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"Ragged Beauty: Repair and Reuse, Past and Present, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, Guest Curator"
2004-08-20 until 2004-10-31
Museum of Craft and Folk Art
San Francisco, CA, USA United States of America

The exhibition Ragged Beauty features a selection of traditional Japanese textiles, contemporary artwork, and folk art objects that collectively explore the themes of recycling and repair. In our throwaway age, this focus offers viewers an opportunity to reassess the meaning and value of mending and reuse. Questions arise that challenge visitors to consider the perspectives of all people related to the process: the creator of the object, the mender, the owner, the community member, the outsider. Why does a person spend time and energy repairing or recycling a worn-out item? Is it out of respect for the maker? A matter of culture? A lack of resources to acquire something new? A gesture of love toward the owner of the object? Respect for the beauty and value of the object itself? Attachment to an habitually used object? A number of these factors come into play. All of the pieces presented in Ragged Beauty will engage both the mind and the eye, encouraging thoughtful assessment as well as aesthetic appreciation.

The exhibition consists of three sections. In the first, visitors have a unique opportunity to view boro, Japanese bedding covers and other functional textiles created in the 19th and early 20th centuries from recycled indigo-dyed cotton rags and scrap fabric (boro is the Japanese word for "rag"). These humble objects embody the soul of old Japan, giving voice to rural folks_ respect for scarce materials and commitment to family. They are tangible remnants of stories lived by the common people: farmers, fishermen, and lumberjacks in rural areas _ primarily northeastern Honshu Island and along the Sea of Japan. The historical factors of social stratification, subsistence economies, and trading practices are reflected in the rough surfaces of the pieces, yet what has the greatest impact today is the obvious manifestation of creativity: the aesthetic transformation of ordinary rags by human hands, and the creation of beauty that was never meant to be put on display.

Most boro were patched together from scraps of cotton clothing and other fabric pieces that were brought north by kitamaesen, ships from the Osaka area (the commercial center of Japan) that transported fish meal and oil and collected "rice tax" from farmers. Although cotton cultivation was firmly established in the warmer regions of Japan by the eighteenth century, cotton was precious in regions with harsh climate and snow in which only bast fibers such as hemp, ramie, and mulberry were available. Such fibers are strong, but unlike cotton, are vulnerable to friction, not warm next to the body, and laborious to produce. For most rural people, the inexpensive cotton rags were a treasure, which spurred the development of regional folk textile traditions.

Each boro on display in Ragged Beauty is an assemblage with a unique shape, size, and history. They are hand-sewn, and tell complex stories of both their components and their creators. All are in various states of wear‹some mended numerous times‹reminding us of the history of those who used them. The neatly sewn, evenly sized strips of one boro contrast with the practical, strategic placement of scraps-over-holes in another. Stripes, patterns, and solids are juxtaposed, and colors range from dark to light blue and white. Complementary, yet disparate, elements join in boro to make complete and visually appealing compositions that evoke contemporary art forms such as Robert Rauschenberg_s assemblages or abstract paintings by Paul Klee.

Another section of Ragged Beauty adds inventively repaired objects from other cultures, including a wooden vessel from Africa and a 19th-century Russian teapot. In times past, the hand-hewn bowl was highly valued for its usefulness; the teapot treasured for its beauty.

Commenting and reflecting on the themes of repair and reuse is a group of works by five contemporary artists: Caroline Bartlett of the United Kingdom; Dorothy Caldwell of Canada; Angela Lim of California; Michael Swaine of California; and Liz Williamson of Australia. Their individual explorations reveal musings on life stories, mapping of personal histories, and shaping of abstract concepts of memory, recovery, respect, and the cycle of creation and destruction:

- Caroline Bartlett's art ties the process of creating a work to the practices of conservation that reveal the history of an object and its maker.
- Dorothy Caldwell's fabric assemblages with stitching, piecing, and layering are akin to "maps of memory" that allude to the accumulated time embodied in hand-made textiles.
- Inspired by the handicraft traditions of darning and of embroidering samplers, Angela Lim creates pieces that comment on the pleasures and pains of domesticity.
- Michael Swaine creates opportunities to interact and connect to the community through mending items of personal clothing that are brought to him.
- Liz Williamson's weavings based on scanned images of mended clothing chart the alterations in the life of textiles, providing an analogy for the human process of aging.

These contemporary interpretations of repair and reuse create a bridge from the past into the future, reflecting traditional values as applied to new forms.

Japanese Cotton Textile - Object I (image of back)
Created in the late 19th- or early 20th-century
Indigo-dyed cotton fabric fragments, cotton thread
70 x 60”
Courtesy of the Nukata Collection, Japan.

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