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Exhibition review - Object No.2, Juliett Peers, 1998
Studio textiles and nostalgia are frequently closely linked in Australian practice. 1970s feminism identified traditional textile techniques with historical documentation and the celebration of 'lost' female documents and sensibilities. Textile based community arts projects tend to employ nostalgia as a binding subject matter to encompass the concerns of many participants and to side-step present day tensions of class, ethnic and lifestyle differences by asserting an 'Australianness' over popular culture and American influences.
Naomi Ota's recent exhibition of free form fibre sculptures and hanging woven textiles at Craft Victoria can be perfectly understood within this usage of textiles. The rigour of her work suggests, by comparison, that the link between wallowing in the past and working with cloth can become faccid and dull in the hands of a less capable maker. Her technical skill and her awareness of and identification with textile history suggests ways in which the familiar stratagems of studio textiles can be updated to reflect Australian cultural preoccupations in the 1990s.
Ota's textile expand upon tradition with a rigour and economy that teaches a lesson to the unabashed decorative profusion of many Australian 'Art textiles'. Ota's use of nostalgia and history is disciplined by her Asian sources, which permit a dialogue with history in which tradition is recognisably invoked, yet deployed with subtlety and restraint. Students of Japanese textile history would recognise the technical parameters of Ota's works. Certain motifs. Such as the wave form or diving sparrows, are found throughout a number of Japanese textile processes such as stencilling and weaving. The decorative stitchings on the appliques recall the extraordinary coats of Japanese fire brigades and the sturdy patching and sewing techniques of Japanese peasant textiles. An ability to handle the familiar and established in a way that embodies freshness and integrity stems from Ota's training in traditional Japanese textile practices and her research into regional textile traditions throughout Asia.
Natural surfaces and substances, as well as nostalgia, have been a given in many Australian studio textile practices. Ota's textiles combine an awareness of the values of abstract colour and surfaces with an evocation of natural forms and colours recognisable to the viewer but not imposing a cliched or sentimental narrative. The woven surfaces reward examination, attractively slubbed and uneven at the margins, yet also controlled and firm in the substance of the cloth. The vibrant hanging tassels of her dyed and painted ikat warps interacted with the muted colours of the woven surfaces, overpainted and appliqued.
Ota's show was not simply a Japanese art event transposed to an Australian gallery space. Identity as spoken by Ota's textiles is less an essentialist given of nationalism, then a result of exchange and dialogue and an organic process of growth and mutation. She emphasises the shared sources and reciprocity of traditions rather than culture as the source for the individual and inalienable superiority of a given group people. These quintessentially 'Asian' textiles feature, without the slightest kitsch disjunction or clumsiness, the use of Australian soils and pigments on the surfaces as well as recognisably Japanese motifs (form such as hanging scroll), alongside ikat techniques from South East Asian region. This work sits comfortably within the genre of studio textiles and soft sculpture, adding to the recognisably Australian infections of these craft forms, even though her level of rigour is not often emulated by other practitioners of the genre.
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