Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories

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MARCH 21 through AUGUST 24, 2015

Questions of self-definition have preoccupied people and societies across time and place.

TEXTILES are the primary means for visually communicating personal and group IDENTITY. Clothes and fabrics can express who we are, what we are becoming, and how we want to be perceived. Some of The Textile Museum’s most cherished masterpieces, including artworks rarely displayed due to their size and fragility, are brought together in these galleries to explore fundamental questions about human identity.

Textiles as Identity Markers Textiles are among the most ubiquitous objects in daily life, surrounding us from the moment we are born until we die. Peoples and cultures imbue fabrics with multiple meanings, and send signals to others through choices in textile forms, materials, colors, and designs. These choices reflect cultural as well as personal preferences and ideals. The more that is known about a culture, the more understandable are the messages that its members broadcast through their clothing, accessories, and furnishings.

TRANSFORMING IDENTITY Textiles wield transformative power—temporarily or permanently. They are crucial in communicating the various changes that a person may experience over a lifetime. Among many milestones, weddings are the most lavish and exuberantly celebrated transitional events, and often place a strong emphasis on textiles. In many traditional societies, the textiles used or displayed during weddings typically are produced by the bride and her family. They become important tools for advertising the bride’s skill and her family’s social, economic, and, in some cases, political standing.

The transformative power of textiles is not always permanent; sometimes they are used to conceal one’s own identity while impersonating another. People in many societies use clothing forms and accessories that temporarily change and disguise their identities and allow them to take part in spiritual, political, social, or theatrical events as someone else.


COSMOPOLITAN IDENTITY Peoples and cultures often appropriate textile forms and designs from foreign lands and, as a result, create new expressions of identity. Many textile forms embraced across international boundaries are conspicuous markers of status in their cultures of origin as well as in their new adapted land. The designs and colors used to create these textiles often mesh with the existing design standards of the importing cultures, triggering an evolution in their aesthetic ideals.

Throughout the world, textiles feature prominently in rituals and religious observances. Textiles render everyday spaces appropriate for communion with the gods and ancestors, and imbue wearers with spiritual and sacred legitimacy. While heightening the sensory experience of worship or ritual, textiles with symbolic or narrative patterns and even verbal inscriptions express spiritual beliefs in tangible form. Fabrics created for use in ritual and religious contexts often represent the technical and aesthetic apex of the textile arts at the time when they were produced. While costly materials and superior workmanship embody believers’ devotion and respect, they also strongly proclaim the prestige of the owner, institution, or patron.

POLITICAL IDENTITY In many eras and cultures, fine fabrics signify wealth and power, and often articulate local, national, and even international political messages. Leaders, rulers, and royal courts proclaim their exalted position through clothing and furnishings that incorporate the finest materials and workmanship available.

In many societies, textiles clearly delineate social class, and sumptuary laws and local customs reserve certain materials, designs, and forms exclusively for those wielding political power. Textiles and patterns originally monopolized by the ruling elite sometimes become symbols of enfranchisement and freedom.

For more detailed discussions on some of Unraveling Identity’s themes and pieces on display, download the digital catalog and extended object labels at museum.gwu.edu/unraveling-identity.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Sumru Belger Krody and Lee Talbot Co-curators With contributions by consulting curators Mattiebelle Gittinger, Ann Pollard Rowe, and Rebecca Stevens We would like to acknowledge our curatorial interns for their assistance with the research, planning, and implementation of this exhibition:

Ileana Aguilar, Laura Blanton, Emily Clark, Jessica Evans, Shirong Gu, Samantha Halstead, Jee Ahn Liv Han, Melissa Katzin, Jimin Kwon, Rebecca Lesher, Yuyang Li, Brooke Maake, Sana Mirza, Jenny Morningstar, Jessica Nakano, Ariel Polokoff, Kirstin Purtich, Elena Saxton, Jiangliu Shi, Cristina Del Valle Saez, Meredyth Winter. Support for this gallery guide is provided by the museum docents. For the full list of exhibition supporters, visit museum.gwu.edu/unraveling-identity.

MUSEUM INFORMATION LOCATION The museum is located at the corner of 21st and G streets, NW, four blocks from the Foggy Bottom Metro station (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines). For directions and parking information, visit museum.gwu.edu/plan-visit. HOURS Monday, Wednesday–Friday: 11:30 AM–6:30 PM Saturday: 10 AM–5 PM Sunday: 1–5 PM Closed Tuesdays and university holidays. ADMISSION $8 suggested donation for non-members. Free for museum members, children, and current GW students, faculty, and staff. ACCESSIBILITY The museum is wheelchair accessible and designated garage parking is available nearby. Visit museum.gwu.edu/accessibility for more information. MUSEUM SHOP Visit the shop for unique jewelry, home décor, books, and gifts from Washington, D.C., and around the world. ARTHUR D. JENKINS LIBRARY The reading room is open Wednesday– Thursday 1–4 PM and by appointment. Please contact the librarian before your visit at museumlibrary@gwu.edu. ALBERT H. SMALL CENTER FOR NATIONAL CAPITAL AREA STUDIES With the museum’s Washingtoniana Collection as a centerpiece, the center seeks to engage students, scholars, and the public in research

and educational programs pertaining to our nation’s capital. PUBLIC PROGRAMS For the most up-to-date list of the museum’s educational programs, visit museum.gwu.edu/calendar. EXHIBITION TOURS Free walk-in tours highlighting selections from current exhibitions are offered each Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM (textile tour) and 2:30 PM (Washingtoniana tour). To schedule a docent-led tour for groups of six to forty people, call 202-994-5578 at least four weeks in advance. JOIN OR DONATE Support from members and donors is the driving force that allows the museum to continue its work bringing art, history, and culture alive for the GW community and the public. To join or renew a current membership, or to make a donation, visit museum.gwu.edu/support or call 202-994-5579. STAY IN TOUCH Follow the museum online for more information about works on view, programs, and behindthe-scenes activities.

The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum 701 21st Street, NW Washington, DC 20052 202-994-5200 museum.gwu.edu

IMAGES (Cover) Carpet (detail), Mughal Empire, India, Lahore, 17th century. TM 1994.12.1. Gift of James D. Burns.

Table cover or wall hanging, Peru, south highlands, 1675–1700. TM 91.504. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1951.

(Inside flap) Woman’s shoes for bound feet, China, 19th century. TM 1994.21.1a and b. Gift of Harold Keshishian.

Torah curtain (parochet), Cairo, Egypt, early 17th century. TM R16.4.4. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1915.

(Inside, from left to right) Embroidered Kazakh man’s coat, Uzbekistan, Tashkent(?), second half of the 19th century. TM 2002.5.1. Gift of Caroline McCoy-Jones.

Tunic, Cameroon, Bamum people, early 20th century. TM 2007.30.3. Gift of Harry Greenberg.

Arlette Muschter and Claudy Jongstra, Wedding Dress Japonesque, the Netherlands, 2000. Cincinnati Art Museum purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Fund, 2009.165a–c.


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