Prêt-à-dis­play

Trea­sures from MOIFA’s vaults

Pasatiempo - - Art And Photography - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

“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.

Im­ages cour­tesy Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art; pho­tos by Ad­di­son Doty

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

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