Saturday, February 10, 2007

Textile Museum's Mantles of Merit by Lauren Rice

Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Mandalay to Chittagong

October 13, 2006-February 25, 2007

Upon walking into Washington D.C.’s Textile Museum, I am confronted by bright vertical stripes, subtle shifts of indigos, and the use of the grid as a compositional device. All of which, I might add, are displayed upon large rectangular surfaces. Alas, it is not a Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt or Agnes Martin exhibition that I have stumbled into. It is the Museum’s current exhibition entitled Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Mandalay to Chittagong, open through February 25. The way in which curators Barbara G. Fraser and David W. Fraser chose to hang the intricate pieces of 19th and 20th century Chin textiles as two-dimensional works on a wall was strikingly reminiscent of many modernist exhibitions.

As an amateur knitter with a budding interest in decorative pattern design, I know hardly anything about the Chin people and their exquisite (dare I say…) craft. Furthermore, I know next to nothing about weaving. Upon entering the museum, I learned that the Chin are from Myanmar (Burma), northeastern India and Southeastern Bangladesh. The Chin are also known as the Zo, Lai or Kuki and as a group speak over 40 different languages in the Tibetan and Burman family. More relevantly, “Textiles play their most dramatic role in the important Chin effort to achieve merit in this life and the next. Chin people strive to distinguish themselves through success in hunting, war, accumulation of wealth, and feast giving. Textiles announce these accomplishments through specific patterns reserved for the meritorious.” Given that all of these textiles were made to be worn in order to display merit, I am reminded of another realm western culture: our obsession with fashion as a visual display of worth. Despite the information about the Chin available at the beginning of my tour, my training as a painter, my ignorance of weaving and the way the show was hung, I fell into the easy habit of regarding these utilitarian textiles as paintings.

Most of the pieces on view had a symmetrically striped composition, often alternating wide bands of red with indigo or white. The textiles that I found the most striking were the ones that veered from this pattern. A Myanmar’s woman’s cloth using warp ikat and indigo dye was interesting not only because the cloth was woven as well as dyed, but because most of the intricate weaving was in the top quarter of the cloth, at the chest of the tunic. From a distance, the brown, yellow and white thread glowed like gold against the indigo of most of the tunic. One of my favorite works was the man’s mantle or dap zal, which was woven by a brides mother for her future son-in-law. Although symmetrical in design, the use of complimentary colors, dull to bright color and differing widths of line separated this work from the rest. The wide pink central lines, framed by a dull green of the same width did suggest a union. The thickness of the center against the white cotton and finally framed by thin red zigzag lines reiterated the known to the unknown, the togetherness of a marriage.

The Chin’s use of complimentary colors in the central parts of the compositions amazed me throughout the exhibition. On the other hand, their decision to use to indigos close in tone in the same garment was also thrilling. In one particular mantle, two shades of indigo alternate to suggest the wings of the hornbill. However, the width of the stripes vary creating a wavy, optical effect. Another neighboring mantle was woven from yarn of identical color. However, the black threads are made of different material, one linen and one cotton, creating a shimmering pattern of light.

Now I must return to my innate desire to view these beautiful articles of clothing as paintings. I am reminded here of Gauguin and Tahiti or Picasso and African masks. Is the Chin’s weaving meant to be viewed formally instead of a token of cultural worth? I went to the Textile Museum with Lily and Drew and we spoke for a minute at the end of the exhibition about recontextualization. The minute an article from another culture is hung on the wall, we view it as an Art Work, an Artifact from another culture and we are always amazed at how smart, advanced, etc. that they were. Who made us so high and mighty and why do we automatically think that we figured out color theory first? I feel that this is an interesting note to end on, for if I visited Burma and saw the Chin in wearing and using their beautiful textiles, I must wonder if I would view it as art, or just beautiful design.

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