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Please note: Because these talks represent work in progress, we do not record or archive our Zoom sessions. We recognize the difficulties this may create for some audience members through scheduling and time-zone conflicts, but hope for your understanding—our aim is to enable speakers to set their own terms and timelines for disseminating their research.

Spring 2023

March 9, 2023: Pulling the Golden Thread: Tracing Embroidery Histories

2:00p – 4:00p EST
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“A Workshop of Women: Byzantine-style Gold-figure Embroidery in 18th Century Istanbul
Catherine Volmensky · PhD Candidate, Art History, University of British Columbia

An eighteenth-century Byzantine veil shows the recumbent figure of the dead Christ. A type of religious veil referred to as an epitaphios, this blue silk textile is lavishly embroidered with gold, silver, and silk threads. Similar types of religious veils were found in churches and monasteries throughout the Balkan Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. Drawing on a theory of line and ornament, this paper discusses the entangled artistic, artisanal, and economic networks of post-Byzantine workshops shared between the geographic space of eastern and southern Europe. Through this methodology, this paper focuses on a workshop active in Istanbul in the eighteenth century, which produced religious textiles with Christian imagery and Ottoman-style ornamental borders. The Greek woman who ran this workshop, Despoineta, was a very skilled artist and embroiderer; her pupils additionally found success creating Byzantine-style gold-figure embroideries, demonstrating the active processes of knowledge transfer. The role of women as craftspeople active in the economy of the Ottoman Empire is also questioned, as well as how labor organization and women artisans have been examined or overlooked in previous scholarship. Since the intersection of lines create networks, the methodology of this paper also emphasizes a nonhierarchical approach to works created during the post-Byzantine period and moves away from scholarship that solely gives voice to works created before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The idea of lines and network additionally helps unpack the aspect of the movement of ornament across cultures. The ornamental borders of the veils produced in Despoineta’s workshop reference Ottoman textiles, which offers insight into how the Greek community in Istanbul negotiated their daily life and artistic output on a local level. The emphasis on lines, network, and ornament offers a grounded methodology to approach the craft of gold-figure embroidery produced in the eighteenth-century.

Textiles of Silver and Gold: Exploring the Development and Meanings of Burmese Shwe Chi Doe
Rebecca Hall · Curator, USC Pacific Asia Museum

Burmese shwe chi doe textiles are difficult to ignore and yet they regularly get overlooked as valuable examples of Burmese visual culture. As impeccably crafted appliqued and embroidered textiles made in workshops for a variety of purposes, shwe chi doe hold great meaning for anyone interested in Burmese history, religion, court practices, and colonial impact. Several published articles and book chapters have focused on shwe chi doe by piecing together the possible histories of these objects. Yet, as is typical with craft across the globe, little is known about these textiles’ concrete and tangible history: who initiated this kind of textile and what were its specific uses? One theory asserts that it originated with the court at Mandalay and was eventually adopted as a popular art form, while others speculate that art form developed from the influence of Chinese groups who immigrated to Burma and fused textile embellishment techniques from home with needs of their adopted home. In looking at the purpose of these large, heavy textiles, explanations of use are widely varied as well, ranging from room dividers and photographic backdrops to coffin covers and backdrops for theatrical productions. Such a wide range of possibilities can leave researchers to question how much depth we can understand about these textiles beyond the surface details of production and the identification of featured narratives and iconography. This presentation represents the early stages of exhibition development. It explores the connections shwe chi doe textiles have with the multifaceted and multicultural landscape of Burma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, followed with a glimpse at the continued production of these textiles in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In so doing, we can see the influences of immigrating Chinese populations, the connections Burma has had with neighboring India, and the central role of Buddhist stories and practices for a more complete understanding of the connections between craft and national histories.

March 23, 2023: Revival, Renewal, and the Nation

10:00a – 12:00p EDT (please note change to US Daylight time)
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Decolonization and Development: Craft Revivals and Activism in Post-Independence India
Adhitya Dhanapal · PhD Candidate, History, Princeton University

