The art of war
An exhibit displaying wearable items with a propaganda motif comes to the Academy of Arts
IAGO MIGHT HAVE claimed to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the Trojans might have invented the modern printed T-shirt by branding "PROPERTY OF USC" on their PE gear, but this is small beer compared with a silk kimono painted up with tanks and battleships and maps of Manchuria. Although wearing certain fashions as a political statement isn't new, modern cloth manufacturing, coupled with the pseudo-science of agitprop, made for some interesting clothing styles during World War II.
Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts
When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 8 through April 29
Admission: $7 adults; $4 for students, seniors and military; free for 12 and under. Free every first Wednesday of the month.
The new Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibit "Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain and the United States, 1931-1945" has dozens of examples that have to be seen to be believed. Or maybe they're easier to believe if you're wearing one of those red, white and blue flag shirts that became standard issue after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Wearing Propaganda" began as a doctoral project by Jacqueline M. Atkins at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York. Now a textiles curator at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania, Atkins curated the traveling exhibit and wrote the fascinating accompanying book, co-published by the Bard Center and Yale University Press.
Originally meant as a one-shot in New York, the exhibit caused enough stir that it hit the road, traveling as far as Japan and back again. The Academy is the last stop.
We caught up with Bard exhibition registrar Linda Stubbs and Academy textiles expert Sara Oka as they set up the show, which opens Feb. 8 and runs through April 29. Stubbs -- who calls herself "just the one who runs around behind everyone with a clipboard" -- is quick to credit Atkins and Japanese textiles scholar Akemi Narita as the primary spark plugs.
"As exhibition registrar, my role is to oversee the handling at each transfer of the exhibition -- it is very much a 'behind the scenes' role," Stubbs said. "Many people see museum exhibitions, but they don't realize how they are put together technically -- the loan forms, crating, international customs, shipping, installation, etc.
"This is the third time I am installing the exhibition, so I know its little quirks. HAA has a very professional staff, and it's a great pleasure in many ways to work with them."
Fabrics are by nature fragile, and an exhibition like this stretches the link between exhibits designer -- who wants the public to see everything -- and curator, who would prefer that artifacts be locked in airtight, climate-controlled black boxes away from the eyes of the public.
Oka pointed out that galleries in the Academy can be rigged with movement sensors so that the lights come on only when someone enters the room.
THE EXHIBIT is somewhat bipolar, divided between Eastern kimono and Western scarf. And not just divided geographically. The decorated kimono were primarily worn by Japanese men and boys as political celebrations, while the scarves were worn by British and American women as functional, if decorative, headgear in the workplace. "What Rose the Riveter wore," Oka said.
The kimono decorations also were primarily worn on the inside, privately facing the wearer, on "nagajuban," or long underkimonos, or the linings of "haori," jackets worn with kimonos. They include vignettes of Type 89 tanks, Mitsubishi and Nakajima bombers, rising-sun military flags and flags of the puppet state of Manchuoko, maps of conquered territories, coupled with pastel puppies and boyish soldiers, as if the whole subject of war is harmless infantilism. You see bristling weapons printed on "omiyamairi," or shrine-visiting kimonos, which are similar to christening gowns. Another theme, often gorgeously designed, is various iteration of "hinomaru," the rising sun of the Empire of Japan.
The Western scarves -- some modeled by Vivien Leigh in ads for Jacquot of London -- are rife with bold red, white and blue declarations -- "Defense Not Defiance!" "Our King and Country!" -- and decorations -- Bren gun carriers, corgi dogs, Avro Anson aeroplanes, the American Declaration of Independence.
"The problem with exhibiting fabrics in galleries is that everyone wants to touch them," Oka said. "People want to get up close and feel the detail and read the small text. A lot of this stuff has never been seen before, unknown even in Japan."
Stubbs said, "(Atkins) worked very hard to establish relationships with the owners, particularly in Japan, to convince them this was the right show to get these items out the trunk."
Oka said, "Hawaii is the perfect venue in that regard, a crossroads between the cultures, with so many points of history. We do fabric all the time at the Academy of Arts, but this is the first time there's been a propaganda issue."
IT TURNS OUT that the textile world, at least prior to the introduction of plastics, is divided along the protein or animal-fiber world and the world of cellulose, or plant fibers. Each presents varying degrees of conservation problems. But mostly, it boils down to bugs.
"First, you make sure there are no eggs on the cloth when it's stored. It has to be really clean," said Stubbs. "And it helps to freeze it. And then freeze it again in two weeks, to get any strays."
"Bishop Museum is a great help with our conservation issues," said Oka.
"Oh, I've loved working here with you guys!" said Stubbs. "After working in New York and Tokyo, your staff seems so ... calm. That's it!"