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from the ikat
Exhibition Catalogue, Naomi Cass, 1998
In her lecture to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in 1986, Croatian writer, Slava Drakulic declared if you really want to know about a society, enquire into the lowly realms of kitchens, supermarket shelves and conversations on the street. When speaking of the fall of Communism or civil war in Yugoslavia, she invoked a worm's eye view of politics, as opposed to the grand rhetoric or the bird's eye view of politicians and analysts. The trivial is political she declared.(2) Drakulic reflected upon why women read newspapers from the back, concluding that it is amongst the amusements, the recipes, the gossip and the poems that the true state of political affairs is revealed.
In a similar spirit textiles, which appear to be mute objects, are indeed documents, if you are equipped to read them.
One could be forgiven for taking a bird's eye view of the world, quite simply by looking at a map and seeing discrete nations divided by borders, water, language and culture. However, if I peer more intently into these curvilinear forms and conventional symbols, as Naomi Ota has done, notional boarders give way to other lines of connection namely, maps of a different kind.
Through her study of ikat, Naomi Ota sees national boundaries as oblivious to the enduring exchanges that link people. Focusing particularly on the trade routes between Indonesia and the south of Japan, her work as an artist has drawn her on real and imagined journeys, which she describes as anthropological in nature, to explore the origins of traditional Japanese ikat weaving in the Archipelago of Indonesia.
Of lingering importance here are formal qualities: delicacy of touch and her ability to merge organic form and natural colour with a sophistication characteristic of (dare I invoke nationality) a Japanese sensibility.
Certain themes of migration, mapping, fishing and their attendant crafts remain in her work. Ota first exhibited a fishing boat in 1984. Ethnological in theme, she was interested in the decoration fishermen applied to boats on their maiden voyage and on their retirement - to appease the spirits.
Having grown up in cities where the meanings and rituals of textile craft drifted away, perhaps even became severed from studies of technique, Ota actively sought traditional stories and contexts of craft. Traditional designs for textiles as well as their ritual significance are highly specific and she was drawn to understand these. Ota explains for instance that the wave form she paints on many surfaces which is so familiar to Japanese wood bloc design, was also hand embroidered across entire textiles. Extravagantly beautiful designs, she speculates that their function was to strengthen weak hemp and cotton weaves for a life of service to peasant communities. In pre-industrial communities, textiles are characteristically reused and recycled for a lifetime of purposes.
Yet how does a contemporary textile artist position herself within the pantheon of traditional Japanese craft? While Ota wove kimono and other traditional cloths as a student, these practices are now anachronistic. Because she is so attuned to the meanings and history of traditional forms and designs, she shies away from merely replicating traditional weavings. She speaks whimsically about not having her own ikat design and that for Traditionalists, her weaving may not be true ikat.
In the process of making her own work, Ota has found almost musical links between tradition and present. To develop her work she has taken a worm's eye view of craft, she has travelled and learnt new languages.
Ikat is found in pre Colombian Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Persia, throughout Central Asia, in India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indo-China, South West and South China, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Africa and in many parts of Europe.
Heirloom ikat were so highly regarded they often served as a form of currency, uniquely appealing beyond religious boundaries to ancestral, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish communities.(3)
Southeast Asian traders brought ikat to Okinawa along the fishing and trading route in the 14th or 15th Century. To the south of Japan, Okinawa was then a separate country called Ryukyu Kingdom (until 1879). From 1659 to when Japan invaded Okinawa in 1904, the Japanese collected ikat as tax from the Okinawans. Most women of the island spent their entire adult lives manufacturing this capital.
Ota located herself within this ikat trade route, visiting Okinawa (where dyes are still brought from Indonesia), then Indonesia where she found extraordinary links in language, textiles and custom between these two island cultures. Ota learned the ritual and capital significance of the textile, its history and process.
Of parallel importance is Ota's interest in ancient fishing cultures of the trade routes from Japan through the Philippines to Indonesia. Ota stayed on the Indonesian fishing village of Bajaw (Orang Laut , people of the sea in Bahasa Indonesia), drawn perhaps by her grandmother's tales that their ancestors were pirates. Here, fishermen once lived on boats, never using maps but like nomads of the sea they navigated intuitively, guided by oral tradition.
The ikat process is laborious, requiring great patience and skills in design, spinning, dying and weaving.
Regional differences in design are strong. While ikat varies greatly from aristocratic and hugely complex silks to simple and robust peasant weaves, there is always a characteristic energy in decoration deriving from the constant pull between precision of the grid and disorder of curvilinear forms. Traditional designs become the valued property of communities. Evolved over time, they become emblematic of villages, communities and kingdoms.
Ikat is precious. Ikat is expressive. Certain designs may become associated with and owned by certain social or religious classes, finally achieving a sacred presence. Like many other cultures where prescribed textiles, dyes and designs are designated for particular positions within society, ikat is of hierarchical importance. (For instance, Exodus makes strict prescriptions as to the fibres, weaves and colours, which may be worn by priest and king.)(4)
Ikat assumes medicinal and magic functions in many communities. In Bali where Indian double ikat were revered, they possessed healing qualities. Treasured textile fragments were burned to ashes and inhaled by patients.(5)
It is hard to imagine textiles achieving such cultural value, such instrumental power within contemporary Western life. Naomi Ota maps a possible process for regarding textiles of the past, in pursuit of craft's present.
Robyn Maxwell Textiles of South East Asia Oxford University Press: Melbourne,
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