Cultural Appropriation Redux

Since our dinner with Deb, the subject has been on my mind somewhere towards the back of my mind, until it pushed its way forward for a selfish reason. I follow an FB page that lists NZ exhibition and residency opportunities; I saw one that for whatever reason interested me. It was for a residency not too far from Auckland and yet way out in the beachy New Zealand wilderness, where I could well imagine all kinds of ideas/clues run/fly/swim freely if only one could sit long enough or breathe deeply enough to capture/glimpse even just some.

I wondered what sort of application I would write, in order to justify my sitting amidst native trees and listening to native birds. With minimal weaving equipment at best, I imagined my being the only human in my immediate vicinity, (the venue actually sits in a small community,) and because I was working with the elephants at the time, I imagined working with weavable motifs based on leaves. (Even though nature doesn't motivate me as much as humans and human-made stuff, leaves and sometimes trees interest me.)


Am I, as a relatively recent immigrant, (25 years the week I was thinking this,) allowed to use native New Zealand anything? Who do I consult, how do I find these people, what I do think/feel in the first place? I imagined a Japanese, having spent a formative decade in the US, now living in New Zealand, proposing to cogitate cultural appropriation would make an intriguing application. (I didn't apply, though, because I was frantic about the elephants, not to mention I've never applied for anything in the arts, this was due in 4 days, and I would need time to huff and puff about what/how to write and then consult friends experienced in these rituals. But I solicited and got some good reading recommendations.)

I recall a decade ago, hanging around art school teachers, it was a burning issue. It's made the regular non-art news from time to time, often about the rest of the world appropriating Maori images and words. These days my vague and unscientific observation is, generally/theoretically, just don't steal; the problem becomes... problematic when applied to individual instances; inevitable, since the issue won't exist without individual instances. :-D

(Rabbit Hole warning: Air New Zealand's abject stupidity this year, a wee "nice" recently - although using Maori language in wider community creates another problem, some MSM being astoundingly terrible. Since we came to New Zealand, it's great much more Maori language, words, is heard in the public sphere, but the opposition in a way have come louder as well.)   

I've wrote about it once more here. I have read a few articles and listened to a few podcasts on the issue over the years, but I'm not (re)reading today; I want to put down what I know/feel before further reading/influences. (There will be race-related stuff.)

* One end of the spectrum tells me anyone can use anything. The other end is stickier: don't use unless it's yours, or, you are of it. But what is it one owns? Who owns it? Who is the rightful arbiter? In my case, I was born Japanese, spent a formative decade in Minneapolis, and started cogitating culture in art context only in the last 20 years in New Zealand. Growing up in Japan, I didn't pay much attention to the arts/crafts but lived there, consuming craft according to personal preference. There, craft tradition is strongly related to region, (e.g. pottery, textiles,) "schools", (e.g. floral arrangement, tea ceremony,) and in my days one had to be born into it or apprentice to become a proper practitioner. So, what of Japanese removed from all these? Expats? Or Japanese-(insert-national-adjective)?

* If I am not of it, if I don't own it, am I not allowed to use anything at all? Had I adhered this end of the spectrum, was I allowed to use elephants in the Sri Lankan context? In this world today, is it possible to avoid "foreign influences"?? And if we are to stick with our own thing only, goodness, wouldn't our making, our lives, be utterly... narrow?  

* In the most general sense, non-White/colonized/weaker communities protesting/complaining loudly is a good thing. As a Japanese Ive been fed up with Hollywoody take on all things Japanese since I was a kid, but we were so used to grinning and bearing without the concept/language for cultural ownership. Cultural appropriation, at its worst, conveys/normalizes/sustains racism/classicism. And then there is the issue of monetary value, which commands more column inches.

On the other hand, how did I learn, and what do I know about, well, anybody else? How do I know I know the right stuff? Who do I ask? And here's a very modern conundrum: if the majority of websites, in English or Japanese for me, says one things, is it closer to the "truth"?

Japanese versions of Western things, unless/until we know better, we understand as "translations" of the original; literature does well on the whole, but I can only speak of originally-English stuff I've compared. Dubbing of films shown in cinemas are trickier. And how about this for your amusement today?

