A room swathed in cloth invites us into the George Tsutakawa Gallery at the Wing Luke Museum to contemplate the relationship between textiles and the Asian American experience. Everything has been Material for Scissors to Shape is a very long exhibit title, but creates a metaphor for what happens when humans interact with textiles whether on the personal or commercial level.
Namita Gupta Wiggers, its curator, uses this line from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to Scissors” to bring together the work of three conceptual artists who explore this interaction. These Asian Pacific American artists, all of them teachers of art, investigate a variety of issues in distinctly different ways. Their works are paired with artifacts and oral history from the Wing’s collections in an effort to make connections and expand the topics of textile interaction.
Surabhi Ghosh’s installation “A Hair’s Breadth, The Unfurled Sea” is a long piece of Indian homespun cloth that loops across the ceiling, down the wall and across the floor. It is an endless sari printed in scaly patterns that evoke the celestial serpent who floats on a sea of milk and supports both the universe and Vishnu. Hanging from the ceiling are deep blue strands that allude to the hair of Draupadi, the possessor of that endless sari. Exploration of mythology can lead down many paths and, by using a popular Indian comic book form, Ghosh distills important themes. Interpreting Hindu myths in patterned textiles, she speaks of the strength of women maintaining their dignity while being in a vulnerable position. And on the broader scale she reflects on infinity and human finiteness through the creation of repeating interlocking patterns. There are many ways of exploring and expressing cultural identity and doing so through patterning textiles is one of the more complex approaches.
Our next encounter with the role of textiles in human life deals with how culturally-significant textiles have been usurped by the consumer residing far away from the maker. Two displayed photographs, digitally printed on vinyl, are of the artist, Stephanie Syjuco. She essentially creates a collage on her body of import-store materials in a very imaginative way. These photos bring to mind the objectification of cultures that are represented only by these tourist pieces. A length of woven cloth comes to symbolize the ideal of “the noble native.” Her “Cargo Cults” series refers to the time when Pacific Island natives during World War II came across mysterious American goods dropped from the sky and made use of them in ways not dreamed of by their originators. Syjuco reminds us of how goods from one culture can be appropriated by another and used as new cultural signifiers, sometimes in a creative way, but more often in a compartmentalized stereotypical manner.
The third artist’s work, “A Mend: A Collection of Scraps from Local Seamstresses and Tailors,” is a denim web, sewn together from the hems and lower pant legs of jeans, that drapes down the wall and falls onto the floor. Just as these remnants of a quintessential American garment are left behind, they touch upon the plight of marginalized garment workers striving for the American dream. The piece is part of Aram Han Sifuentes’ project to interview immigrant tailors and seamstresses about their repetitive work for low wages. We learn a little from her accompanying chart about the lives of immigrants who, although they make a semblance of a livelihood, don’t have the opportunity to express their identities or culture in the manufacture of textiles. Unlike the production seamstress the artist can choose the materials, methods and time to let the fabrics talk, recounting a wide range of human narratives.
Paired with Sifuentes’ exhibit is the oral history video “If Tired Hands Could Talk,” which brings alive the very human production factor of those textile items we use every day. The Wing’s 2000-2001 interviews with garment factory and residential textile workers reveal the difficult lives of those in the industry that has now been outsourced. Of all the pieces from the collection paired with artists’ work this video is most integral to the artist’s subject.
Closing out the exhibition is the education section “Call and Response” where a number of exquisite garments are displayed from the museum’s collections—jackets, shirts and hats burgeoning with embroidery and mirror-work on finely woven fabric from silk to fiber made from pineapple leaves.