Treasures from MOIFA’s vaults
“They say there’s an unwritten formula regarding public exhibitions at most museums,” Museum of International Folk Art textile and costume curator Bobbie Sumberg told Pasatiempo recently. “The formula states that, at any given time, about 10 percent of what a museum has in its various collections is on display.” While that formula may apply to some museums— like the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., which boasts more than 18,000 objects in two separate buildings— it doesn’t apply to MOIFA. In addition to the museum’s other holdings, which represent one of the largest collections of folk art in the world, it also oversees more than 20,000 individual pieces, both donated and purchased through museum foundations, that are categorized as textiles.
On Sunday, Dec. 20, the Museum of International Folk Art celebrates the opening of Material World: Textile and Dress From the Collection, a new exhibit that showcases 138 rarely exhibited textiles and costumes handpicked by Sumberg. The show, which hangs through May 23, 2011, opens in conjunction with the release of Sumberg’s new hardcover catalog, Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art (published by Gibbs Smith).
The exhibit, like the book, is not organized geographically. While the items in MOIFA’s collection are stored carefully by region in two separate areas within the museum’s basement, the curator’s approach to the MaterialWorld exhibit and the book digs much deeper than simply relating places of origin. Sumberg attempts to debunk and demystify assumed gender roles and economic stereotypes in relation to the use and production of textiles, while highlighting the functionality and/or purpose of each item on display.
The book showcases about 200 items, roughly 1 percent of the total MOIFA textile collection. The process of selecting only a handful of items for exhibit and publication wasn’t easy for Sumberg, who finds that each piece of clothing or embroidery tells a different story about the cultural and historical relationships between people and the materials with which they adorn themselves and their surroundings.
For this exhibit, Sumberg divided the items into two categories— dress and textiles— and then broke those categories down into smaller descriptors. “Textiles” encompasses bedding, wall hangings, decorative works, and religious and ceremonial pieces, while the “dress” category includes footwear, outerwear, headdresses, religious and ceremonial pieces, accessories, and whole ensembles.
Sumberg also strongly considered the integrity of items before selecting them for display and for inclusion in the book. “We have to choose the pieces based not only on what they may bring to the exhibit’s title or intent,” she said, “but we also have to weigh their merit based on their physical condition and the amount of conservation work required to prepare them for public viewing.” Sumberg pointed at a 20th-century adult-sized raffia hammock from Nigeria, saying, “This piece, while newer in relation to some of the other pieces, is extremely difficult to photograph. And the material is sturdy when the hammock is used as a hammock. As a showpiece, though, it’s quite delicate. There’s a simple beauty in this functional item, accented by raffia beads that only serve as a decorative accent. You can see a lot of detail, but you can also appreciate that it’s an everyday, common thing that someone put a lot of care into producing.” (The hammock is included in the exhibit, but not in the book.) In another instance, a late-19th-century hand-woven wool coverlet fashioned in Pennsylvania hangs next to another coverlet manufactured on a machine. The wear and tear on the hand-woven coverlet where the user pulled it up over his or her head is evident, as are small imperfections in the hand weaving.
Many of the “flat” items, or pieces that do not have an integrated structural form like a dress or a hat, are stacked in rolls on racks in the museum’s basement. Sheets of clear, impermeable, cast-nylon film called Dartek protect the textiles. “Because of New Mexico’s drier climate,” Sumberg explained, “we can get away with using this material,” which absorbs about 10 percent of its weight in moisture. “In areas with wetter weather, many museums have to rely on muslin cloth to wick more moisture away from the textiles.”
Some of the more delicate, lighter pieces, like embroidered and quilted tapestries, are displayed using steel rods and magnets, instead of weaves attached to wooden rods or protruding hooks, which can cause tearing or other serious damage.
Each piece on display tells an intriguing story, either about its maker, its owner, or its place of origin. On one section of wall, two arpilleras (burlap-backed, raised-patchwork wall hangings) from Santiago, Chile, hang side by side. One depicts the arpilleristas in their workshop, where they produce yarn. In the other piece, figures who are apparently soldiers are forcing people from their homes. A black hood obscures a woman’s faces as she is led toward a siren-topped vehicle. On the back of the wall hanging, a note was discovered bearing the words, “the authorities took grandma’s husband away.” Both arpilleras were crafted during the reign of Augusto Pinochet. One piece gives insight into the political turmoil during Pinochet’s rule, while the other depicts one way in which women gathered to support one another and to make money to feed their families. The arpilleras served as both a means
to ward off hunger and as a vehicle for women to relate the societal conditions of their time and place to the outside world— an act that invited danger, and perhaps even death.
Sumberg also explores the modernization of textile manufacturing and its effects on cultural values and traditions, especially in relation to gender, spiritual beliefs and rituals, and economics. In the book she writes, “There is some— but only limited— truth to the assumption that women produced textiles in the home for use in the home while men labored in commercial workshops. ... Female spinners, weavers, and needleworkers have always participated in the market economy, whether working inside or outside the home.”
As Sumberg pointed to a Moroccan embroidery sampler— an item dated between 1890 and 1915 that was originally used as a commercial pattern-sample book and later became a tool for schoolgirls to demonstrate their embroidery skills— she explained that most museum collections contain samplers from the United States, while MOIFA’s sampler collection spans the globe. To illustrate the influence of one culture on another culture’s traditions, Sumberg describes the integration of hand-woven cotton cloth into the ceremonial practices of the Ijo people of Nigeria, who initially traded local spices and other goods for the cloth brought to the area by the Portuguese in the 15th century. What was once a rare trade item for the Ijo eventually became an important ingredient of their everyday lives.
On a set of mid-19th-century leather braces (almost like suspenders) worn by everyday dairy farmers and herders in the northern mountains of Switzerland, directional lighting highlights the garment’s brass adornments, which contain engraved images of cows. The braces also depict herdsmen wearing similar braces decorated with similar imagery. “It’s almost as if the image of the braces is infinite, which underscores the garment’s value to the herder and the dairy farmer in that area throughout the ages,” Sumberg said.
The headdress and footwear selections round out this carefully chosen collection of textiles and costumes, and both categories present items whose gender specificity is scarcely discernible. The truths told by these pieces may challenge preconceived notions about who actually wears the pants in a family.
All-purpose cloth, circa 1950, Babylon region, Iraq, embroidered wool, 91.75 x 64.5 inches; gift of the Girard Foundation
Hat, before 1860, Nigeria, plaited palm-leaf fiber, 20.5 inches in diameter; gift of Allison Abbot
Arpillera, 1980, Santiago, Chile, embroidered and appliquéd cotton, wool and jute, 15 x 17.25 inches; gift of Sallie Wagner
Boots, Syria, leather, linen and metallic thread, 6.25 x 4.25 x 10.5 inches; gift of Irene Fisher and Dr. Estella Warner