Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Translating" a Technique in a Different Country - Katazome in Australia

It's been 8 years since I first tried to replicate katazome resist dyeing in Australia. After spending a year on exchange at Kyoto Seika University during my undergraduate studies, I'd come back with a burning enthusiasm to try and see if the same technique could be achievable with local supplies. It turns out, yes - but with much modification.

When you start to look at traditional crafts without applying the lens of "sacred and untouchable", you find at the core of it all a basic process that utilises a series of specific tools and ingredients to achieve a beautiful end result. The gadgets and materials that have come to be synonymous with a particular traditional craft (think shibugami stencil paper with katazome) have only obtained that status because they've developed over time in line with that culture and with other industries developing simultaneously.

What I mean is,
Dye brushes at Kuriyama-kobo, a katazome company
on the western edge of Kyoto
why would katazome use deer-hair brushes? Probably because 1. there were deer around and 2. an industry already existed making deer-hair brushes for use in traditional painting. Why would one utilise thin rods of bamboo with sharp spikes at the end to stretch fabric taut? Presumably because bamboo was already being formed into products for other purposes at the time. Katagami stencil paper could not have developed without the existing Japanese skills in washi papermaking - from which the stencil paper is made.

Very traditional stencil paper - shibugami
The thing is, if we look at the technique of katazome as it stands now, there is a very polished, established and institutionalised way of practicing it. It is basically understood to involve a set of specific tools and materials (mochi rice flour, komon rice bran, stencil paper, soybean & seaweed derived fixative). These are presumed to be the ultimate, most refined and correct way to achieve the best results. Of course it is fair to think that. These are not tools and materials that are used by accident - they have gone through a few hundred years of use and modification.

Whilst there is now some deviation from these very traditional and quintessential ingredients and processes, like a modified plasticised stencil paper or a chemical pre-dye fixative, there is still a very set way of doing things.

Newer plasticised stencil paper
How about if you want to use katazome in a country where those quintessential tools and materials are not only unavailable, they're simply not part of our culture. Bamboo, deer hair, rice flour and washi paper have only, if at all, recently been part of our vocabulary let alone available to purchase. They simply aren't part of our natural environment or resources.

Applying shinshi stretchers to long narrow fabric

So okay, why not seek to uncover what function these ingredients and tools perform within the katazome process and utilise something locally available to perform the same task?

Instead of lamenting that shinshi (bamboo fabric stretchers) are unavailable in Australia (they have no reason to be; historically we've never needed to be able to stretch a narrow kimono-width fabric out to dry) why not consider what function they are performing (stretching the fabric taut whilst leaving the back side accessible) and seek to replicate that function? A wooden frame with pins to hold the fabric out taut performs the same function. Of course, this is not as flexible as the centuries-tried-and-true shinshi approach but it is a workable solution.

Funori - looks natural and traditional, I guess
Manutex - not pretty but same stuff on the inside
Alright, what about the funori  - a seaweed derived gloopy thickener used in the pre-dye fixative? Well, if you get down to the nitty-gritty of what's actually in that stuff, you'd find that it's the same seaweed gloop that we use as a food thickener in Australia and it also already exists as a substrate for use in screen printing. Powdered "Manutex F" does not have the same natural look or roll off the tongue as nicely as funori, sure, but it performs the same basic function. 

And so you can continue with all the necessary tools and ingredients in the hallowed katazome tomes and see what can be used to achieve the same result.

For some ingredients the swap is simple. Others are proving more difficult. Soft, dense dye brushes, fine de-fatted rice-bran, water erasable ao-bana ink.... But it is really just a matter of thinking outside the box. To be able to source tools and materials locally would be the ideal situation. Not to remove the technique from its Japanese roots entirely, but to make it viable.

There are many specialised businesses in Kyoto, for example, which have operated as family-run enteprises for some hundreds of years. They each have their own niche of the textile process to support; the nori (resist paste) manufacturer and shop, the shinshi (bamboo stretcher) specialist, the kimono-width silk salesroom, the specialised craftsmen making circular punches for intricate stencil carving...More and more these businesses are struggling to survive. With the demise of the kimono as daily and common wear, these businesses that thrived and supported the kimono industry now have little patronage to subsist on. If I were still in Kyoto, I would continue to support these businesses with my own hard-owned yen and utilise them in my artwork but I fear even that is simply not enough.

