Textile Museum displays ethnic weaving from Southeast Asia before its move to GW campus


This room in the Textile Museum gallery features work by Carol Cassidy. The exhibit, Out of Southeast Asia: Art that Sustains, opens Friday, April 12 and runs through October 13. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The juxtaposition of the storied, jewel-toned fabrics in the “Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains” exhibit, which opened Friday at the Textile Museum, and the empty display cases, packing materials, and boxes in the hallway of the historic house museum seems oddly congruent.

Both are signposts of the museum’s dynamism.

The exhibit, which opened Friday, is the final one before the Textile Museum relocates to the George Washington University campus as the cornerstone of its new museum in 2014.

It centers on Indonesia and Laos and examines how four contemporary artists draw inspiration from ancient artistic techniques in a way that also allows them to customize and reinterpret the art — and help keep it relevant.

The 42-item exhibition pairs handmade batiks and ethnic weaving, and includes 17 pieces from the museum’s collection to help demonstrate the linkages through time.


Chief Curator Esther Methe at the Textile Museum shows an Inca style tunic from Peru that is stored in a former bathroom of the 100 year old Pope building. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

There are over 1,000 ethnic groups in Southeast Asian, and most of them have some sort of textile tradition, says exhibit curator Mattiebelle Gittinger. A woman on the north coast of Java in a dark blue sarong is in mourning. Certain motifs in blue and white are worn in another region for weddings. The textiles are “made to be specific. They have a great deal of validity,” says Gittinger. “When contemporary artists go in search of inspiration, they sense this validity and that’s what they respond to.”

Exhibit artist Carol Cassidy, a Woodbury, Conn., native, first visited Laos in 1989 as an adviser to a UN weaving project. She stayed, began her own studio in Vientiane employing more than 50 people and selling her work to designers. Elements from the patterning and symbolism — serpents, trees, elephants — from the historical collection — show up in Cassidy’s contemporary hangings, scarves and upholstery. In one hanging, she reorients rows of bright gold diamonds to place them at right angles and calls them totems. Her standardized dyes and improved silk production give her cloths richness, and quality control.

The husband-and-wife team Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam focus primarily on Indonesian batik (a pattern created by covering parts of the cloth with removable wax to keep them from being dyed). Batik motifs are politically and spiritually powerful and the couple uses the Kawung (a cosmological symbol of overlapping circles), Parang (knife) and tree of life, throughout the smooth commercially woven cloths that provide the foundation for their patterning. They experiment with techniques: Applique and layers of cloth are melded together to create the varicolored forms in the hanging piece “Extended Family”; “Trash Can of Tradition” uses Javanese puppet figures and the Kawang and Parang motifs to express fear over losing the underpinnings of Indonesian cultural history.

The patterning of Vernal Bogren Swift, who lives in British Columbia, is so intricate it looks three-dimensional. She employs dense masses of patterns in Javanese batik to tell tales, often from myth and natural phenomena, in her work. “Early Lessons and Lies,” which has dark burgundy and black patterning, looks like three midnights hanging on the wall. It features a whimsical cursive: “The moon is made of cheese . . .”

“A Garden of Earthquakes” is her hallmark “triptych” form of three horizontal strips of narrative scenes full of birds, sea creatures and ships, and it represents the symbolic plowing of the earth.

The repetition of themes and patterns throughout unify the exhibition, while still allowing for wildly imaginative leaps. “I put this together because I wanted to show how rich Southeast Asian textiles are,” says Gittinger. “It has so much material and so much to draw upon. We could have done all batik or all weaving, but this shows the glorious facets and different interpretations.”

The move

While part of the museum continues its presentation of fabrics from around the world, another part is engaged in wholly different work. In July 2011, officials announced the 88-year-old Textile Museum would be vacating its historic home near Dupont Circle to help anchor the new 35,000-square-foot George Washington University Museum. The move, to take place in the fall of 2014, was seen as a way to increase exhibition space, allow museum students to study the textiles, and provide more exposure for the collection.

These days, that overarching vision is subsumed in the nitty-gritty of museum-moving logistics.

The S Street location has two historic buildings and a conservation lab. A couch surrounded by cardboard boxes sits on the third floor landing of the Pope building, named for architect John Russell Pope. The second floor of the Gallery Building, in what used to be the textile learning center, is now temporary storage full of steel shelving.

Assistant Registrar Tessa Sabol is helping to oversee the wholesale relocation process, which involves a team of 12, and hyper-focus on the storage, maintenance, traveling and future storage of artifacts for the next 18 months. “That’s my job, to make sure we don’t lose stuff,” Sabol says. By stuff she means the museum’s 19,000 objects, some of them thousands of years old, located in 24 storage rooms. She’s built a custom database to help, along with an at-a-glance color code: red for pre-Columbian items, green for Southeast Asia.

A few feet from Sabol are the labeled boxes ready to go. It’s early in the moving process, Sabol explains. Staff just finished surveying the collection a week and a half ago. Nearby, an intern is ironing muslins for the precision packing that must be done; acid-free, archival-grade cardboard forms a “passive” mat, then there’s the sheet of muslin, a layer of tissue, an artifact, a second layer of tissue, then the hinges to close the mat before it’s ready to be packed in a box.

Much of the time and planning has gone into the creation of systems. Matting for flat objects had to be standardized into certain base configurations so fragments of textiles would shift during the trip to a new 22,000-square-foot, climate-controlled facility in Ashburn, site of a satellite GW campus, where much of the collection will be housed beginning in January 2014.

Drawer 8 in Room 30, which had been a bathroom before the house was converted into a museum, contains fragmented pieces of a more-than-2,000-year-old Peruvian textile. Room 40 has 1,500 to 1,700 rolled textiles — rugs and carpets that will ideally be suspended on rods.

They haven’t lost anything, the prospect of which is nightmarish, but Sabol says they’ve found a few things that had been improperly labeled.

In addition to preparing for the move, officials announced Wednesday that John Wetenhall, an art historian and former president of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and vice chairman and treasurer of the American Alliance of Museums, would be director of the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.

Wetenhall, who will begin June 1, takes over from interim director Rick West, who became president of Los Angeles’s Autry National Center of the American West in January.

Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains

runs through Oct. 13 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW. the museum shop will be open through Dec. 31. The Textile Museum will reopen on the George Washington University campus, 21st and G Streets, NW, in the fall of 2014.

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