Only in Okinawa
Okinawa—Japan’s southernmost prefecture—comprises dozens of semitropical islands stretching over a thousand miles from Kyushu to Taiwan. This archipelago began to unite politically in the fifteenth century as a kingdom called Ryukyu. The Ryukyu Kingdom developed distinctive sociocultural, religious, and artistic traditions, and remained an independent monarchy for 450 years.
A prosperous trade center, the Ryukyu Kingdom gained renown throughout East Asia for its superb textiles. Among the kingdom’s most famed fabrics were those patterned with bingata, a uniquely Okinawan dyeing technique noted for colors and patterns that evoke the lush island landscape. Bingata is a type of resist dyeing that uses rice paste applied to a textile—freehand or through stencils—to prevent dyes and pigments from coloring certain areas.
Bingata! Only in Okinawa is the first major American exhibition focusing on this unique art form. Organized in partnership with the Okinawan Prefectural Government, it brings together textile treasures from three of Okinawa’s most distinguished institutional collections. The exhibition includes dozens of eighteenth- to early-twentieth-century garments and furnishings, as well as works by contemporary Okinawan artists and designers; stencils and other tools; films showing production techniques and performances featuring bingata costumes; reproductions of paintings and photographs; and touch screens offering additional context.
Although the origins of bingata remain obscure, records indicate that the technique had developed into its present form around three hundred years ago. Ryukyu maintained tributary trade relations with China and Japan—countries with well-established stencil resist-dyeing traditions—and sea trade brought block-printed fabrics from India and wax-resist batiks from Java to Okinawa. Nonetheless, the bingata technique of using paper stencils to create multicolored patterns remained unique to Okinawa.
The exhibition chronicles how bingata dyeing developed within the context of the royal court, where both the color and patterns communicated the wearer’s rank. During the Ryukyu Kingdom period, laws restricted the use of bingata to the ruling class. Most were commissioned for women, but high-ranking children of both genders could wear bingata garments during festive events.
With the integration into Japan and accompanying collapse of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, bingata workshops lost the steady patronage of the royal family, and production plummeted. Approximately forty dyeing workshops operated during the dynastic period, but forty years later only about a dozen remained. World War II destroyed most examples of the art form, along with dye studios and many homes.
After the war, artists returned to the ruins of their workshops and began to use discarded items as tools. They used flour sacks as fabric and dyed them with lipstick, crayon, and any other materials they could salvage. The bingata tradition was revived from the ashes of war.
Today, bingata is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Okinawan identity. With pieces ranging from Ryukyuan court robes to contemporary fashion designs, Bingata! Only in Okinawa provides a compelling overview of this art form’s history, technique, and cultural significance.
Lee Talbot is the curator of Bingata! Only in Okinawa at The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum. The exhibition will be on view at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum November 5, 2016, through January 30, 2017, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. Learn more at museum.gwu.edu/bingata.