Following the Independence of India from British rule in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru undertook an ambitious, centralized, state-led vision of heavy industrial development along the lines of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the long shadow of Gandhi (who would pass away in 1948) and the ground reality of a large rural population ensured that a decentralized, small-scale, crafts-based model of development proved extremely popular amongst the rural peasantry and vast swathes of the urban intelligentsia. Within the democratic framework of postcolonial India, the production and consumption of craft objects were integral to the inclusion of hitherto marginalized groups such as women, the lower-castes and refugees within the nation-building project. This paper highlights the contribution of two craftivists, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Elizabeth Bayly Willis in charting forth the post-Gandhian craft revivals. Despite their varied social backgrounds and involvement in modern Indian politics, Chattopadhyay was a staunch feminist and social activist in the nationalist movement whereas Bayly was a scholar of textiles and decorative arts based out of Seattle, both these women foregrounded the role of aesthetics and craftsmanship in helping marginalized groups engaging with the wider national and international market and break free from the cycles of poverty, debt and exploitation. Within the context of decolonization and nation-building, this paper argues that craft continued to offer an alternative model of holistic development for the vast peasantry in the age of machines and automation. Furthermore, the paper looks at transnational connections across India, Japan and the United States with particular regard to the Mingei Art Movement in Tokyo and the First World Crafts Council forum in New York. In bringing these two episodes in the history of craft in conversation, this paper highlights the attempt of craft-based activists to not only create new tastes for the handmade craft object at a period of intense industrialization but also forge a shared, universal standard of aesthetics and beauty that valued the possibilities of high quality goods becoming accessible to a larger swathes of people. 

“The Case of Zakopane: Craftsmanship as Driver of Renewal”
Kaja Schelker · Researcher, Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe; PhD Candidate, Art History, Ludwig Maximilian University

The Stalinist years (1949 – 1956) in Poland’s architecture history have been associated with the uniform aesthetic of Socialist Realism, imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. Yet, recent research shows, that a closer look at that era accounts for a more versatile image of its built environment. In this sense, precisely, the Stalinist era is considered a heyday and renewal of the local building culture of Zakopane, a mountain town located on the Polish borderlands. Many different reasons, led to the bloom of regional architecture in Zakopane in the Stalinist era. Yet, in my presentation I would like to focus on the impact of craftsmanship on the outcome by analysing the construction process of an iconic example of the local building culture. The circumstances under which this building has been constructed can be summarized as crazy: the Soviet Union was trying to homogenize Polish architecture by forcing the uniform Socialist Realism as Poland’s national style and material shortages were jeopardising the building process. From my point of view a central figure for the success of the project was the young female architect, Anna Górska (1914-2002), educated in Warsaw and living in Zakopane. I will argue that it was her appreciation for the skills of the local craftsmen, that allowed for a close cooperation between architects and workers and resulted in high-quality architecture, despite the political and economical circumstances. Starting with this project, Anna Górska became a key figure in the renewal of the rich and well-known Zakopane building culture. Thus I would like to stress the hypothesis that the knowledge transfer from local craftsmen to academically trained architects was one of the conditions for the renewal, and thereby, longue durée, of Zakopane’s building culture.

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April 20, 2023: Transmission and Transaction: The Textile Workshop in Contemporary South Asia

9:00am – 11:00a EDT
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“Skill Regimes” and the Flow of Craft-Marked Expertise in the Mumbai-World Fashion Industry”
Matthew Raj Webb · New York University

In recent years, the position of craft-marked work within the field of fashion has become of interest to scholars, industry regulators, governments, and consumers, foregrounded in debates about production “ethics” (Alvarez-Astacio 2015; Partridge 2011) and concerns over “sustainability,” “transparency,” and “decoloniality” (Collins 2003; Jansen 2020; Rofel and Yanagisako 2018; Thomas K. 2019). Taking up these themes, this paper explores an alternate sphere of ethical discourse among fashion producers in Mumbai centered on the regimes and hierarchies of “skill value” that underpin their transnational work. It asks: How do situated imaginaries about skill (quantitative) and skills (qualitative) in fashion production activities—what I call “skill regimes”—structure relations among participants in transnational design projects?  The data is drawn from fieldwork in a fashion export house in Mumbai in 2019, during which I observed the design and production of clothing identified primarily with American and European companies. I also draw on interviews with artisans, designers, and managers working at this site and two similar ones in Mumbai, conducted in-person and remotely over the following year.

