Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Boro: Threads of Life


Visited another very good exhibition, this time it was a form of textile art at Somerset House. I had no idea what ‘boro’ were and did not know about this aspect of textile history. ‘Boro’ or 'rags' are basically recycled patchwork collages of fabric scraps which were initially used as clothing or bedding by the poor of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) who could not afford to buy new fabrics. During this period the poor were forbidden from wearing any bright colours and were only allowed to wear clothing which was coloured blue, grey, brown or black. All other coloured clothing were strictly reserved for the aristocracy and ruling class.

The colder climate of northern Japan made growing cotton impossible and the cost of transporting it north was prohibitively expensive to the rural poor who were reliant on traders from the south to bring discarded pieces of cotton by boat which the poor would then trade for fish and seaweed. The cotton would then be patched onto worn clothes and futon covers by successive generations of the rural poor. Most boro were thrown away or discarded as Japan became more industrial and affluent, as they were an unwelcome, embarrassing reminder of a certain period of poverty and hardship. As a result the surviving boro are scarce in quantity.

What is interesting about boro is that a purely utilitarian object borne of need and poverty, are now being collected and revered as objects of art. They (boro), appear to be pieced and stitched together with no regard to aesthetics, but the frayed, patterned, randomly stitched fabrics are reminiscent of modern works of Western art such as those created by Klee, Rauschenberg and Tapies. 

The surface textures are really interesting as some are frayed and ragged, some have early Japanese hand-loomed patterned fabrics peeping through the many hues of indigo, some have regular patterned patches whilst others are completely randomly collaged. I actually like the idea of boro being mounted on canvas and being displayed as pieces of artwork in themselves and think that they benefit from having the restricted colour palette that was imposed on them by the ruling classes. There is a nice sense of restraint and uniformity amid the varying shades of indigo and patterned fabrics.

Some of the boro remind me of grids and mapping systems, the crude stitching resembling arial photographs of roads and motorways. 

What I found interesting is that even the tiniest postage stamp sized pieces of fabric were used as patches. Absolutely nothing was wasted or thought of as being in too poor condition to be recycled into service to extend the life of the item of clothing or bedding. Some pieces on display have generations of layer upon layer of differing fabrics and shades of indigo creating rich seams of social and family history in each boro.

I was also reminded of the fantastic appliqued quilts of the Gee’s Bend quilters of America who originally created beautiful, colourful quilts instinctively from fabric scraps in similar straitened circumstances. I was also able to make links with the contemporary textile pieces of Natasha Kerr who stitches together fabrics and also adds photographic elements to create pictorial layered textile works that have a link to both her own personal and fictional histories. 

The exhibition is only on for a short time so you will need to hurry if you want to catch it. A visit is well worth the journey to see these serene, abstract pieces of textile art.

Boro: Threads of Life
Somerset House
Strand, London
until 26th April