I never considered the issue of tradition much whilst a textiles student in Australia but Japanese textiles are so steeped in history that it becomes impossible to avoid.
It may seem nothing special to you either but when you start to break it down, it’s really quite an odd situation.
|A contemporary artwork in katazome by fellow Kyoto Seika graduate Ohmura Yuri “Blue Evening” Katazome on Cotton, 2015 「青い夕方」 大村 優里 木綿／型染|
This explains why it was popular as a way of dyeing bolts of kimono fabric, which are 12 metres or more long; it’s efficient and detailed enough to produce patterns that resemble more costly fabrics like woven or embroidered cloth.
In this context, katazome is a technical process, used to achieve a certain known result and applied by craftsmen or workers who are experts in the technique.
Here are just a couple of examples of artworks by my teachers and others – who are using katazome in this new pictorial way; to create something akin to a painting but with qualities that are essentially textile. By the way, this is the way that katazome is now taught in universities too – from the first lesson it is presented as a pictorial dye technique, not a repetitive patterning tool.
|A visionary in pictorial katazome – Nishijima Takeshi. b1929-2003. katazome on tsumugi silk
|Toba Mika’s dyed scenery take traditional katazome to a new scale. ‘Early Morning – Seiryutei in February’ 2009. Toba-sensei is a student of Nishijima (above). 鳥羽美花先生の作品。「払暁 清流亭 － 二月より」2009年|
|Naito Hideharu – “Tree” Indigo and plant dye (black) on cotton.
]「樹」 内藤英冶 木綿布、植物染料（黒）、藍／型染 2009
Though a Contemporary artwork made with Katazome might appear visually similar to a Painting (and some artist’s strive to make it appear so) there are fundamental characteristics of a Katazome work – legacy of it’s traditional process.
The two most obvious differences that characterize a contemporary piece executed in Katazome are
* the necessity of a stencil, & * the use of dyes.
Since the technique requires the use of a stencil (traditionally made from smoked, persimmon juice steeped Washi paper but now often made from thin plastic) there are certain limitations visually of what can be achieved. A design that is to be made into a stencil needs to have all its areas connected in some way so that when you cut it out, it remains as one unified piece. Therefore you have to make choices about how you incorporate this factor into your artwork. Different katazome artists find their own ways of doing this, congruent to their own style – some choose to include ‘bridges’ within the stencil design that are later erased during the printing stage, whilst others include sneaky ‘bridges’ as part of their design that you don’t necessarily notice. Many will use both these approaches. It’s certainly not something you have to think about when painting!
Another factor, fundamentally different from a painting is the use of Dyes rather than pigments or paints. Unlike painting, where the pigment rests on top of the substrate and can be layered and can potentially completely cover previous layers, dyes soak into the fibres of the fabric and can’t be reversed. This requires you to decide at the outset of dyeing what colours will go where and it what order/shade/brilliancy to achieve the desired outcome. Dyes can be bled into each other, faded out, applied in layers that maintain transparency, and watered down or concentrated. The liquid-y state of dyes also gives an interesting depth to colours – it’s very hard to achieve a flat solid colour when brush applying dye by hand but this is one of katazome’s advantages and can be a feature.
So okay, the technique of Katazome is different from say, Painting, on a technical and visual level. It is being used for Contemporary Art – in a way that is removed from it’s traditional usage, but it is still undeniably connected to that history and tradition.
Are there any implications of this seemingly opposed pairing?
I think it can lead to some confusion over how it fits into our visual art world – but in my mind the best thing about using katazome in a contemporary context is that it opens doors to innovation and evolving traditions.
tradition and change.
I think we can be too precious about ‘tradition’ sometimes. Of course it is important to value, respect and record ingenious traditional methods of creating things (whether it be dyeing or making pigments or carving stone or glazing ceramics). The very nature of a traditional skill is that it has been developed and honed over many generations, each perpetuating it and maintaining it. That is something to honour and appreciate.
But on the flip-side of that, weren’t those very traditions borne of innovation and shifts it society’s needs and tastes? Yuzen dyeing, for example, didn’t just appear, it was a shift sideways from painting on fabric; a revolutionary idea that we have chosen to kryogenically freeze in about the 1800s and keep in perpetuation as “true yuzen”. I think there is a danger in this idolisation of particular traditional practices – without allowing innovation to happen. I think it’s important to acknowledge that traditions are fluid – they are borne of change and will continue to do so. And that is a good thing – not some betrayal of those who have gone before.
Try these on for size:
“Those who feel guilty contemplating “betraying” the tradition they love by acknowledging their disapproval of elements within it should reflect on the fact that the very tradition to which they are so loyal—the “eternal” tradition introduced to them in their youth—is in fact the evolved product of many adjustments firmly but delicately made by earlier lovers of the same tradition.”
― Daniel C. Dennett
“The word traditional has often been misleading and confusing. It connotes a static and fossilised art form, unchanged and unaffected, come what may, over the years. This is not true for what may be traditional today, may not necessarily be tomorrow. Societies change, and so must their arts, if they are to be meaningful, functional and express the sentiment inherent in that society. This is not a radical and complete break from the past, but rather a compatible and gradual modification to suit the new values, identities and concerns of that society.”
– Vilsoni Tausie Art in the New Pacific. Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, 1979
The same issue about freezing time and perpetuating something traditional often comes up with regard to Kimono. Some people may want to keep Kimono “pure” and “untainted”, so to speak, but the very thing we call a kimono today has been changing and morphing for hundreds of years. From something worn loosely and tied at the hip during the Muromachi period to something with short fixed sleeves and no extra length during Edo, to something that gets folded and tucked and wrapped and tied tightly around the body today. Why then is it blasphemous to introduce kimono that are made in two pieces? Or to suggest that the Kimono fabric could be thick denim? Sticklers for tradition are eventually left behind if no space is allowed for gradual modification. Even worse, when there’s no room for change, the traditions they were so desperate to see continue into the future are not carried forth in any form at all.
So to wrap up this meandering post, I think what I want to state is that yes, Katazome comes from a place of history and years of development. Yes, it is a complex and ingenious technique and the craftsmen and traditional practice deserve to be celebrated and appreciated. But there is also space for contemporary interpretations; katazome as contemporary visual art. In fact, by using katazome in contemporary work, isn’t that the ultimate compliment? It honours the “tradition”, keeps many of the tools and materials in demand (which supports those specialised businesses that boomed with the kimono industry but now struggle) and it keeps katazome relevant and meaningful to Today.
Whether katazome could grow beyond Japanese borders and truly become a global medium of expression is another question but who’s to say it can’t?