Endangered Crafts: Documenting Shu Making in Chitral, Northern Pakistan
Adil Iqbal · Independent Scholar; and Friederike Voigt · Principal Curator, West, South, and Southeast Asian Collections and Head of Asia Section, National Museums Scotland

This paper is concerned with issues related to the documentation of endangered crafts. It takes as an example an ethnography which aims to understand and record over two years the weaving of shu, a type of woollen cloth characteristic of the region of Chitral in northern Pakistan, for which the authors received funding from the Arcadia Foundation’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP). Climate change and an ageing population in the shu-making villages in Chitral have put the knowledge and skills of this craft at risk of extinction. EMKP’s aim is “to support the documentation of material knowledge systems” and to preserve them by providing free access to a digital repository to store knowledge system-related information that was recorded by researchers in interviews with the agents of these knowledge systems together with photographs and film footage of their practices. The collaboration between PI Iqbal, who is carrying out the field research, and Principal Curator Voigt, bringing a complementary perspective of museums as repositories of material culture, allows us to consider and mitigate better the theoretical and practical implications of EMKP’s objectives. In this paper we will discuss our project in the context of the historical collecting of manufacturing processes in industrial museums; reflect on our methods in the light of the shu makers’ implicit and explicit knowledge; reflect on the experience from the first season in the field, and deliberate the usefulness of preserving craft knowledge more widely. We will highlight the nature of the relationships between researcher, the local community organisation, and the makers themselves, particularly with respect to the making visible of their tacit knowledge. 

House of Kalamkari Durries in Hyderabad: A Space for Making, Learning and Sharing
Somedutta Mallick · PhD Student, Fine Arts, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

Late Suraiya Hasan Bose’s weaving workshop in Hyderabad, House of Kalamkari Durries, built a community of learners and connoisseurs over the past few decades by employing the underprivileged women of the neighbourhood, teaching them the intricate weaving techniques, while on a macro level, endeavoured the revivalism project for the old Indo-Persian weaving traditions of Himroo, Paithani, Mashru, and Jamawar. Many of these women were trained under the watchful eyes of master weaver late Syed Omer, who, again, acquired artisanal knowledge from rigorous vocational training in his early years and his life-long engagement with the looms. During my several visits to the workshop and over the long conversations with the weavers, the space revealed itself to me as a manifold community space of making, learning, teaching and sharing. Individuals associated with the workshop played different roles on the basis of their knowledge, skill, expertise and experience. And through a shared practice of spinning and weaving, the knowledge was transmitted from one individual to another, from the master weaver to the apprentice. The workshop space was also interesting in its character as it owned a collection of old Himroo and Mushroo fabric pieces of historical, aesthetic and artisanal value that served as a repository of knowledge on materials, techniques and designs. Many of them were referred to create new copies of the old designs. But the collection never could make it to an archive. Nevertheless, the memory of the craftspeople and their approach to archival documentation can provide us with an alternative way of seeing and preserving craft history. The proposed presentation establishes the workshop space of the House of Kalamkari Durries as a shared space of skill, artisanal knowledge and memory.

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May 4, 2023: Visibility and Labor in the American Empire

1:00p – 3:00p EDT
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Camouflage and Coercion: Cryptic Coloration and Hidden Empire in Martial Law Hawai’i
Desiree Valadares · Assistant Professor, Geography, University of British Columbia

Camouflage blurs and destabilizes bodies, architectures, and societies that employ its techniques. Far from being about merely fooling the eye, camouflage’s real basis is in tricking the mind through the manipulation of visual form and cultural expectation. In this paper, I focus on the labor history of camouflage in the then-Territory of Hawai‘i which was under martial law from December 7, 1942 – October 27, 1944. Specifically, I consider the role of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) lei makers who brought their incisive knowledge of weaving flower garlands to the new art of camouflage net-making under the leadership of Lei Makers Association President Agnes Makaiwi. I argue that this large-scale visual distortion of lands, waters and bodies was part-and-parcel of much longer occupation and empire building project in the Pacific that distorted racialized visualities and imposed new militarized ways of seeing. I center both, land (verticality – the underground and the aerial) and labor (gendered labor, identity, and performance) to position camouflage as a “strategy of survival.” I ask: What are we to understand by the term ‘camouflage’? I bring together a set of unlikely sources that range from oral history, artworks, and an animation to narrate the social life of camouflage in Hawai‘i. These sources range from: 1) the Ka Po‘e Kau Lei: An Oral History of Hawai‘i’s Lei Sellers, 2) Honolulu artist Juliette May Fraser’s Women in War series and 3) a 1944 First Motion Picture Unit animated film “Camouflage” (1944) featuring protagonist ‘Yehudi’ the chameleon. Ultimately, this paper reveals how embodied positionalities and gendered subjectivities were most impacted by militarization in Hawai‘i and schemas of visibility, representation, and identity.

