Upon entering “Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan”, it’s hard not to notice that all the dresses are displayed on the back. Curator Dr. Andreas Marks says it’s on purpose,
Marks has spent the past 11 years familiarizing himself with objects from the Institute’s extensive Japanese collection. Unlike typical clothing exhibits, the clothing featured in “Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan” represents all class levels in Japan during the period between 1750 and 1930. Clothing worn by farmers, common people and workers in royal and ceremonial dresses, Marks tried to point out the many different types of dress and textiles in Japan at the time.
“It’s a great way for us to see how other people lived,” Marks said. “They harvested from their environment to create clothes. These days we take it for granted to go somewhere and buy something pre-made and think it’s normal, but it wasn’t like that before.
Materials such as fish skin, paper, elm bark, banana leaf fiber, deer skin, cotton, silk and many more were used to create the textiles on display.
An essential aspect of the exhibition is the recognition of the Ainu people. They are native to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, the Kuril Islands and the southern part of Sakhalin Island, which today belongs to Russia.
Until the mid-1800s, the Ainu people retained their own culture and language, but when they needed work they were forced to hire out to the new Japanese fishing industry.
In 1871, the Japanese government banned certain Ainu customs in an effort to erase their culture. The Hokkaido Ancient Aborigines Protection Act of 1899 was created to “integrate” the Ainu into Japanese society by declaring them as ancient aborigines and removing any sense of Ainu from their lives. They were now farmers and forced to learn Japanese.
The Ainu Cultural Promotion Act replaced the 1899 Act over 100 years later in 1997. This Act provides government financial support for the promotion and maintenance of Ainu culture. In 2019, a bill in Japan recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people of northern Japan and outlawed discrimination against them.
Five years ago, only 13,000 people worldwide identified as Ainu, but fewer than a dozen were fluent in the Ainu native language. The textiles created by the Ainu people featured in the exhibition contribute to a broader movement of the Ainu to relearn weaving and embroidery in order to reclaim their culture nearly 150 years after its erasure.
Marks said he wanted to help tell the story of the Ainu people.
“The problem was making it all presentable to build a story,” he said. “It wasn’t just about hanging stuff, it was about telling a compelling story that’s interesting to people, so I had to understand all the different pieces and what I could do to differentiate them.”
A quick walk to the second floor and visitors will find “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves”. The exhibition brings together the precious “olive trees” of MIA with five other paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Dallas Art Museum
Van Gogh painted the images during the last year of his life, when he spent a few months in the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Rémy, France, in 1889. Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator of the MIA , said that the Olive Grove paintings differ from those of Van Gogh. previous work due to his declining mental health.
“He was confined to the psychiatric hospital for a period where he had depression and did not paint,” Welch said. “From his window in the hospital he could see a field of wheat, so when he finally got to paint again it was one of his first subjects. But when they started to let him wander further, he started visiting the olive groves, so in some ways his confinement to the psychiatric hospital kind of drove that choice of subject.
MIA’s “Olive Trees” is unique in Olive Grove imagery due to its inclusion of the sun, often a symbol of spiritual beliefs. By the time he left the hospital in 1890, Van Gogh had completed 15 paintings of the groves. A few months later, he will commit suicide.
“When he leaves Paris and goes to the south of France for the light, it’s really painting in this very impressionistic style but more and more he sinks into mental illness and that’s where the last part of the exhibition resumes, with these paintings of olive trees and in the renaissance,” Welch said.
Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan will run until September 11 and Van Gogh and the Olive Groves until September 18.