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.
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 . . .”