In southwest China, a land of mountainous terrain and isolated rural communities, women practiced the craft of quilting well into the 20th century, making blankets, bedcovers, and baby slings. These villages and farms, populated by members of hundreds of ethnic minority groups, became easier to access as modernization took hold after the Communist government gained power in 1949, with the building of roads and factories. It also became more convenient for local people to buy mass-produced goods. The quilting tradition faded — though it did not disappear — as many younger women, whose financial futures lay outside the home or even the village, did not want to develop the discipline required for fine needlework. Historically, quilts were of no particular value or interest to collectors, or to urban Chinese, because the Communist government favored progress and assimilation over the traditional handiwork of its ethnic minority populations. But the government’s current emphasis on preserving the intangible cultural heritage of these groups in the face of industrialization has given life to a tourist economy in which these quilts have become quite marketable.

Quilts of Southwest China, opening at the Museum of International Folk Art on Sunday, July 9, is the culmination of a three-year collaboration between three museums in the United States and three in China, spearheaded by the American and Chinese folklore societies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. The show is geared toward introducing Chinese quilting traditions, which have not been much exhibited in museums, to a larger audience. Many quilts are from the collection at the Michigan State University Museum, acquired from the import company Textile Treasures, whose owner, Pam Najdowski, lives in Santa Fe and has a booth at The Traveler’s Market at the DeVargas Center. Other pieces come from the Chinese museums and some are from MoIFA’s collection.

Lijun Zhang, research curator at the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, and Marsha MacDowell, curator and director of the Michigan State University Museum, edited the Quilts of Southwest China exhibit catalog, in which they explain that ethnic community members consider clothing a public marker of cultural identity. As textiles like bedcovers are replaced with commercially manufactured goods — and women are more likely to make small, lovingly embellished baby carriers for friends and family than to engage in the much more time-consuming work of creating full-size covers — the knowledge and skills needed to make them are also being lost. “International, national, and regional agencies are beginning to promote intangible cultural heritage and scholars, cultural practitioners, and local artists are beginning to document the art of quiltmaking. It is hoped that strategies will be developed to preserve the remaining historical textiles and the knowledge and skills of artists so that the tradition of making them can continue,” they write.

Carrie Hertz, curator of textiles and costume at MoIFA, traveled to China as part of the cultural exchange. She said that about 90 percent of the Chinese population is of the Han ethnicity, and the remaining 10 percent fall into 55 other recognized minority groups as established by the government in the middle part of the 20th century — but in reality, there are many more groups. “As the Communists were making their bid for power, they promised these ethnic groups equal representation in government, when before this time, such diversity was discouraged,” she said. “But no one knew how many ethnic groups there were, so what happened was that they started this major survey project, which meant sending researchers out into the field to figure out how to combine them.” Ethnic groups and subgroups were determined in large part by external observations of how they dressed, which led to a complicated disconnect between how the government and majority of Chinese refer to these groups and how they talk about or consider themselves. “For instance, one of the largest ethnic minority groups is Miao, but that’s made up of hundreds of subgroups, some of whom do not consider themselves Miao.”

Many of the quilted pieces would be considered duvet covers in the American textile tradition, but like American quilts they are made from scraps of old clothing and other fabric. Chinese quilts are often riotous with color, and the designs within the quilted squares contain many uneven thin and curving lines, whereas American quilting is much more geometric in nature. Appliqué — the technique of laying down a series of small pieces of cut fabric to create a shape or image — is used frequently, as is embroidery. “Indigo dyeing is very big in this area of China, and there are lots of traditions surrounding embroidery and detail work,” Hertz said. “The quilts have all these symbols on them that have to do with protection, good fortune, fertility, or sometimes it might be a folk tale or visual pun.” Sea creatures, butterflies, and other flora and fauna populate the quilts. On a bedcover by an unknown Miao artist, probably made in the 1950s or ’60s in Guangxi Province, a vividly colored and patterned crablike figure, set on a black diamond, also has elements of flowers and vines. Nearby is a deer in the same style. Imagery is sometimes religious, with Buddhist, Islamic, or Christian symbolism, as well as iconography from many smaller faith traditions practiced by individual groups. Hertz pointed out that one recurring element in the quilts is a resistance to symmetry. A seemingly uniform pattern is, upon closer inspection, disrupted in one corner with an unexpected color or a broken line where it is otherwise solid.

Most of the quilts and textiles in the show are from the 20th century, but one area of the exhibit is dedicated to 21st-century quilts by three contemporary artists. In a trend that is similar to the revival of DIY arts and crafts like knitting and quilting in the United States, ethnic craft traditions have become very popular in China, as has the exotification of ethnic minority groups. According to Shasha, a Hui artist from Yunnan, in an interview from the exhibit catalog, “Being ethnic is fashionable.” One of her bedcovers included in the show is a quilt made of 52 pieces of brocade in different patterns, mostly in shades of pink and purple, that are balanced by wheat-colored squares and a black border. Shasha’s piece highlights the traditional patterns of several ethnic groups, including the city-wall pattern of the Miao, the fern patterns of the Jingpo, and the square, diamond, and other geometric figures of the Dai people. “Shasha doesn’t feel beholden to stick with the art forms from her specific ethnicity, and I think this piece is really a sampler, her way of experimenting with different techniques, some of which are more commonly seen on blankets and textiles other than quilts,” Hertz said.

Collector and tourist interest in local arts and crafts benefits ethnic minority groups, as younger people learn old skills to make new blankets — and money can be made selling textiles that have been in a family for decades. Broad parallels, however, can be drawn between the tourism in these rural areas of beautiful rice paddy fields, where visitors want to learn all about local customs and costumes, and the tourist economy of New Mexico pueblos, where some residents chafe at the intrusive nature of outsiders’ curiosity while also depending on it financially.

“These things exist side by side,” Hertz said. “In some of these small communities that have become tourist destinations, people will have multiple sets of clothes. They have clothes that they throw on to show tourists, clothes made on sewing machines with synthetic materials that can take a lot of wear and tear. And then they retain these traditional, handmade, meticulous ensembles that they wear to their own festivals. People come in and think it’s sad that they’ve lost their culture, but they haven’t. It exists simultaneously with what they show to tourists.”

At this point, so little is known about the specifics of ethnic Chinese quilting traditions that the exhibit contains a reading room in which museumgoers can consider why it is important to study quilting as a marker of culture and ponder research questions to which answers have yet to be found. Among other queries, researchers are still seeking information about whether techniques, colors, patterns, materials, and design motifs indicate a specific ethnic group or village aesthetic, what makes a beautiful quilt and who determines that standard, and whether the fabric or pattern can be used to determine the age of the quilt. In the project’s first three years, researchers learned how to work with each other across cultures as well as across different informational and technological platforms. Another three-year grant has been secured, Hertz said, and the project’s next steps will focus more intently in two communities in Guangxi Province.

“We’ll be using textiles as a lens to understand all of these changing policies and economic situations, and how cultural changes are impacting people in the arts,” she said.

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