Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Heirlooms (preview)

Heirlooms_preview_dovecotBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Historical Javanese and Indian textiles on loan from the private collection of Jonathan Hope will be exhibited alongside new work by contemporary makers Deirdre Nelson, Sarah Sumsion and Naomi Robertson at the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh from August 4th through September 4th as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. Co-curated by Jonathan Hope and Ben Divall, the exhibition – entitled “Heirlooms” – charts the longstanding exchange of rich textile culture between India and the island of Java.

The Silk Route is often considered the main transport network for the movement of historical textile knowledge. But long before over land textile trade routes were established there was thriving trade by sea between cultures such as India and Java. Divall, formerly of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia explains, “The flow was both ways. This is quite often overlooked. India made cloth to suit the export market, but the iconography of Indian cloth was also reinterpreted on batik. There was interplay and exchange.”

The earliest Indian trade cloth in the exhibition dates from the late 16th century, with Indonesian batik examples running up through the 1940s. The reason why such rare examples have managed to survive is, at least in part, due to their identity as heirlooms. Much of the cloth India traded with the Indonesian islands was considered exotic and of ceremonial value. This status afforded the cloth a protection from daily use and helped preserve examples of Indian textiles that have not survived in India. Trade, Divall explains, meant that some Indian textile production was made specifically with the export market in mind. But there are also examples of “batik with patterns borrowed directly from patola weaving” showing that the traded cloth had a direct impact on the designs adopted by local traditions.

Alongside textiles from Hope’s collection, the exhibition will also include preserved natural dye plant specimens on loan from the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh and two European botanical publications dating from the 17th century: Rumphius Herbarium, which documents Indonesian plants was published in 1741 and Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, which focuses on the plants of India and was published in the late 17th century. Both India and Java boast a history of advanced dye technology. By way of example, Divall explains: “mordant dye technology in India allowed for multiple shades of madder red and even black to be set in one dye bath. This was a remarkably sophisticated knowledge known in India long before Europe.”

The historical display will be complimented with a contemporary exhibition coordinated and curated by Elizabeth Guest. A recent exchange with the Crafts Council of West Bengal hosted the Scotland-based artists Deirdre Nelson and Naomi Robertson on a month-long research trip. Their journey will be reciprocated this summer when an Indian Jamdani weaver and Bengali Kantha embroiderer will travel to Edinburgh and give live demonstrations during the exhibition. Along with the weaver Sarah Sumsion, Nelson and Robertson will also exhibit new work made in response to their travels and the textile’s long admired status as an heirloom.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 41 July/August 2011: 88)