Just one example of the many kimono industry support businesses that are often now finding it hard to stay afloat

If, and it would seem likely, these businesses continue to shut-down, there is no-one left to make the traditional katagami, to bulk-produce batches of nori paste, to make specific lengths of shinshi, to craft tiny sharp circular punches. Like any loss of knowledge and skills, this is tragic, it really is. But this is the way it goes. Crafts are only in demand so much as they are an active and necessary part of our daily lives. Without that demand, they become obsolete. There are many example of innovative companies and individuals who are thinking outside the box to continue supporting Kyoto's craft industries and make them relevant to today's society (these are something I plan to touch on in future) but I think we also need to be realistic. Whilst continuing to support traditional industry where possible, I think we need to start accepting that there are alternatives, so that the techniques can actually survive - even if some of the tools cannot.

It seems to me that in the end, even if it means modifying many of the components of the technique, having the ability to actually practice the technique at all, and see it survive into the future is the best way to honour tradition.

A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it. - Henry James

On that note, I'm off to continue testing out new resist-paste recipes!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Somé - Dyeing the Australian Environment

In August/September this year I was lucky enough to be invited to hold a solo exhibition of my work at the Japan Foundation Gallery in Sydney. It was titled "Somé - Dyeing the Australian Environment".
It's been a long while coming but here are some images from the show.

I made some new work for this show, a large noren for the entry to the gallery space and a series of pieces called "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra".

Entrance to the exhibition. "A Hearty Welcome" on left

I called the noren "A Hearty Welcome", referencing its function as a gateway to the exhibition. I dyed it using katazome on hemp fabric which I sourced in Australia. Previously I'd dyed several noren but on Japanese linens which have a certain stiff feel to them and are rather open weaves so that a glimmer of the space behind the curtain is also visible. I'm yet to find a fabric with similar qualities in Australia but the hemp fabric was a new experiment using a natural looking slubby cellulose fibre. It's a little softer than I would like, as it creases easily and softens in the washing stage of katazome.

The noren was tied back during the opening event - Photo by Document Photography
The imagery I used for the stencil was of the droopy branches of Eucalyptus Cinerea (Argyle Apple). I've used them as subject matter before because I love their dusty blue-green leaves with their almost circular forms. They really lend themselves to being carved into a silhouette-y stencil.

The other new work I produced was a series I've been calling "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra". I've become even more obsessed with weeds since starting these pieces but the idea behind them is that our natural environment is a composite of all kinds of species native and otherwise. When you look closer you realise that a good many of them are actually "weeds" but to me they are familiar parts of the landscape and also quite beautiful in their own right. 

Keeping a little distance from the complex conservation and environmental problems connected with "weeds" I'm trying to just depict them in all their weedy glory - kind of weed portraits.

This is a series I will be further developing and expanding for future exhibitions but the initial weeds I've dyed are Wild Blackberry, Rosehip, Umbrella Sedges and Japanese Honeysuckle. For these pieces I used vibrant acid dyes to dye the weeds themselves - true to nature- and applied natural dyes as the background colour. I really like the russets and orange tones you can extract from local eucalyptus varieties and onion skins so I've used a combination of these against the vibrant colours of the weeds I chose.

Blackberries and Sedges - first trials in "the Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" series.

Japanese Honeysuckle - Beautiful Weeds of Canberra. A garden favourite in Japan but a creeping weed in South East Australia.

For future pieces I'm planning on featuring many many more beautiful weeds and trying to get even deeper, richer background colours. I've also started research for a series on "the Beautiful Weeds of Kyoto". It's interesting to see which weeds overlap with Australia; the weeds which we "share". It's also cool finding those species which are natives in Australia but invasive in Japan or the reverse. I think there's some deeper subject you could read into that if you chose to. 

detail of "Sedges" - Beautiful Weeds of Canberra Series. 2016
Anyway, back to my exhibition in Sydney, the general response from the audience was really good. I had never shown work in Sydney, let alone so many pieces all at once before, so it was great to come across all these people who I'd never have had the chance to meet. I held a floor talk and two workshops whilst I was there too. Both went really well. It was my first time to hold workshops with so many participants but everyone was very enthusiastic and got great results.
Each participant dyed two washi postcards using powdered pigments.

looking like a pro giving my floortalk for Japan Foundation Members before the opening

during the opening

the opening

workshops underway


Participants results from the workshops. really nice!!
It would be nice to do more workshops in future, maybe on less of a tight schedule next time!