Broom-Making in Immigrant, Incarcerated and Disabled Communities of the Early 20th-Century United States
Rebekah Edwards · Associate Professor of Digital and Critical Pedagogies, California College of Arts

In 1910 my great-grandfather became a broom-maker to support his family when they immigrated to the USA from Ukraine. In 2018, as I attempted to learn how to tie a broom, the craft itself provoked question after question, exposing a complex weave between knowledge, skill, and materiality. How did a pacifist, scholar, and humano-vegetarian (something like a vegan in our current time) who had to flee his country due to his revolutionary activities, learn to make brooms in the new country? What was it like to learn this craft, along with a new language and a new culture? Did he work at home, in a small shop or factory? How much money could one make? Was it enough to support an ill wife and four young children? He became the secretary of the International Broom and Whisk makers union. What kind of union was this? These questions have led me to explore family oral histories, materials in the American Federation of Labor archives, histories of the craft of broom making, agricultural histories of the cultivation of “broom corn” (surgum), disability histories, particularly institutions for the blind (as broom-making was a trade that was being cultivated) and histories of the expanded jim-crow carceral economic state in this period (broom-making was carceral labor) which expose the entanglements of craft, the politics and poetics of necessity and the economic competition of immigrant, disabled, and incarcerated peoples during this time. More poetics than argument, the project has become a series of research-based prose poems on broadsides. When completed these are intended to be bound in some form, perhaps as broom objects. My talk explores the unruly trajectories of a research-based poetics project and my attempts to tie together the embodied and economic historical contexts of tying a broom: the broom as an object in and of itself, the intertwined histories of my family and the larger social constituencies of agriculture, labor, immigration, incarceration, and disability in the early 20th century USA.

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May 18, 2023: Paper Play and Interplay: Marbling Paper and Drawing Marble

[CORRECTED TIME] 10:00a – 12:00p EDT
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Scintillating Sheets: Decorated Papers in Early Modern Islamicate Manuscripts and Their Impact
Jake Benson · Research Associate for Persian Collections, John Rylands Library

In the 15th-century, Turco-Persian artists created manuscripts using gilt and richly tinted Chinese papers that inspired domestic imitations, and ultimately novel, independent innovations. They dyed paper in various hues, pasted them out, and flecked them with shimmering gold and silver leaf or sprayed paints with a mouth atomizer over delicately cut stencils. At other times, they spattered sheet surfaces with colorants, or alternatively, with a clear, liquid dispersant to freshly tinted paper that spread to form spotted voids. The artists also splashed or dribbled dispersant-laden colorants, then lifted the sheets up whilst wet and allowed the media to drizzle in erratic rivulets. By the 16th century, artists discovered how to float colors on a liquid bath and lay a sheet of paper over top to capture the designs. Paper marbling, historically known as kāġaẕ-i abrī (Persian: clouded paper)—or simply abrī— first emerged in a nascent “first wave.” By 1600, Persian artist and émigré to India, Muhammad Tahir, innovated vivid, evenly formed, and intricately worked homeomorphic curled and combed designs. His patterning methods unleashed a colorful “second wave” that rapidly spread from the subcontinent to Greater Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe within roughly two decades. These colorful designs inspired intellectuals in the Islamic world and captivated European travelers who collected exotic “Turkish papers” as souvenirs and bound them into “friendship albums” (Latin: alba amicorum, German: stammbuchen). Marbling especially piqued the curiosity of early modern European scientific minds. The Bank of England unwittingly adapted Muhammad Tahir’s Deccani patterns as the polychrome security device for their first paper currency issued in 1695, later imitated by the Continental Congress of the United States in 1775. Benjamin Franklin employed such papers for French promissory notes during the Revolutionary War. Hence, paper marbling constitutes a transformative, early modern technology that secured both British and American economies and even the latter’s very independence.

