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Pas de Deux Champion freediver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank and friend off Kona
Vol. 11, No. 4
August/September 2008

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Threading Cultures 

story by Lynn Cook

Wang Lin-Sheng, courtesy of

Evergrand Museum,
Taoyuan, Taiwan

In 2003, on a trip to Taiwan, Tom Klobe saw a small exhibit that included some extraordinary costumes from southwest China—work unlike anything he’d ever seen. Back in the Islands, and still intrigued, the director emeritus of the University of Hawai‘i Art Gallery decided to contact the man who’d collected the costumes, Huang Ying-feng. It wasn’t easy to track Huang down, but it was worth it: Klobe discovered that the curator had amassed an astonishing collection of textiles from southwest China, over 11,000 pieces. Klobe returned to Taiwan and saw 1,000 of those, and his wonder at the originality and skill of the work deepened. He wanted, he decided, to do an exhibition in Hawai‘i.

“Well then,” said Huang, “I have to take you to southwest China.”

The pair spent a month traveling together in the summer of 2005 to remote villages reached by a combination of road, river and foot travel. The going was wild. Bound for a village no foreigners had ever entered, they ascended a mountain “in the middle of the night,” says Klobe. “We mounted horses and rode in the moonless dark. We were greeted by women in silver headdresses and men in indigo jackets. Each gave a speech, and then they danced. In the morning, they showed us courting jackets that were embroidered with family histories and traditions. They were so beautiful, I nearly cried.”

Little by little, plans for the exhibit came together. Over 500 pieces, showcasing the finest and rarest costumes of the region’s peoples, would travel to the Islands. In honor of the myths and stories woven into the costumes, the show would be called Writing with Thread. It would open in the fall of 2008.

It was a huge coup for Klobe—but it wasn’t over yet. Armed with information on the upcoming exhibit, he traveled to Toronto for a meeting of the Textile Society of America. He had a plan: He would dazzle the TSA’s board with news of the show and convince them to hold their next biennial, in the fall of 2008, in Hawai‘i.

The biennial is the textile world’s biggest happening, a vast coming together of hundreds of scholars, weavers, experts and admirers. In the past, the world-renowned event happened only in places like New York and San Francisco—big cities, centrally located. Would anyone, board members quizzed Klobe, come to a place as remote as Hawai‘i? Klobe, who’d just traveled to the ends of the earth for textiles, convinced them that yes, people would. And this September, they will. The 11th TSA Biennial Symposium, built around the theme Textiles as Cultural Expressions, will be held from Sept. 24 to 27. There will be exhibits, tours, a huge marketplace set up in a Sheraton Waikiki hotel ballroom, symposia on topics ranging from netting and feathers in pre-contact Hawai‘i to straw and paper in Shinto ritual to traditional mohair cloth weaving in southeastern Turkey. Textiles on display will include everything from Indonesian batik to Japanese kimono prints to Hawaiian lauhala mats. The range of work, says Klobe, stretches from “Uzbekistan to ‘Ewa Beach, Santa Fe to Mongolia.”

He grins widely as he reflects on the richness of this year’s biennial. “That it’s taking place on an island 3,000 miles from anywhere—that in itself is impressive,” he says. “What is really amazing is that this biennial will be citywide.” In an unprecedented move for the biennial—no other host city has ever attempted this before—every major gallery and museum in Honolulu is dedicating time and space to textile exhibits scheduled around the biennial. Even host hotels will have themed exhibits. “The Textile Society event
organizers are blown away,” says Klobe.

In addition to Writing with Thread, which opens at the UH Art Gallery Sept. 21, there are over twenty planned exhibits. The Mission Houses Museum, for example, will host Fundamental Fiber: Lauhala, Tapa & Quilts. At the East-West Center, it’s Fields of Flowers: Woven Carpets and Mughal Treasures and at the Japanese Cultural Center, Pride and Practicality: Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai‘i.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts’ main exhibit is Tattered Cultures: Mended Histories. It is co-curated by Mary Babcock, an assistant professor at UH specializing in fiber arts, and Carol Khewhok, a curator at the Academy Art Center. The exhibit explores, says Babcock, the ways in which cultures and lives can be tattered by experience and then sewn back together. Tattered Cultures: Mended Histories invites artists and viewers to mend the gaps—for example, Mexican-American artist Consuelo Jiménez Underwood’s garments document stories of families who have crossed the border between Mexico and a new life in the North. “For me, textiles are a very powerful metaphor,” Babcock says. “They represent the strength that holds life together, even when it is worn and torn.”

Conservator and textile curator Linda Hee will lead tours of museum collections and archives. Her most unusual tour
will highlight the print shops and manufacturing centers of Tori Richards, Surfline, Print Pros and other unique-to-Hawai‘i textile producers. Another will take visitors to Puna on the Big Island for a lauhala workshop with weaver Lynda Tu‘a and visits to museums, art centers and historical sites.

At the Bishop Museum, artist and educator Maile Andrade is putting together ‘Ili Iho: The Surface Within. The show is inspired by what Andrade calls “the küpuna, the elders.” In this case, she explains, the küpuna are revered objects, “our treasures from antiquity”: a feathered cloak, a Hawaiian quilt, rare kapa, a mat woven from makaloa. For the show, Andrade invited eight contemporary Native Hawaiian artists—four women, four men; four seasoned artists, four emerging talents—to visit the kupuna in the museum’s inner sanctum. She suggested that the artists first introduce themselves to the küpuna—perhaps offering an oli (chant) or pule (prayer)—and then, charged with the kaona (deeper meaning) of the encounters, translate their conversations into art.

“Textiles are so broad in scope,” says Marques Marzan, one of the eight artists selected to participate in the Bishop Museum show. “They clothe us, protect us, embellish us, identify us. They have so many layers and so many levels.” HH

For details and a full schedule of exhibits, visit www.textilesociety.org.