The Fabrics And Stories Of Our Lives

Reams have been written about what architecture can reveal about civilizations, and any discovery of a previously undocumented ancient building or site causes a flurry of scholarly articles and books. In comparison, textiles, no matter how historic, tend to be overlooked, despite the fact that people have been creating fabrics for their daily use for as long as they have been constructing family dwellings and public buildings.

Last year, a researcher in fibers and their uses discovered boxes of King Tutankhamen's clothing, which had lain in Cairo untouched by historians since 1922 when Howard Carter, the discoverer of that king's famous tomb, packed them after his meticulous inventory. Now this strange neglect of textiles is gradually being repaired, and a book about King Tut's royal garments will finally be published next year.

But can fiber arts tell us something more than the mode of dress of a particular time and place? Can they tell us anything of the mind and spirit of their fabricators?

In an intriguing exhibit, "Mysterious Voids at the Heart of Historic Textiles: A Search for Meaning," the Textile Museum in Washington, answers yes. The show was organized by Gerhardt Knodel, who is head of the Fiber Department at the innovative Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. In it, textiles made for individual use, not huge tapestries created for public seats of power, are linked to the same impulses as familial architecture.

Mr. Knodel believes that "as our world increasingly becomes visually and psychologically dense with people and their objects, it may be useful to reconsider the way objects occupy and alter our sense of space, allowing us to transcend physical limits in significant ways."

For this exhibition, Knodel has gathered personal-use textiles from around the world. They include a shawl from Kashmir, India; a woman's garment (huipil) from Mexico; an Inca tunic from South America; a reed screen from Africa; a prayer rug from Turkestan; and others.

Knodel links these diverse fiber objects to the same impulse we have toward creating pleasing, comfortable interior architectural space in which to live and move. It is his conviction that "people through time have attempted to visually represent being home or being centered in the objects with which they live ... a place that is safe, quiet, inspirational and a place of renewal or potential."

In other words, one may figuratively enter into a textile design the same way one enters into an architectural space with an expectancy of that safe place of renewal.

Abeautiful Kashmir shawl provides us with an illustration of this process. In the center of an intricate, predominantly red design we find a radiant white circle. Knodel might ask us to consider whether this is simply an uncolored or blank space, or whether it suggests an openness, inviting us in, as do the best proportioned doorways, gates, and arches in architecture.

There are four motifs that point out from the ring of the circle to the corners of the shawl, and there are four palmetto leaf motifs entering into the circle. Pursuing the analogy of a home-space of peacefulness and comfort, one might deduce that the designer (who lived at least a century ago) was indicating that the best mental centering comes when we are free to seek out the four corners of the earth but feel sure of a welcome on our return.

From Mexico, on the other side of the globe, the design on a woman's huipil (a loose upper-body garment) exhibits the same metaphoric sense of space in a rectangular format. The architectural comparison that comes to mind is that of the quiet cloistered court with, perhaps, a patterned walk around the perimeter giving a sense of order. The colors impart a feeling of vivid, even energetic, life.

Knodel's work has been exhibited in both the United States and Japan, and his efforts to expand the traditional ideas of fibers and the meaning of their textiles have been recognized with awards and fellowships. Not surprisingly, he is also an expert photographer and has paired photographs (which span time and space) with the textiles of this exhibit, providing a sort of subtext.

Another huipil counterparts an early site with Romanesque arches and a mosaic floor, both with its circular pattern and the invitation to enter between arches. Another, more whimsically shows two contemporary women in sun hats whose circles echo the many circles of an embroidered cover (suzani) from Uzbekistan.

While one might feel less challenged intellectually by just admiring the designs, colors, and workmanship of the objects, the exhibit is a distinct advance in the recognition of the value of textiles. In most climates, fiber objects become very fragile over time, and therefore it is easier for scholars to study those made from harder materials.

But more important, these textiles also have been largely executed by women. Historians have not, until recently, paid the same attention to women as artists as to men. Knodel is to be commended for opening wider scholarly examination and appreciation of textiles.

* The exhibition 'Mysterious Voids at the Heart of Historic Textiles: A Search for Meaning' will be at the Textile Museum in Washington until Jan.7, 1996.

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