Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Nui Project Japan


Nui Project

“A shirt weighing heavily with thousands of unnecessary end knots, a shirt with many holes, a shrunken shirt completely covered by stitches, a shirt with a wooden frame for embroidery sewed in, and a shirt lived upon by strange lumps,” describes Yukiko Koide. “These shirts refuse the purpose and function of people wearing them.” As curator of “Fabulous Fabrics”, an exhibition of work created through the Nui Project, Koide sees this lack of conventional function as far from a problem. Now in its seventh year, the Nui Project – which takes its name from the Japanese word for “stitch” – is part of a range of art and craft workshops offered at the Shobu Gakuen in Kagoshima, Japan, a rehabilitative facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. Established in 1973, the Centre’s numerous craft and art workshops are part of “a desire to shift the focus of its members’ life from passive care receivers to active creators.”

The creative process is something that we tend to scrutinise exhaustively: we debate the benefits and draw backs of various approaches to education; are ever eager to read the histories of lives that led to great creative achievements; or see the varied sources of artistic inspiration now included in museum exhibitions. What remains remarkably refreshing about the Nui Project is its rejection of these techniques of analysis. “With no conventional stitch or pattern to it,” explains a spokesperson for the Centre, the textiles “cannot be constrained to any culture.” Nor, one may add, can they be constrained to any specific value system other than the intensely personal sense of creativity each individual brings to their materials.

Fourteen individuals are involved with the project and spend a dedicated five day week stitching to their own taste on ready-made shirts, as well as jackets, coats and dresses sewn by the staff and, when available, second hand Kimonos. Approaches range from the simple to the extraordinarily complex, with artists such as Keisuke Nomaguchi and Tazuyo Suemitsu eventually transforming the shirt into such a densely worked surface that the object becomes a sculpture in its own right. What remains remarkable is the breadth of responses generated by a group working in such close proximity of each other. Not only is each response to fabric and thread unique within the vocabulary of stitching and embellishment, but as a group the works suggest a clear strength of individual voices.

Tom di Maria, Director of the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California where “Fabulous Fabrics” was exhibited in 2003 explains, “the embroidered shirts really cross the line from apparel into art. They were bought to wear, to display, and to hand down to children as heirlooms gifts.  It was particularly gratifying to see a traditional art form being used in such a contemporary way by people with disabilities.” It can only be hoped that further exhibitions, such as a recent display at Gallery Gallery in Kyoto, Japan will continue to bring this inspiring work to the public’s attention.

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2006: 34-35)