Art of the cloth
Rare Japanese kimonos at Chico State emphasize cultural diversity
Japanese cultural diversity is the focus of several art exhibitions currently on display on the Chico State campus. Japanese cultural diversity? It isn’t an oxymoron, really. Though deliberately isolated by imperial policy throughout long periods of its history, Japan nevertheless has absorbed Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Indian influences.
As guest curator Susan Yonts explains, “The islands south of mainland Japan were particularly open to outside influences on their visual culture, especially textiles, and the technique of ikat dyeing, dyeing the silk threads in a precise manner before weaving, reached the islands from India by way of Indonesia and China.” In fact, the small group of islands known as the Ryukyu Islands have long been a meeting ground for Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cultures, since the islands were used as stopovers for trade flowing between China and Japan.
Voices from a Minority Culture in Japan: Kimonos from Amami Island in the University Gallery showcases this cultural blend on Amami-Ohshima, one of the largest islands in the Ryukyu Islands. Curator Masami Toku was particularly interested in revealing a different side of Japanese culture. “Ohshima-Tsumugi” is the present-day term for the 1300-year-old tradition of Amami kimono making. Ohshima-Tsumugi is somber compared to mainland kimono style, which is more immediately recognizable for its bold and colorful patterns.
The Amami kimonos on display in the University Gallery hang like spectral presences in shimmering black and brown silk, adorned with subtle geometric patterns, butterflies, and flowers here and there shot through with amber, orange, and rust (if you are anxious for fall to arrive, you might get a sneak preview by viewing these kimonos).
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ohshima-Tsumugi, as Masami Toku explains in her notes for the show, is the “complexity of the process of creating” them. A single kimono may have threads that have been dyed 40 or 50 times to get the color exactly right, and the whole process can take up to a year to dye, weave, and finish one kimono. It is no wonder that the kimonos hang like precious art works on the walls of the University Gallery. They are.
A different facet of Japanese visual culture is on view in Fabric of Life: Kimonos in Japanese and Contemporary Prints at the Janet Turner Print Gallery. Curator Susan Yonts has selected Japanese woodblock prints that depict mainland Japan’s version of the kimono, the much brighter, bolder, and colorful counterpart of the Amami kimono. Kimonos were the fashion statements of 18th-century Japan, and woodblock prints were the chief means of circulating new fashions. According to Yonts, woodblock prints could be purchased for the “price of a bowl of rice,” so even the poorest classes of Japanese society could purchase them and pore over their rich details.
The prints frequently depict courtesans and Kabuki actors, but the kimonos they wear are often the visual focus of the image. While the depiction of male Kabuki actors and female courtesans is often standardized—each being shown more as “types” than actual people—their kimonos are highly individualized. “Kabuki theater was one of the ways a particular style of kimono would be popularized. The impact of kimono designs associated with particular Kabuki performances was so great that often the style of kimono would afterwards always be associated with that character, no matter which actor played the role. The kimono not the actor became famous.”
These glimpses of Japanese culture are on display in the University Art Gallery, the Janet Turner Print Gallery, and Ayres and Trinity Halls on the Chico State campus.