* How much does "culture" contain? For example, I can related to, without knowing the minutiae Maori ownership/love/anxiety of nature-based visual motifs, as Japan has similar attachments, although probably less spiritual. Or do I just imagine I understand?

* Because my end-product from my making is visual in the first instance, am I allowed to read stories/histories/myths and listen to music for inspiration, rather than designing based on something I see? Alternatively, am I allowed to use materials connected to someone's culture if I don't imitate the visuals?

* Where is the line between borrowing and appropriation, or are they the same? Where does appreciation fit? How about things I don't know I remember, something I saw a glimpse of, or more often, can't remember in its "entirety" but only in bits and pieces, which I didn't realize originated in or were connected to someone else's culture?

* * * * *

This week I saw the Met Opera film of Turandot. I looked forward to the music and dreaded being force-fed something nasty over some weeks. I confess I cringed a lot at the multi-cultural mishmash of costumes; I saw proportionately greater Japanese influences, and then was struck how little I know of Chinese sartorial tradition. It wasn't so much Puccini that disappointed me, but that it's the Met, in New York, in this century, this decade. But then, if one doesn't want to "appropriate"/replicate, what does one do? Is modifying enough and if so how much? Where does creativity/originality fit?

Later in the season, there is Madam Butterfly; I've already been squirming for weeks; it is the one example I cite most often as horrifying-est appropriation. Shall I go and cringe at what I see, or not go and imagine the worst?


Baby L's Elephants - a Long Yet Much Edited Recap

I posted about the elephants here, here, here and here, but I'm recording the project as a whole, for the record :-D, since it was my first "biggie" in many years. I'm also copying pics from previous posts so you don't have to click. While I work, I think of multiple issues at once, as I bet you do, but I'm realigning these thoughts by issue for easier reading. 

Back in June/July Ben's colleague P contacted me about a baby blanket due October for another of their colleague K. I knew K was relatively recently married in his native Sri Lanka because when he returned he gave everybody a key chain with decorated wooden elephants. Ben got two and we've had them in the living room as decoration for fear of damaging the paint work or wood if we used them.
This guy is saturated blue-red; the other is orange. I particularly like the decorative paintwork I've seen on elephants on festive occasions.

I explained to P about mine not being "baby" blankets but up to toddlers, something which hopefully accompanies the kids as they climb into their first Big Girl/Boy beds. This was OK with her and she gave me a very generous budget, the reason I thought it was a departmental gift at first. It wasn't. She continued to updated me, first that it was going to be a girl, and later her ETA and delays. I thought I'd have plenty of time, then I was away for a month.  

After I came home from Japan, I looked up images for "Sri Lanka" and found: 1) Sri Lankan textiles are similar to what I imagine as prototypically Indian in color, particularly the use of saturated jewel tone; 2) Sri Lanka loves elephants as her national symbol; but also, 3) their national flower is the blue water lily. I was weaving hellebores as I researched, so my first instinct was to take on the water lilies. I also imagined elephants would be far more difficult. But I changed my mind when Ben put the key chains in front of me; abstraction of an already abstract form shouldn't be too hard? 
Transferring the key chain elephant on to a grid was straight-forward, but pencil marks are too nuanced. I put this piece of paper next to the telly, and we voted several times, then I replaced it with this flatter version for a fairer representation.  
After a few more votes, we settled on the version with a proportionately bigger head and shorter legs, seen at the bottom. 

In the past I wove every blanket double-width, folded at the left selvedge; in 2004/2005, I could manage <>80cm wide on the loom without much trouble. My maximum width progressively, (or regressively?) narrowed over the years, and these days I try to keep it approximately 60cm on the loom.  In double-width weave, this yields mere 120cm before wet-finishing, not a satisfying size for a toddler blanket. Not to mention the elephants would be diluted on eight shafts, as I was not going to weave with two shuttles.  

