be yours! Happy holidays from SAM!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), late 19th century, Korean (Choson Dynasty, 1392-1910), Ramie gauze: patched and stitched, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, Asian Art Acquisition Fund and the Korean Art Purchase Fund, 96.21

Life Beyond the Badge

The last time you visited SAM, did you have any idea that many of the Visitor Services Officers (VSOs) who protect the art in the museum are also visual artists themselves, as well as writers, musicians, and thespians? It’s true!

One former SAM VSO, Aaron Bourget, worked at SAM in 1996 and moved on to start his own photography and videography business that focuses on documenting artists. Last year, Aaron made a documentary on the guards and working artists who protect SAM’s art collection called Art of the Guardin’ Variety.

According to the film’s Vimeo page, it is “an informal portrait of the working artist and a glimpse of the talent behind the badge.” It watches like a love letter to Aaron’s time working behind the scenes of the museum, and to those who continue protecting it today. In it, he interviewed many current VSOs about what the experience is like working in a museum while artists themselves.

Artist Vaughn Meekins

Vaughn Meekins, a textile artist and six-year veteran of SAM, affirms that no one spends as much time with the art as those hired to guard it.

“You come to this job because you have a passion for art, and you want community in some regard,” Meekins said in his interview for the film. “I’m an artist, whether I’m doing security, or cooking food in the kitchen, to me it’s all art.”

Artist Rebecca Bush

Rebecca Bush, a VSO at the Asian Art Museum since 2009 who creates multimedia paintings, shares the same sentiment.

“Lots of people expect that we’re here to say ‘don’t touch!’ But when you’re approachable, it can be a great experience for the visitors,” Bush said. “I like working here as an artist because I like being in the presence of art, and seeing people enjoying art. As an artist, it’s fulfilling to see people do so.”

To get even more insight into the lives of the artists who guard the art, watch Art of the Guardin’ Variety at: https://vimeo.com/101584343.

Dawn Quinn, SAM Copywriter

Photos: Natali Wiseman