The Artisan’s Share: The Craft of Modular Imagination in Late Cinquecento Drawn Designs of Hardstone Inlaid Tables
Wenyi Qian · PhD Candidate, Art History, University of Toronto

What can we learn from drawn design of crafted objects such as hardstone inlaid tables produced in Florence and Rome towards the end of the sixteenth century? Are there ways in which these paper artefacts could help us access modes of artisanal thinking and making inherent in the material objects, despite their seemingly ideational and immaterial qualities? This paper examines a series of drawings of ornamental inlaid table designs from the late Cinquecento as catalyst for rethinking about the relationship—indeed the well-rehearsed practical and theoretical divide— between conception and execution in sixteenth-century craft practice in Italy. It contributes to ongoing discussion that seeks to unsettle a hierarchical notion of the system of the arts (major vs minor, monumental vs miniature) and of a rigid hylomorphism (form over matter, idea over making) that underpins our understanding of early modern art-making. It also further complicates current discussion of symmetry through these drawings’ emphatic departure from a strictly lateral correspondence of form. By tracking through a sequence of drawings (some colored, others not) that relate to an actual inlaid table now housed at the Palazzo Pitti, it proposes “variation” and “modular imagination” as two central characteristics of these drawings and considers their role in the process of design and manufacture of the actual objects. These close readings seek to break apart the boundaries between making and thinking, manual technique and pictorial imagination, materiality and representation by looking at how technical processes of assemblage are built into drawings themselves. These drawings turn out eventually to be sites of infinite play—a space where
artisanal process, material agency and visual imagination are enmeshed and play out themselves on
the surface of a drawn sheet.

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Winter 2022

December 15, 2022: Commerce, Collecting, and Circulation

7:00p – 9:00p EST
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The Great Free Exposition: Making and Marketing Japanese Art in 1880s San Francisco”
Nina Blomfield · Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fello
w, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

In 1882, a series of advertisements in San Francisco newspapers invited tourists and locals to
visit Ichi Ban, a “free exposition” of the “Arts and Manufactures of the Japanese Empire.”
Capitalizing on growing consumer interest in Japanese artistic products, these promotional
materials presented Ichi Ban as if it were a national pavilion at a world’s fair. In reality, Ichi Ban
was an entirely private enterprise that retailed folding screens, silks, porcelain, bronzes, and
paper goods shipped from Yokohama, and employed Japanese painters and embroiderers to work
in-house at its Geary Street storefront. The physical presence of Japanese artists and the
performance of their craft was central to later advertisements which boasted a staff of 30 who
“pursue their occupations dressed in native costume in view of all visitors.” By appropriating the
language of exhibition and education, Ichi Ban marketed an artistic fantasy of Japan that allowed
American consumers of varied economic means to participate in wider discourses of art and
global politics.

This presentation takes Ichi Ban as a starting point from which to examine the mobility of
Japanese artists, objects, and aesthetics in late nineteenth century America. Tracking the careers
of Ichi Ban’s American owner, Horace Fletcher, and Ichi Ban Studios artist Yada Issho, I argue
that although American consumption of Japanese craft was cultivated by the Meiji government at
public exhibitions and codified by early museum professionals in Boston and New York, it was
commercial enterprises like Ichi Ban that were most instrumental in bringing Japanese art into
American homes.

“Collected by Foreign Visitors: Tobacco Boxes of the Late Joseon Period”
Seong A. Kim-Lee · Associate Professor, College of Foreign Studies, Kansai Gaidai University, Osaka

This presentation discusses tobacco boxes as an essential material culture popularly collected by foreign visitors to Korea after the Ganghwa Treaty in 1876. Homer Hulbert observed in his book “The Passing of Korea” (1906) that foreign visitors to Joseon often purchased a silver-inlaid iron tobacco box. Based on his observation, this study examines publications by foreign visitors to Joseon and researched museum collections of Korean tobacco boxes acquired directly by foreign visitors. After examining the tobacco boxes in museums, this study concludes that tobacco boxes were generally only available to the yanban or ruling class in Joseon. The tobacco boxes were a popular collectors’ item for foreign visitors and reflected Joseon’s inveterate smoking culture. The places where foreign visitors could acquire these silver-inlaid iron boxes were the curio markets on the main street of Seoul, the packmen in front of hotels and foreign residences, and the second-hand stores. Conversely, tobacco boxes in serpentine and soapstone were rare items and not readily available for purchase in the markets. A few records, like the diary of Dr. Horace Newton Allen (1858–1932), indicate that tobacco boxes were sometimes gifted to diplomats, doctors, and advisors by the emperor of Korea. This research presentation concludes that smoking was universal in Joseon society, but social status in Joseon limited the availability of tobacco utensils in terms of materials

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Image Credits:
Top: Embroidered panel, Persia, c. 1610–40. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Bottom: Small egg basket, made by Ira Blount, late 20th–early 21st century. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

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