It was, in a way, no-brainer to opt for three panels on 16 and join them, (thought the weaver who never joined pieces before;) on the other hand, scrupulously (or unscrupulously,) reckless because: 1) my weft would probably wet-finish with inconsistent shrinkage as they had in the past, (see more below,) and 2) my beat is reliably inconsistent. But have you known me to be sensible?
The favorite shape was translated into weavable 5-block/3-end patterns. Top row right, second row middle, and bottom row left were ready to be sampled on Klick. 
I auditioned different merino and cashmere wefts while editing the size/shape of the motif for the best proportion. At this stage I was slightly taken aback how big the elephants were, as I had envisioned them to fit inside giant postage stamps. Our favorite, the babies with short legs, is closest to the sample middle of this picture, the upper row in the tall blue and white sample. I also sampled a few different ways of joining pieces.
This is the final shape after I sampled one last sample on the big loom. I made the elephant taller and gave it longer legs to improve the width/height balance, which Ben didn't like; he prefers the shorter legs. I still can't decide if I made the right choice. 
I already had a few cones of 2/30 merino for the warp, but bought a few bright, saturated colors. Because of range of colors and the tried, (only in the weft previously,) soft finish, this was the only warp yarn I had in mind from the start.  
Weft choices followed. I stuck to 2/20 100% cashmere and excluded all other sizes or silk/cashmere, from two sources but manufactured by one company, knowing even with the same size specification, shrinkage and texture varied in the past depending on the color and time of manufacture, sometimes quite a bit. Some had Mom's or my hand-written notes rather than the store label/wrapper so I knew I would have a wide variety of results. I selected the bright, saturated colors and a few pale ones to balance the hue; I had a lot of oranges, reds and purples, not many blues and greens.
In making the warp I avoided colors similar to wefts I chose, to introduce as many colors in the piece as possible. The warp stripes consisted of two yellow-greens, yellow-green+pale marine blue, medium marine blue+teal, two teals, and red+hot pink for boarders. I treated each pair as one end, so 18EPI in the threading, but 36EPI in the reed. 

I made the warp, dressed the loom, and made one last sample as cloth from the big loom is always tighter than those from smaller looms; this is when I lengthened the legs slightly, which made the elephants look older.  
This is me selecting the weft colors for the last piece. I loved the orange, third from the bottom, for example, but I was a couple of grams short so that changed a few things. A burgundy went in instead, which caused all kinds of havoc.
I was careful to readjust the water bottle frequently for the border; this paid off as, for me, the selvedges were tidy. Or so I thought.  
I wove the middle piece first, added the boarder to weave the left piece, and finally moved the boarder to weave the right. About half of the time, I weighed the weft used so I can mix even the colors in smaller balls. Throughout I measure the height of each weft repeat, aiming for 14.5cm, which was... hard. Though all wefts were labeled 2/20, there were such difference in the size, (not a rare occurrence from our main source,) in addition to bad beating. Here, the two in the left had hung downstairs for a few days, while the far right had just come off the loom, so it was longer. Even with inconsistent beating, however, I was surprised all three ended up roughly the same length after resting.

I joined the three pieces with one yellow-green and one teal yarns from the warp. I ignored the start/end of the weft repeats, (i.e. the top/bottom of each row,) but basted, (I thin this is the correct English word,) at the top and bottom of the piece, then the halfway point, then eighth, etc. along the length of the pieces. Then I joined them, picking where the wefts turned, tugging the yarns but not pulling too tightly to make the seam as invisible as possible. Then I hemmed the top and bottom and wet-finished, steam pressed and dried.
A is the rogue burgundy that did not full/shrink, and is more or less wrinkled forever. B is a lovely lime green that did not full much, either, but more importantly it had a lamb's wool-like coarseness; disappointing as I had used this color before with good results, but this ball was from Mom's stash.
Worse, the joins were nowhere nearly as tidy as I had hoped, even though they looked OK before washing. In about a quarter to a third of the seams, the wefts had been pulled towards the other piece.  I've not had time to investigate the reason, but one consideration is different tension as joining was done over three days to prevent backaches. Here you can also see how I varied the beat to try to make each row 14.5cm on the loom, too. Yikes. 
After a good part of a day of shock, horror and much woe-is-me-ing, I knew I had to obscure the original join. My first choice from the sample was simple and looked identical on both sides, but since these pieces were already joined, it didn't look identical and in fact rather disappointing on the back. As well, my problems were caused by joining by looping the weft loops at the selvedge, I thought a stitched that hooked around warp yarns might work better. I joined the A-side with the biggest, fattest stitch from the sample, using red and hot pink cashmere so as to accentuate the join.  
The back, though, is decidedly less attractive and not unlike the back of my favorite stitch.
Tuesday, the day of elephant delivery, (the baby had arrived perhaps a fortnight earlier,) started early. I steam pressed one last time, made sure there were no loose ends hanging, folded and sealed, then realized the piece would fit into one of my calico bags, so I put that in the box as well. (I was going to make a big one and give it to them later.) I did a few more rounds of woe-is-me, and finally took a few pictures. The final size was 149cm wide * 144cm long, though it may shrink just a tiny bit further as it had been raining for about three days, while Nelson is usually extremely dry. 