Anyway, I'm now working towards new things for 2017. A few exhibitions on the horizon so I have to get making! 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Somé no Bunka - Fukumoto Shigeki's introduction to the unique magic of Somé

It took me many months to read, but I successfully worked my way through a book by Japanese artist and researcher Fukumoto Shigeki called "Somé no Bunka", or "The Culture of Dyeing".

Part of the motivation behind my exhibition (and especially the choice of title) last month at the Japan Foundation in Sydney was to introduce more people to the genre of somé. Somé means 'dyeing' in Japanese and the term separates it from other forms of textiles. 

In Japanese it is common practice to divide the field of textiles into dyeing and weaving (somé & ori 染め、織り). The name of the textiles course in many Japanese universities is senshoku (dyeing and weaving 染織) which is the just a different reading of the characters for somé+ori.

Somé is different from weaving, obviously, but it is also distinct from surface design or 'textiles'. It's a complicated division and of course there are overlaps but Fukumoto's book reiterates the unique history and way of thinking behind Somé.

Fukumoto is a practitioner and proponent of Textile dyeing. His own work is diverse but is characterised by free-form dyeing with gradations, folds and wax resist.

This is a beautiful video showing him and one of his techniques. I have to say it's a little bit contradictory to the things he says about flatness and tactility but it's interesting nonetheless.

I thought I might translate a few short passages from Somé no Bunka here for you. (Please excuse the Engrish-y feel of them!)

"There is a curious pleasure to be found in dyeing work, almost without realising. It’s something you sense during the actual work of the dyeing process; a joy perhaps only privy to those who’ve tried it. 

There’s the feeling of pleasure when impurities and excess dyes are washed away. Or in the final rinse, one feels a sense of accomplishment as the dye stops running from the fabric and the water runs clear.
You see the vibrancy of the dyed colours in the soaking fabric.
Relaxing the fabric with steam, it becomes supple and fresh again.
Touching the freshly dyed fabric, and knowing it is clean and clear of impurities is a joyous moment.
As well as the many possible dye-effects, there is a satisfaction in knowing the finished artwork is still simply a single piece of cloth. 
There is a joy not simply the making of the work, but also in the sensation of touching it with the skin.
I question that perhaps I enjoy this too much."

Regarding mounting textiles ↓

"Dyeing requires cloth and dye
Unlike painting with pigments, for example, dyeing is borne of the need to fix colour onto cloth without spoiling the fabric's characteristics. 
That is, the basis of dyeing is using methods that don't alter the feel of the cloth.

If you go and frame or mount a dyed piece of fabric, it becomes a flat artwork. That piece of cloth is transformed into a mere surface and it loses its meaning as a soft, pliable cloth.
If it's an illusory flat surface you want, what's wrong with using canvas, or paper, wooden board or a wall?
If you insist on using fabric even though the final product will be hard and flat, what's the point of going to all that trouble dyeing it to maintain it's fabric qualities? You're probably not interested in the tactility of the cloth - the direct interaction with the skin.
 In which case, your choice to insist on using fabric is nonsense."

- YEAH! you tell 'em Mr Fukumoto!

He also goes into a lot of depth regarding the relationship between Japan's dyeing history and culture and European and American understandings of dyeing. He is particularly scrupulous about the Surface Design Association in the U.S and their development from a weaving-dominated association to one that covers all kinds of textiles. I think Australia went through a very similar progression, from crafts-based textile skills, to 1960's/1970's free-form fibre-work and dyeing to a contemporary Textile scene we see today.

Though Dyeing tends to be subsumed under the heading of Surface Design in Australia and the U.S, Fukumoto maintains that Somé and Surface Design are not one and the same. He advocates using the word Somé as an alternative, to avoid the inevitable connotations of words like Textile Design, Surface Design or Fibre Art.

He's actually quite adamant, "Sashimi, Karate, Anime and Shibori are already incorporated into our internationalising vocabulary. Why not just call it Somé? Japanese dyeing culture is highly regarded around the world. If people are so enthusiastic about learning those traditions and skills, first they should just use the word Somé!!"

I would love to share more of his writing in future posts - but for now just these tasters!

-- keep an eye out, I hope to post images from my exhibition in the near future!