Unravelling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories By Cecilia Gunzburger Anderson
Guest Exhibition Review By Cecilia Gunzburger Anderson
The Textile Museum’s inaugural exhibition in its beautiful new building explores the essential role of textiles in constructing and reflecting human identities, while beginning to shape the museum’s new identity in partnership with George Washington University. Drawing on the global breadth of one of the leading textile collections in the world, over one hundred masterpieces from across the globe and over three thousand years of history are loosely organised into themes touching on political, ethnic, religious, economic, and personal identities.
Filling all three floors of new galleries with dramatic colour and pattern, this is the largest exhibition in the museum’s history. The new space allows curators to exhibit more large pieces, such as their world-class Islamic carpet and pre-Columbian Andean collections, at one time than ever before. A soaring two-story space visible from two galleries makes it possible to appreciate and compare the full scope of pattern and scale of four large carpets at once: Anatolian, Mamluk, Safavid, and an embroidered Portuguese.
Fragile pieces such as archeological Andean and Roman hangings, no matter how large, can be displayed flat as part of a coherent storyline with other objects. Configurable walls within the galleries create intimate spaces for close contemplation of smaller and delicate pieces such as an extremely fine Persian embroidered prayer cloth and a richly textured Tlingit tapestry mantle, while contextual images on hanging scrims throughout the galleries add vertical presence to the flat objects and help define paths through the exhibition.
Many spectacular pieces are on view that have never before been exhibited, or haven’t been seen in decades. Standouts include the largest extant late antique Roman tapestry, fragmentary yet spectacular in the subtlety of its delicate rendering of putti and animals, and a complete Paracas mantle from pre-European South America, its embroidered fantastic figures vibrant and animated after over two thousand years. Treasure after treasure appears around each corner in the exhibition: an impossibly fine pashmina Mughal carpet from a prince’s pleasure palace, a virtuoso Malaysian gold-brocaded skirt, a dragon robe worn by the last Chinese empress, and a multi-colored figured velvet depicting a falconer from the Savafid Persian court. Textile lovers of any persuasion should not miss the opportunity to see these exemplary textiles in person.
There is something for every textile lover here, from fine Indonesian Ikat to a dramatic Navajo mantle to pristine Huari tapestry, and, of course, rugs from Spain to Egypt to Central Asia. Confirming the museum’s commitment to exhibiting and inspiring contemporary makers in fiber, the exhibition includes pieces by contemporary artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Shihoko Fukumoto who draw on historic and global textile traditions in their work, as well as artists like Mark Newport and Cynthia Schira who explore ideas of identity related to the exhibition’s theme. Contemporary fashion garments are also included under similar rubrics, with Arlette Muschter and Claudy Jongstra’s felted wedding dress and a Givenchy feathered gown bringing historic practices into the present day.
Puzzlingly, only the globally significant collections of historic Guatemalan, Mexican, and Andean indigenous textiles are completely absent from the exhibition, even though these pieces are excellent examples of textiles expressing identity. The African and mainland Southeast Asian collections are under-represented as well. Perhaps the newfound freedom to mount large carpets and archeological textiles privileged these objects over smaller ones, and we will see more of these important textiles in the future.
The museum’s digital presence is expanded in this new incarnation as well. A fun and thought-provoking digital interactive kiosk within the exhibition galleries invites visitors to explore their own identities through their textile choices, and several televisions and tablets throughout the galleries display video artwork and more images and information on various objects. The partnership with a research university is a golden opportunity for The Textile Museum to renew its commitment to serious and leading-edge textile scholarship and conservation, a role it pioneered in the mid-twentieth century. This exhibition’s catalog takes a small step in that direction, featuring an essay by a GW professor of political science along with contributions from Textile Museum curators. Joining university and museum expertise and resources opens excellent possibilities for new and deeper scholarship, as well as scholarly publications. This catalog, however, is available only in digital format on the museum’s website.
Unraveling Identity announces The Textile Museum’s re-entry into the world of exhibitions in a grand fashion and holds great promise of possibilities for future exhibition and publication of humanity’s textile traditions and contemporary practices. And for those nostalgic for the old Textile Museum, there is even a lovely green garden area right outside the new building for a quiet rest and recharge moment after the visual feast of the exhibition.
Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories
March 21- August 24, 2015
The Textile Museum
The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum
701 21st Street, NW Washinton D.C