I enjoyed being completely immersed in a project for two months, the last fortnight neglecting even the basic housework. I was pleasantly surprised I could slip into this making mode so easily. The physical toll of the actual weaving was a different matter. I found myself monitoring back pain and energy level, balancing the number of hours I worked vs rested. Rugby World Cup was taking place and I even wondered if athletes lived like this all the time, being so aware of one's body. Mind you, in our case, we did the regular grocery shopping but I didn't cook, so either we ate well when Ben cooked, or grabbed the many, many giant bags of potato chips.

My designs tend to be abstract rather than being about something, (at the top of my head I can only recall two instances of heart-themed weaves, but hearts are abstract?) so that was new. Overall, I did a good job of being a head-down-bum-up artisan.

However, techniques have become insurmountable as I age. My vision is narrower, I run out of steam quicker, and I get physical aches from weaving in a fraction of time I used to weave in a normal course of the day. Surprisingly I'm not less patient, but I forget, and I can remember/concentrate on fewer things simultaneously. And yet my creative imagination is ballooning disproportionately. I don't mind so much that I'm slow and I can only realize a portion of all the ideas in my head, but in a way I'm becoming adventurous/reckless in planning and starting projects I don't know how to finish.  

I can pretend I'm being unnecessarily critical of my work, or that I'm making "art" rather than craft, but that's, (I'm going to swear now,) pretentious bullshit. I have eyes and I see how things are and how they should be. I don't know how else to work after experimenting over the years with tension/selvedge and beating. Being a short person on a large loom may be part of it but there is no more we can do to modify/accommodate the two floor looms. As a Japanese, technical skill is where one starts and I can't forgive myself for scrappy work. I wish my weaving is all parallel and perpendicular and equidistant, but this problems is my every present albatross, and he's getting bigger and fatter!

And yet, I persist. Eh. I got feed back from P and Baby Mama M, and they repeatedly used the word, "speechless". I am interpreting it to mean, "Good job."

* * * * *

I went straight into the next project Wednesday after Delivery Tuesday, and even then I was forgetting much about the elephants. That was eleven days ago, and we've had so much spring gale and pollen I've been no good for anything. I hope I covered everything I'd like to remember here, but if not, meh, I'll reinvent the wheel, (or make the same mistakes,) all over again. The End.


Sample 1

In the weft candidates, I included two cashmeres and three merinos, the first set will make a more expensive end product but I have a few not-whites, and the second I don't have enough of for a blanket, but I wanted to see if my memory of these yarn textures were are merely nostalgic. Of the latter I tested 110/2 (<> 2/16) undyed 100% with scale, 76/2 (no idea) undyed 100% with scale, and 110/2 merino/mohair half and half undyed superwash. All I have left of my oft-used 100/2 undyed superwash is one medium-sized ball, so I didn't "waste" that. As it turned out, these three merinos ended up as soft as my cashmeres, but feel slightly heavier, and thus producing a nicer hand, that big-dog-leaning-on-me feel, characteristic especially of merino with scales. I was surprised how merino/mohair behaved similarly to 100% with scale in this context.
All others wefts were supeprwash merino of various ridiculously thin sizes doubled, tripled, quadrupled and in once case, quintupled. These remained too separated/unstuck even after washing, (i.e. they didn't fluff up,) and they don't look attractive in the long floats. The same could be said of the warp, but more on that below.  

