Friday 5 August 2011 | By Chris Cooke
Ben Divall, Elizabeth Guest & Johnathan Mills: Festival heirlooms lead cultural interchange
Perhaps the most visual representation of the theme that runs throughout the Edinburgh International Festival this year will be found in the Dovecot Studios on Infirmary Street in the form of a textile exhibition called ‘Heirlooms’.
The impact of the textile traditions of India and South East Asia, on each other and on the Western World, will be explored through a collection of works both old and new, from both east and west.
Or, to put all that in the words of the man in charge, EIF Director Johnathan Mills: “The creative interchange between east and west – past, present and, perhaps most vitally of all, future – is at the heart of our festival this year, and this is beautifully demonstrated in ‘Heirlooms’. Presenting gorgeous historical works from the Jonathan Hope collection alongside newly created contemporary work by hugely talented Scottish artists and demonstrations from craftspeople visiting from abroad, this exhibition will give us a chance to experience and learn about Indian and Javanese textiles, their rich heritage and how they have developed to the present day, and a glimpse into what may come next”.
As Johnathan indicates, there are several elements to ‘Heirlooms’. David Weir, Director of the Dovecot Studios, embellishes on two of them. “There are two exhibitions under the Heirlooms title”, he explains, “the first a more historical perspective on 17th Century to 20th Century textiles from the far east; the second a more contemporary 21st Century reflection on textiles, including a new piece by our own master weaver Naomi Robertson”.
Ben Divall has co-curated the former of those, offering an insight into the work of generations of textile makers from India, and the role their work played in wider cultural and economic development of their time. Ben explains: “For centuries, much of the known world’s economy turned on the exchange of Indian textiles for spices. The Indonesian islands, especially the Moluccas, were the source of this valuable commodity, consisting of nutmeg, cloves and pepper, and the trade was controlled, in turn, by India, Portugal and Holland”.
He adds: “The textiles keenly desired by the islanders were produced in Gujarat and along the Coromandel coast. These brilliantly coloured cottons and sumptuous silk, double ikat patola, would establish an exalted status for their owners at a glance. The vibrant dyes and inexhaustible design inventory created an insatiable demand and there are records of warehouses in Dutch Batavia – modern day Jakarta – stacked with tens of thousands of cloth lengths”.
As trade in textiles grew between India and Indonesia a cultural exchange occurred. “Naturally, the Southeast Asians had their own textile traditions”, Ben continues, “including the techniques of warp ikat on cotton, practised throughout Indonesia, and batik, almost synonymous with Java. The influence of Indian imported cloth on local production was profound, and this can be seen in some of the batik compositions in this show. There was a two-way exchange of design ideas in operation, as different regions desired different patterns and the Indian cloth makers would have received specific instructions”.
The Indian textile makers were also hugely influential on the Western world, and in may ways still are, something explored in the second strand of ‘Heirlooms’, the new commissions. Co-coordinator Elizabeth Guest tells ThreeWeeks: “The new works in Heirlooms have been commissioned from three Scottish textile artists, Sarah Sumsion, Deirdre Nelson and Naomi Robertson. They were each asked to create a new work which would reflect the Indian textile traditions that they found inspiring and which would demonstrate the fact that the long established textile traditions of India can still influence the work of Western artists in the twenty first century”.
The three works are distinct from each other, though all offer a modern take on the traditional art form explored in the first part of the exhibition. Though one in particular has a very modern dimension. “Deirdre has introduced a high-tech element into her work, namely QR codes”, says Elizabeth. “With this she refers to the rapid growth of information technology in contemporary India. This innovative element relating to our own time cleverly relates to the not infrequent practice by traditional Indian craftsmen of incorporating images of the latest inventions of their time such as the delightful image of a railway train woven as a repeat pattern into the border the late nineteenth century Baluchari sari included in the exhibition”.
The third element to ‘Heirlooms’ is actual demonstrations of textile production in action. Elizabeth once again: “Two highly regarded Indian crafts practitioners will give demonstrations of their skills during the exhibition. One is Jyotish Debnath, a weaver from the Crafts Council of West Bengal’s Weaving Centre at Kalna, near Kolkata. He will demonstrate on a small loom, specially brought from India, the complicated technique of jamdani a weaving technique in which additional weft threads are introduced with spools as the weaving progresses”.
She continues: “The other is Bina Dey, an award winning embroiderer from the Crafts Council of West Bengal’s Kantha Training Centre in Kolkata, who will also be in Edinburgh to demonstrate the design processes and stitches and techniques of kantha embroidery”.
So works of old, works of new and works in progress, all demonstrations of a cultural exchange between east and west, such a perfect combination of elements for the EIF’s visual arts strand this year. Though some will remain a little perturbed by the idea of an exhibition based around textile works, an art show based around a craft. Back to Dove Cot Studios Director David Weir: “The thing about textiles is that they are so tactile and often the detail is so fine – we want to be able to show people the detail without having a screen across them. But other than than that what is wonderful about textiles are that it crosses so many aspects of design, craft and art. The multilayered aspects that go into making highly prized textiles are hard to show so we encourage people to read some of the material while they walk around the exhibition, and to savour the intricacy of the work”.
The ‘Heirlooms’ exhibition appeared at the Dovecot Studios at Festival 2011.