Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2023
Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth
Seattle Art museum, Seattle, WA 98101, May 9–May 29, 2023
Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth, installation view, Kimono, 20th century, Japan (Kyushu, Kurume), cotton double ikat, 65" x 50", Collection of David and Marita Paly, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA 98101, May 9–May 29, 2023

Ikat is one of the most ancient and important traditional textile dyeing techniques connecting East and West, and in recent years has been growing in recognition. Ikat has a distinctive look with shaggy edges and shifted skinny lines. Commercially printed ikat-inspired designs are sold for such items as curtains and cushion covers as people enjoy the aesthetic of ikat in their living rooms. However, many people may not know about real ikat weaving processes. Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth, beautifully conceived and installed by curator of African and Oceanic art Pamela McCluskey, provides an important sense of the history and breadth of these important processes including the differences between “Real and Faux Ikat,” one of the sections in the exhibition.

The exhibition introduces ikat from 8 different regions in the world: Japan, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Europe, and the Americas. It ranges from a twelfth-century fragment of a Peruvian burial shroud to contemporary works. Information on each work is comprehensive with QR codes for further study and videos to understand the cultural differences and similarities of ikat processes. Each piece gives an inspiring sense of the preserved labor of human hands, intellect, and spirit, giving the exhibition space a powerful feeling. The pioneering contemporary textile artist Virginia Davis (who, I believe should be included in the exhibition) might be the first person who called attention to the beauty of ikat, as in her Tartan series.

Traditional ikat, involving tie-dyeing bundles of threads prior to weaving, is the most complicated and labor-intensive textile process. There are three main ways to make designs: warp ikat, weft ikat, and double ikat, and the shifting directions and selvage give an idea of how the fabric was made. Ikat is a resist technique, a subtractive way to make designs that is primarily practiced in much of Asia and Africa. The bound threads create small gradations between the resist area and dyed area, which is part of the beauty of hand-dyed threads for ikat.  However, the border between dyed and resisted areas can be very sharp, and the wrapped part should be resisted completely (without leaking dye) for successful results. Before weaving, many repeated tie-dyeing processes involve careful planning and a high level of skill. When it is woven, the overlapped resisted areas of double ikat become very white and the overlapped dyed areas show the beauty of color mixing from warp and weft.    

Even though the focus is on traditional ikat from various regions, there are several contemporary ikat artworks in this exhibition providing unique approaches to ikat techniques. A large-scale contemporary installation work Zurashi/Slipped by Chinami and Rowland Ricketts fills the first gallery of the exhibition. This work shows the traditional warp ikat process using indigo dyeing on a huge scale. Chinami is a skilled weaver and Rowland is a contemporary artist who works with indigo. Each shade of blue is beautifully dyed and the long, wrapped areas are perfectly resisted. The artists provide a poetic documentation on a video showing the process and indigo’s magical chemistry. Because it is not woven, the threads are all loose even though they stay together in large skeins; actually, each skein is treated as a large thread in this context. The layering effects and dimensionality to show the various shades of saturated blue are well executed; from the two wider sides, the arrow patterns indicate the most common way to create an ikat design by shifting each thread gradually, creating angled lines. The wooden structures with weighted rods on the bottom provide tension, producing an architectural effect like a portable shrine, as if honoring the artists’ labor and their focus on the intense process for the year they spent on the project.

The exhibition provides information about different symbolism, dyes, materials, and processes in each region. For example, Indonesian spiritual cloth introduces rituals using videos and photographs of spinners, dyers, tyers, weavers, and so on. The bright colors and contrasting designs of ikats from Uzbekistan provide strong contrasts to the monochromatic deserts in Central Asia. These ikats combine bold motifs such as combs and pomegranate with small designs and borders, and embroideries and tassels. Stripe-based designs on narrow-strip cloth from Africa are shown, and the magenta color over indigo caught my attention, as with Agbada (man’s ceremonial robe) and Aso-oke stripe woven by Yoruba people. It was fascinating to learn that the magenta color comes from elephant grass.

Once, in Gujarat, India in 2003, I observed one of the three families who still produce Patola silk double ikat with intricate traditional imagery such as elephants, birds, and flowers. It was surprising to know they used cotton threads to bind the bundles of threads. Most of the Patola makers and weavers were males and they were using chemical dyes that are commonly used everywhere. 

Many ikat fabrics in various regions have been used for rituals, and ikat garments such as Lawo Butu from Indonesia, Ucetek entari from Syria, and Patola sari from India are worn by high-status people as heirlooms. This contrasts with people in the US who incorporate the designs into a casual lifestyle. Large areas of solid color in ikat cloth are rarely seen, but a couple of works (a hip wrapper from Cambodia and a ritual cloth from Indonesia) stood out and are reminiscent of the type of large fields of color seen in the paintings of Mark Rothko for example and the abstract ikat work by contemporary artist Jun Tomita (not included here).

Kurume ikat is a Japanese ikat (kasuri) and is known for e-gasuri (pictorial design focusing on weft ikat and double ikat). In the exhibition many of the futonji (bedding cover) works from Kurume and a child’s kimono from Omi used the technique of e-gasuri. The specific technique using taneito (seed thread) on e-gasuri was not explained in the exhibition but a QR code link provided more information. One of the most intellectual techniques in textiles, taneito on e-gasuri requires a precise process and advanced skills.  

My research under Kurume artist Shoji Yamamura in 2011 was extremely valuable in understanding such complicated processes, something the videos in the exhibition can only partially convey. The indigo dyeing room has a sacred feeling and a special smell, and the sound of the weaving studio is meditative. The simple bamboo bobbins, shuttles, and weaving looms transport you to another era. Seeing an image emerge from wound cotton threads that are all dark indigo with white dots is completely magical. Since 1957 Kurume ikat has been designated as an intangible cultural asset, preserving two-hundred-year-old techniques. Preserving such amazing cultural properties is very important and the regional rituals and ceremonies should continue. However, the original ways to create such cloth with natural dyeing is challenging. Since chemical dyes became commonplace, it is harder to go back to producing with natural dyes and not many young people may be interested in such labor-intensive processes. 

In order to inspire younger generations to practice ikat the technique should be introduced in innovative ways as there are so many possibilities. Even among those who have studied ikat, there are not many who keep practicing it. Contemporary works in the exhibiton by Polly Barton and James Bassler enliven the historic processes. Barton’s Dare series presents three abstract imageries that evoke a plant, birds, and fire and the double ikat creates a special depth. Her artistic statement on Tamago Bassada proves that Barton enjoys the challenge of ikat as a resist process. The distortion of the ikat patterns of Bassler’s Tejido/shroud, accomplished by wedge-weaving, creates a certain rhythm—my own students are so proud when they finish weaving their ikat pieces after working with this intense process. Taking advantage of a characteristic of ikat, they were able to express various contemporary ideas such as blurring images to express sexuality and gender issues.

Barriers between contemporary art and traditional craft remain; I wonder how Patola weavers would view my students’ ikat works with various designs and unique expressions. They may not like it because we are not using the technique in traditional ways. Or perhaps they would be excited and would be inspired to take ikat into new directions.  

Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth provides a fascinating introduction to ikat from around the world, and David and Marita Paly’s collection, on which much of this exhibition is based, is truly amazing. The exhibition presents a significant question for ikat’s future: how to preserve traditions while accepting and inventing new possibilities of the process?

Seiko A. Purdue
Professor of Fibers/Fabrics, Department of Art and Art History
Western Washington University