I also preferred not very white wefts to take the edge off the sharp contrast with the warp colors, but if in merino, there was only one clear winner, a newer 76/2 "undyed" 100% with scale. (Second last in the first picture. I put undyed in quotes because I can't remember if this is how it was sold.) I bought these from a garment manufacturer who decided to switch to superwash after getting complaints from customers their garments needed handwashing! When I first bought them, I immediately sampled to compare with the four old merinos and was so flabbergasted by the "dryness" I felt I put the cones on the highest shelf for when I could not get "good" merino any more. Until I sampled the elephants. 

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with these, and doubled in the weft they produce a fluffy blankety cloth, but I can't help noticing a slightly dryer feel, as if the sheep was older or the yarn came from a drought year, or the treatment after shearing was harsher than old favorites. My syperwash merino and merino/mohair are still available, but at $300/$350/kg, completely out of my reach.
I sampled this weft the elephant sample as well and you can see it fluffs up nicely and don't look like two unfriendly strands. In the right sett/pick the A and the B sides appear clearly "opposite". 
Sorry, bad comparison, as I made up the network twill as I worked, I expect to weave in this style; you can tell I was getting tired towards the end, but the bottom two repeats is the same as the top four. Portions in long floats fluff up well. In contrast to the old merino of the same size but using one strand in the weft, once steam-pressed this new merino stays flattened rather than fluffing right up again, which I find annoying.

The elephant warp has 2/30 superwash merino, two strands acting as one warp "end", three "ends" per dent in a six-dent reed; that's 36 strands of yarn or 18 "ends" per inch, best approximation with yarns I have of the trusty 18EPI in old 110/2 merino. I doubled the yarns to act as one in the hopes of creating an airier, (i.e. softer,) cloth. In this last/new sample, I tripled the yarn, and sampled three different setts in the hope of creating an even softer/thicker cloth:

Three strands to act as one end; two ends per dent in a six-dent reed; 36 strands <> 18 EPI in yarn size if in 110/2;
Three strands to act as one end; three ends per dent in a six-dent reed; 54 strands <> 27 EPI in yarn size if in 110/2;
Three strands to act as one end; sleyed 2-3-2-3-2-3 in a six-dent reed; 45 strands <> 22.5 EPI in yarn size if in 110/2.

Doubling the yarn in the elephant warp worked well, and the short floats produced a nice, tight but soft, light cloth. The tripled warp in the last sample feels even lighter/softer, but it lacks the weight I'd like in a blanket for a grownup; they, too, stay separated, and the thicker warp "ends" dilutes the scale of the design. This last is a interesting one because Ben said the end-product being much larger than the usual scarves and shawls, the bigger scale is a good thing; I think he's right but I have to get used to the look. 

Next sample, I'll consider the distribution/proportion of colors in the warp; sample  doubled and tripled warp ends, and single and double strands of the new merino in the weft. I'm adding one more sett to the mix to see if I like the scale of the design better:

Two strands to act as one end; four ends per dent in a six-dent reed; 48 strands <> 24 EPI in 110/2.
Warp colors with cushion cover colors it needs to match, but not exactly, and I want the blanket to be more saturated. And one more problem: I don't have a theme for this, making it hard to focus. I might have dream something up.


Life Going On

After delivering elephants on Tuesday, I wanted to weave the rest of the warp but I couldn't make up my mind whether to use medium gray weft all the way as I intended, or many colors as with the elephants, and I'm still undecided.

Wednesday morning, the house urgently needed tidying, cleaning, etc., but I was on a weaving roll and wanted to work, so I did the absolute minimum, (among other things, three loads of clean laundry waiting on the couch for days finally got folded and put away.) I put on a sample warp on Klick for the next project; I hope to finish weaving this today and wash.
This is for the grandmother who ordered, over the years, six baby blankets and one wedding present, and this one is to be for herself. Since she's known me at least since the naughts, she also knows I used to have lovely good merino; she's a real connoisseur of softness. The last two baby blankets for her were woven on the same warp, using the last of good merino/mohair in the warp and from memory my new 2/30 merino doubled, (or tripled,) for the weft, gray in one and marine blue in the other. But the drafts were a little different, a little tighter for the blue, which makes her insist the gray is much softer and she would like hers like that.

