FLOW (2021) is a photographic sculptural series that references intertwining histories, cultural narratives, and creative processes associated with ikat, borrowed from the Indonesian word meaning “to bind.” While its origins are believed to be in Java, the fabric maintains roots across the globe including India, Uzbekistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Yemen, and Central and South East Asia. Across the world, ikat is known by different monikers and carries varying degrees of significance. Ikat is also known as endek to Indonesians, kasuri to the Japanese, atlas to the Uyghurs, matmi to the Thai, jaspe to Oaxaquenos, pochampally to Hydrabadis, patola to Gujaratis, darayee to Iranians, and tiraz to Yemenis. Regardless of the differing names that each community uses to reference it, the process is consistent. This particular cloth, considered to be one of the “holy weaves”, is regarded as a fabric of the wealthy and/or the sacred. Today, it is most commonly referred to as ikat and has been adopted into other Anglo-European languages where the practice was never developed, but rather appropriated.
Ikat employs a complex process of production using a resist dye process, similar to that of batik which also originated in Java, but dissimilar in that the dying process takes place before the threads are woven together. The process by which Ikat is created, engages a team of Master artisans and time tested methods. Once the cotton or silk is rendered from the cotton tree or silk worm’s cocoon, artisans create long threads that are wrapped around two wooden bolts. This process is referred to as “the weave.” The weave is then brought to a specialized artisan who sets the Ikat’s design. This process is achieved by dividing the bolts of threads into equal parts, encasing parts with wax or wrapping them with tape, and then dipping each portion into specific dyes to create a dye resistant result. The wax is then boiled off or the tapes removed. Finally the unbound threads are carefully and systematically lined up to reveal exceptional patterns which evoke dramatic visual shifts. An opposing thread, known as “the weft,” is used on the loom to produce the horizontal stitching. While the width of the fabric is restricted to the loom, the length is not — therefore offering repeated sequences rippling across potentially endless lengths of vibrantly rich cottons and silks.
FLOW draws the viewer’s attention to the highly enigmatic textile, and also questions ikat’s vulnerability to the historical and geopolitical implications of its production, especially in the context of an ever-consuming capitalist and globalized world. As originally, the fabric’s migration to Europe in the 20th Century emerged from Dutch colonization of the West Indies, Indonesia.
As a child I was exposed to some of the most exquisite textiles through travels with my mother. Ikats were among the many textiles that I encountered along these journeys and I would encounter them mostly in textile markets. The patterns enthralled me as my eyes vibrated across the flowing gowns and garments of those who wore them. It was only years later, in my adulthood that I discovered that my native land, Yemen, was famous for the weave and renowned across the Muslim world for the high skilled workmanship that the Yemeni Masters produced. Ikat was once found throughout Yemen in silks and cotton, which often included gold leaf. According to the Cleveland Museum of Art, some of the oldest forms of Ikat can be traced back to textile workshops in Sana’a, Yemen in the 9th and 10th centuries. This form of Ikat is referred to as cotton warp-ikat tiraz, and often includes shades of indigo, tan, and ivory, embellished with inscriptions. The Cleveland Museum of Art notes that many surviving pieces of Yemeni Ikat fabrics were found in ancient middens at Forstat in Egypt. Unfortunately this part of our heritage would be erased –– a repercussion of colonization, war, and the fragmentation of our people with our diaspora spread across the globe.
In 2016, the allure of the textile would draw me in once again deep into the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, in a town called Margillon. I spent several weeks there with Master Ikat designers, dyers and weavers, in what is considered to be one of the oldest and longest existing ikat factories along the Silk Road. This area served as a crossroads between cultures, and became a vibrant place where the exchange of textiles, stories, myths, and symbolism took place across time.
Today, Margillon is a sleepy town that attracts occasional tourists who make their way off the beaten track from the otherwise renowned Samarkand and Bukhara. Its last claim to fame was in 2013, when famed fashion designer Oscar de la Renta sourced his fabrics for his Fall 2013 collection. While the kaleidoscopic designs of versicolored textiles took the fashion industry by storm, Margillon remains unchanged. The pattern continued to be appropriated by the fashion industry, and its origin confused and co-opted as something other than Uzbek. It has been drastically removed from its source(s), and as such is widely recognized to be associated primarily with “Eastern'' cultures. In many instances, when searching online for example, ikat is often misattributed to Turkey or Morocco, when in fact it’s sourced in Uzbekistan. Ultimately, FLOW reminds the viewer of where the fabric originates, and signifies the unseen master artisans themselves.
Furthermore, what goes amiss in the wide consumption of the textile is how pattern functions as a lexicon. The team of Master artisans engage in a highly mathematical and organizational system to produce the cloth, requiring each of them to be highly skilled and fluent in the entire lexicon of Ikat symbolism. Artisans memorize the entire canon of motifs present in the ikat fabrics, understanding the meaning of each symbol and it’s mathematical measurements. Examples include rams horns, pomegranates, the evil eye, blueberries, snakes, and paisley. Fabrics with particular symbols are worn for different occasions, both daily and ceremonially. The symbols are thus activated as expressions of specific qualities and narratives, and most importantly as protection. It becomes a shield, not for the fine quality of the cotton or silk being used, but rather for the power of the symbol that is portrayed within. Visually, the movement within the fabric, and the shifting shapes in the textiles, can cause a rupture in the viewer’s perception. The fluctuations within the fabric, the oscillating symbols and colors trouble notions of categorization and fixed definition.
FLOW conceptualizes this collaboration of thread, dye and meaning –– wherein the cloth itself takes on frequencies of the individual and of the materials –– that lend to the sense of movement present in the final creation. What is rendered is a hyperoptic result that allows the textile, and ultimately the wearer, to stand out while simultaneously camouflaging the curves and lines of the body. Ikat is also used in the decoration of interior spaces where entire rooms are upholstered from floor to ceiling, including furniture and those living within, creating dreamlike experiences. Ikat manifests into an expression of the land from which the materials are harvested and the imagination of those who exist upon it.
- Mackie, Louise W. Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th-21st Century. Cleveland; New Haven: Cleveland Museum of Art; Yale University Press, 2015. Reproduced: p. 104: Mentioned: p. 105, 215
Featuring at The High Line Nine, Wanderlust Exhibition, Octavia Gallery, April 4-29th. Opening of exhibition is April 6th from 5-7pm. Brooke Minto, Director of Columbus Art Museum, will be in conversation with the artist at the opening at 6:30 pm.
Featuring at Octavia Gallery, New Orleans, May 6-27th. Opening of exhibition is May 6th. Reception is from 6-8 pm.