Jennifer's Group: Gallery Visit by Sierra Johnson
I visited the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI. The name of the exhibition I visited was called Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. It was a collection of 500 works from Chinese minorities (15 in all) from the late 19th century to the present day. The exhibition covered the east half of the second floor, and was arranged with all of the pieces from a particular group in close proximity to one another. Clothing is an important signifier of identity among these groups. Since it is uncommon for them to have written languages, word of mouth is one of the only way to communicate histories and legends of the past. Textiles provide tangible alternatives to this oral tradition. It can be difficult to differentiate between some of the pieces because over the years, migration of these groups resulted in blending between cultures. Presently, Miao (or Hmong) is a term used to describe a large fraction of these minorities
The textiles, mostly made by Miao women, are intricately woven with patterns and images. Silver ornamental jewelry, mostly crafted by the men, commonly accompany the outfits. The clothing is mostly made with special, indigo dyed cotton. The fabric is soaked in soybean juice then dyed in plant extract. Then it is soaked in water and buffalo skin extract. The fabric is then beat for a crisp finish.
One piece that was repeated throughout the exhibit was a Miao Baby Carrier. One that particularly caught my eye was from the Late 19th to early 20th century from the Pingyong Town in Miao Dong. Like the many of the other garments, the baby carrier was made out of the same, indigo cotton fabric. The central design was a very intricately embroidered dragon, and on either side were spectacular birds, butterflies, and flowers in a cloud-like design. These embroideries were made with really rich colors, especially reds and yellows. The description of the piece said that the scalloped edges are reminiscent of the Han ruyi motif, and that cloud pattern means a “wishes granted”, and the imagery is meant to identify the child as a member of the group and to assure protection.
I really enjoyed this exhibition. I thought that it was really interesting how much care and detail goes into not just ceremonial clothing, but also clothing that is worn from day-to-day. Many Hmong refugees came to the United States after the Vietnam War, especially the Madison area. Growing up in Madison I knew that there was a high population of Hmong people but like many, didn’t really know much about their culture. It was enlightening to be able to learn a bit about where they came from and their traditional values.
The link below is an image I found of a child watching someone in the process of dying the indigo cotton.