Re-imagining Ancient Japanese Art with a Modern Eye
By Audrey Fraggalosch | Photos courtesy of Whatcom Museum unless noted
There are few things I find more fun than getting lost in a museum for an afternoon. This week I was delighted to have an opportunity to get a personal curatorial tour of the new exhibition Katazome Today: Migrations of Japanese Art at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham.
I’ve been to Japan and have been a lover of fiber art and textiles for many years, however I never knew about the centuries-old Japanese textile-dyeing process and art form known as katazome. Traditionally used for kimono dyeing, katazome involves the mingling of complex designs by applying a rice paste-resist and dyes over intricately hand-carved stencil papers. The techniques have been passed down through generations of artists in Japan over centuries. You can see several of the traditional tools, stencils, dyes and pigments on display in this fascinating exhibit. Some artists in Japan still practice the traditional form of katazome, but contemporary fabric artists worldwide are now exploring katazome in innovative and exciting ways that bring fresh perspectives.
Each artist interprets the katazome process in their unique style and through vastly different approaches, whether through graphic narrative, painterly abstract works, or experiential installations." Amy Chaloupka, Curator of Art, Whatcom Museum
The artists featured in this exhibition include Akemi Cohn (Illinois), Melinda Heal (Australia), Fumiyo Imafuku (Japan), Cheryl Lawrence (Washington), John Marshall (California), Yuken Teruya (Germany), and Mika Toba (Japan). Walking into the main gallery of the museum and seeing the contemporary work of these seven national and international katazome artists was simply astounding. Both myself, and my artist friend who joined me for the tour, were awestruck by the visual beauty of the works! We found ourselves immediately mesmerized by the rich colors and intricate designs and amazed by the range of pictorial imagery and scale of the installations.
It didn’t take long for me to get completely lost in the beautiful designs, stencil patterns, and potent stories in these works. In the stunning kimono piece Billowing by Yuken Teruya, the curator explained that this piece is done in the traditional Okinawan style of katazome called bingata, but the content of the artist’s stencil patterns reveals contemporary messages. Imagery such as American fighter jets and children carrying balloons intermingle with traditional motifs, like flowing rivers, iris flowers and swallows. This piece and Parade from Far Far Away speak to the resilience and aspirations of the Okinawan people who have overcome hundreds of years of oppression from Japanese rule and American occupation.
Yuken Teruya; Parade From Far Far Away, 2014; Bingata technique on Linen. Courtesy of the artist and Piero Atchugarry Gallery, Miami.
Cheryl Lawrence’s large quilt-like piece Women of the 116th Congress, 2019 also speaks to shifting social landscapes. This highly imaginative work was created in response to the largest number of women sworn into the US congress in 2019. The artist rose to the creative challenge of interpreting human faces through katazome. Her vision also centered on the critical human need for community, and she gathered a group of twenty women friends and neighbors to hand-stitch embellishments to each portrait in the work.
Many katazome artists are inspired by nature and Melinda Heal takes this to a grand level in her large and ambitious piece The Cliffs, They are Breathing. You can feel the sheer awe and grandeur she experiences from the spectacular orange cliffs that ripple along the coast of southeastern Australia. This dynamic scene is enhanced by the graceful movement of the flowing panels of silk.
Photo ©Susan Bennerstrom
Using natural materials, pigments and dyes is an integral aspect of katazome. Indigo, which comes from a plant, gives a rich blue tone to many of the pieces, including Cheryl Lawrence’s Snowstorm and Akemi Cohn's Cycle/Seeds and Cycle Series. Cohn’s use of natural dyes directly reflects her Buddhist belief in life cycles and capturing fleeting memories, such as the bloom of a flower. Flowers only live a short time, but the dye extracted from live flowers, plants and roots will stay on the fabric as extracted color. One of the most vibrant pieces in the show is the Cycle of Time - Music is to Rain Down from Heaven by Fumiyo Imafuku. The reds and yellows that she produces from natural dyes such as lac, cochineal, pomegranate, and golden flowers are simply astonishing. The red lac dye used in this work is said to have been widely used centuries ago.
Perhaps my favorite work in the show is Fumiyo Imafuku’s Cycle of Time-Memory of Place. This poetic piece explores the notions of time as a repeating pattern, like the cycle of the seasons. As my eyes followed the ivy climbing and stretching in all directions across and up the beautiful panels of silk organza, my thoughts drifted away, and I happily lost track of linear time.
Fumiyo Imafuku; Cycle of Time - Memory of Place (detail), 2014, Cotton, Silk organza, Katazome, original technique, chemical dyes. Photo ©Makoto Yano. Courtesy of the artist.
The work of Mika Toba finds energy in urban landscapes. Her numerous visits to Vietnam have led to depiction of scenes that show rich and changing cultural landscapes, as evident in The Other Side of the Scarf. Another piece, Wandering in the Medieval Time gives us a glimpse of her travels to Fez, Morocco where she was immersed in a medieval time outside of her own. To dive deeper into Mika Toba’s work, watch the 45-minute film Creating a Zen World: The Katazome Art of Mika Toba.
John Marshall uses the canvas of wearable kimono to communicate both contemporary and traditional themes. Don’t miss his 2 large kimono pieces on display. I was especially enthralled with his joyous piece, Angel in the Garden. Marshall’s decades of studying and exploring traditional techniques of katazome include carving more than a thousand stencils. He has also inherited many more from teachers and classmates in Japan, and some of these stencils are on display.
I was completely surprised and delighted by this exhibit and how these artists honor and preserve traditional katazome techniques while envisioning endless possibilities for contemporary artistic expressions. Enjoy this rare glimpse of Japanese art at the Whatcom Museum, Lightcatcher building from February 11 - June 11, 2023, in lively downtown Bellingham.
Photo ©Melinda Heal
The show took two years to bring to fruition and is co-curated by Amy Chaloupka, Curator of Art at the Whatcom Museum and Seiko A. Purdue, Professor in Fibers/Fabrics at Western Washington University. Also on view in the hall of the Lightcatcher Building are student interpretations of katazome, from Seiko Purdue’s Fiber Arts Class. This collection of student work is presented in the spirit of Daidai. It is a concept that expresses an appreciation for handing down valued techniques from generation to generation. This spirit is echoed throughout the exhibition where several of the artists are either students or teachers of one another.
Additional programming includes artist workshops and lectures in March and April. For more information on these events and workshops, visit www.whatcommuseum.org. A lovely exhibition catalog can be found in the Museum store, and there’s a coffee & wine bar with simple eats if you need a pick-me-up. Have a great visit!
Whatcom Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 12- 5pm. Closed Monday & Tuesday.
Docent led tours are most Thursdays and Saturdays, 1-2pm.
Curator tours are Feb 24, March 24 & April 21, 1-2 pm.
Date Night Dinner and Curator Tours, March 8, April 19 & May 10.
Support provided by a City of Bellingham Tourism Promotion Grant