To be honest I was uncharacteristically efficient weaving these two blankets, I made them quickly and sent them off just before one of my Japan trips, so I don't remember much, nor have record/posts about them. All I know is, I don't have enough of any of the good old merino yarns to weave a whole blanket. So I'm pulling out all merinos and a few cashmeres that fit her color specs, multiplying skinnier merinos, auditioning 11 candidates in the weft. Re. the warp, I doubled the 2/30 merino for the elephants to approximate old standard 110/2 (<>2/16, good but not the same;) with this sample I tripled the threads and am sampling three different setts at once.

The design/draft will be a familiar fancy twill of some sort, but with long floats. The sample is in eight shafts, because I've wanted to weave this double-width, (not confident about the joining,) but the elephants were roughly 60cm on the loom, and with three pieces joined the finished blanket was only 149cm wide, so even if I put on an uncomfortably wide warp, I'm not confident it will make a comfortable, grown-up blanket. So three pieces joined seems to be my only option. But I'll have 16 for the twill.

We'll see how it goes.

Further on the menu:

* Weaving, ironing, and movies give me ideas about weaving projects; I can't remember what triggered the idea but on Tuesday I saw a different angle on Syrie; I don't know how I'll proceed but I'm excited pondering. I might have to finally create the tag, "Syrie".

* I have five Letter Journals I put on the back burner, with my swapmates' knowledge, during the elephants rush.
* Out of the blue Stella asked me about The Sketchbook Project this/last week, so out of the blue I signed up for one. When I did this in 2010 and 2012 I was far less experienced working on paper, and didn't exactly enjoy working on them; I hope that's changed. Of the themes, I'm interested in "One Last Chance", "Waving Goodbye" or "One More Story" reflecting on the recent changes in Mom's imprisonment, moving into a care facility and my own aging.  

* I want to tie-dye a few more shirts, if anything else to get them off the couch which has turned into another To Do spaces. I have three of Ben's thin summer Ts, (easy,) and two of my thicker winter weight tops, (harder,) and two relatively new tops of mine I ruined, one with pasta sauce, another with bleach. It'd be lovely to resurrect them.

* An online sale with a few new pieces.

* Finishing a few pieces to list include in said online sale.

* Weeding/gardening. Although I started late in the season, I was making good progress before Japan, and I lament I haven't continued while working with the elephants. (No, I don't.) I swear, weeds grew as I stood watching at the sink finishing my coffee. It's been a windy-with-some-rain November this year, while the last several years Novembers were in near-drought conditions. Cherry flowers lasted longer, as did hellebores; orchids are just starting while other years they started as early as August.

* Clean closet/drawers. I've got a few more hand-me-downs from Mom. 

* Clean stash room. Now that I have a new "default" merino suitable for warp, my plans for stash reduction has reverted to using the merino in the warp and stash yarns mostly in the weft. I also prefer not to have boxes on the floor downstairs, so I have to use my tiny room upstairs wisely, a job akin to squeezing one more passenger on a Japanese morning commuter train.

* On Tuesday, after delivering the elephants, I ran into Glenys; we are still on re. the tapestry loom. This is another reason I want to vacate as much bulk from the basement as possible.

* This is a long-standing one: I'm still looking for a mid- to long-term project, but I have no idea what. Originally I wanted a paper and/or paint project, something I could work on little at a time, (not my forte,) culminating into lots of, or a compilation of, little things. Then I thought to work on a small series of medium-sized something, spending more time on each piece. But I also like the idea of combining my interests: drawing/collage, printing, needlepoint, weaving... All I know is it will not be a traditional woven tapestry - do you know how long one of those things take?

I jump from one idea to another at times; convince myself I can work on all three, (or four, or five,) at once at other times; and forget all about it often. It is easier and more pleasurable contemplating possibilities before, (or without?) deciding, but if I find the right theme, the right project, it could give me a focus of sorts in life besides, the day to day To Do items, you know?

* I'm writing a summary post on the elephant blanket project. I always say it's for my own record, but then I seldom reread my posts, (I find it more embarrassing than listening to my voice on a tape recorder,) so I've gone back and forth about it. And I had so many mishaps I can't remember them all any more and some basic/preventable mistakes and some results too embarrassing to share. But it was a lovely project to be immersed in I want to record it just for the heck of it.