Two mannequins dressed in thick black cotton firefighter uniforms stand in front of a projection of billowing flames.
This fire in the Target Galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Art represents one that occurred in Japan during the Edo (1603-1867) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, in the densely populated cities of Tokyo and Osaka.
Fire is at the center of “Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan”, an exhibition focusing on the manufacture of textiles of natural origin using materials such as fish skin, banana leaf fiber, cotton , silk, wool, etc.
“All the houses are made of wood,” said Japanese and Korean art curator Andreas Marks. “Edo, which is now called Tokyo, already had a million people in 1700. … It’s a lot of people, so if a fire starts in one corner, it spreads. The firefighters were in charge of different areas.”
The Great Meireki/Furisode Era Fire of 1657 killed up to 107,000 people and destroyed 60-70% of Edo. The threat of fire was so severe that anyone setting fire to a building could be put to death. Firefighters were considered heroes and protectors of the city, and their dramatic deeds were often depicted in woodcuts – several of which are on display – and in Kabuki theater.
In the exhibition, visitors travel through the Japanese archipelago, from north to south and through 1750-1930, from frigid Siberia to the subtropical region of Okinawa.
More than 120 textiles in the exhibit come from the collection of Thomas Murray, a private textile collector/dealer in California. Marks acquired the collection in 2019 for Mia after pursuing it for nine years. Only a few prints from the exhibition will return to other institutions when the exhibition closes.
From North to south
The collection begins in Siberia and northern Sakhalin Island, now part of Russia and home to the indigenous Nivkh people, and the northern part of Japan where the indigenous Ainu people live. The effects of colonialism have strongly decimated the groups.
Nivkh women used the skins of chum salmon and Amur carp to make fish skin dresses, which were used at festivals. Ainu robes made of elm bark fiber, with thick indigo patterns and nettle fiber stripes, seem to be able to withstand freezing temperatures. The dresses on display are all ceremonial.
“Over time people suppressed their heritage and now there is more re-discovery and in fact Japan just opened a national Ainu museum but there are like a dozen people who are fluent in the language,” he said.
Towards the end of the northern section of Japan and Siberia, there is an early 20e century photograph of an Ainu woman, and around her mouth is tattooed what looks like a mouth outline, making her appear larger. She probably got this tattoo when she was a kid, Marks said.
“There are some theories as to why [the tattoos] maybe, but it could just be a beauty thing like henna,” he said. “It’s also one of those things, when the Japanese took over, they didn’t want [the tattooing] no longer happen.”
Another room dedicated to travels at the end of the 19e and early 20e centuries includes an elegant traveling cape, called a “bōzugappa” or “priest’s cloak”, made of cotton fabric with a layer of mulberry paper treated with persimmon tannin.
Cotton first came to Japan around 799 and remained a luxury item that had to be imported from China and Korea until 1600 when people discovered a species of cotton that grew well in the climate and the soil of Japan. During the Edo period, farmers processed cotton into a cash crop.
An entire section is devoted to indigo dyeing, which made textiles more durable. For this reason, farmers wore it frequently. Indigo textiles did not need to be washed as often, like jeans, and could withstand a lot.
The show ends in the tropical region of Okinawa, whose climate is very similar to the Bahamas. During the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), social hierarchies were visible through which fabrics, textiles, dyes, and prints people wore. When Japan annexed the kingdom in 1879, these restrictions were dropped. In this subtropical region, banana fiber was mixed with cotton to make dresses. Everything was done by hand.
“It’s one of those amazing things about Japan – you always have people interested in the material,” Marks said. “You still have those who can carry on these traditions and create old-fashioned clothes with old materials. It exists.”
Dressed by Nature: Textiles from Japan
When: Ends September 11.
Where: Minneapolis Art Institute, Target Gallery, 2400 3rd Ave. S
Cost: $16-$20, free for children under 17.
information: new.artsmia.org or 612-870-3000.