Fabric of Life

Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art brings long-hidden textiles to light

With a collection of over 20,000 textile and costume artifacts, Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art might rightly be called a hoarder of fiber treasures.  
But the institution on Museum Hill,  a few minutes by car from downtown Santa Fe, is just doing its job. Museums are, after all, where our society keeps its rarest valuables – in the name of study, preservation, and education.  The museum’s Material World: Textiles and Dress from the Collection exhibit, which runs through September 11, 2011, is a special treat in that it brings several dozen rarely seen textile objects out into public view.  
What do we learn from objects which mostly live in one of the museum’s 57 storage closets?  We, of course, have the chance to appreciate other systems of beauty – and perhaps learn something about our own. But the show also offers a context of history and culture in which to enrich ourselves with a deeper understanding of other places and times.
One example of the connection between artifact and context is an intensely embroidered outfit made by a young woman for her fiancé in Mesokovedz, Hungary, around the turn of the 20th-century. Its intense display of needle-skills and color seem more the stuff of Hollywood musicals than real life. But the museum explains that some very traditional forces were at work in the making of this garment: a young woman’s skill in running a household was judged by the display of her needlework worn to church on Sunday and on special occasions. The bride-to-be needed recognition as an adult ready to carry out the responsibilities of a married woman, and her beloved's outfit was part of her “marketing campaign.”  
The museum also offers an explanation for the intensity of color and pattern. Many rural Hungarian towns experienced a wave of prosperity at the time the outfit was made, which encouraged generous use of expensive commercially dyed threads – without which the vibrant and large florals would be subtler and sparer. As we see today in the pages of People and Vogue alike, wealth will often reveal itself in rich personal display.
Other items on view invite even deeper consideration of gender roles than the Hungarian costume.  Americans usually see textile arts as “women’s work,” but the story behind many of the museum’s holdings reveal far more complicated production and distribution arrangements, which in turn reflect more nuanced relations between the sexes. Curator Dr. Bobbie Sumberg writes in the show’s catalog about a tie-dyed cotton cloth from Côte d’Ivoire, on Africa’s western coast:
It was collected in the mid-nineteenth century, before the colonial period, and provides an excellent example of pre-colonial gender roles related to textile production. In central Côte d’Ivoire, where this cloth might have been made, young men cleared the fields of brush; women then planted the cotton seeds among the other crops. When the cotton was ready everyone harvested the white or naturally brown bolls. Then it was up to the females of the household to de-seed, card, and spin the fiber into yarn and dye the yarn if desired. The yarn was given to a male member of the family to weave into long strips that were sewn together to make a cloth. The size of the cloth was determined by the number and length of strips; cloths for men were bigger than cloths for women. The cloth was then given back to the female head of the household. She decided who received it or if it was to be sold or used for a funeral gift. Men and women worked together and were expected to each do their parts of the process, equally important but not the same.
The show also contains shoes, headwear, quilts, coverlets, mats, curtains, coats and aprons, each with their own story about the place and time of their creation -- and something personal about their creator.  The museum takes great pains to reveal messages about identity, gender, ritual, and family life that make each of them interesting and informative. 
Material World: Textiles and Dress from the Collection runs through September 11, 2001.  The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue authored by exhibition curator Bobbie Sumberg. 

For more information, see www.internationalfolkart.org.

Museum of International Folk Art
706 Camino Lejo
Museum Hill, Santa Fe



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