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K-State Today

April 5, 2011

Treasures from ancient China: New exhibition highlights rare textiles from historic costume and textile museum

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

Fierce, shimmering dragons breathing gold thread flames and dragonflies so delicate they seem to flutter off the ancient fabric exemplify a new exhibition in Justin Hall and at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, both on the Kansas State University campus.

Most of the more than 30 antique Chinese textiles on display are from K-State's Historic Costume and Textile Museum, a part of the College of Human Ecology.

One multicolored dragon, stitched on a round textile medallion created in China's Ming dynasty, is the oldest piece in K-State's collection. "It's the oldest textile I've ever seen," said Marla Day, museum curator.

The roundel, which has not been displayed for nearly 38 years, will be on display at "Dragons and Dragonflies: Court, Temple and Household in Imperial China," which continues through May 29.

The textiles and other objects reveal life in 18th- and 19th-century China, Day said. They include embroidered and woven rank badges, a pair of shoes for a woman's bound feet, a woman's informal dress, a young boy's audience robe and religious symbols representing Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity.

The Chinese opera robe is from the Qing dynasty, 1644-1912. It is one of the exhibition's showpieces and was once worn by a performer, Day said. Fur outlines the long garment elaborately decorated with fire-breathing dragons and winged lions called pixiu. Wing-like fabric protrudes from the back of the robe. It was conserved in the mid-'90s and is in the Harris Case on the first floor of Justin Hall.

Another featured textile, Day said, is a dragon robe most likely worn by a government official or regional overlord during the Qing dynasty. It's on loan from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. It is one of three borrowed textiles; all the others came from K-State's collection. The dragon robe is part of the exhibition on display in the Beach Museum's Hyle Family Gallery.

On display for the first time is an ancestor portrait on board that was found damaged and recently underwent conservation. The portrait, displayed at the Beach Museum, illustrates a husband and wife in formal official costume of the Qing dynasty.

Ornately embroidered home decorative panels will be displayed in Justin Hall's Hoffman Lounge. The case also has digital enlargements of the elaborate stitchery.

On display in the office of apparel, textiles and interior design in 225 Justin Hall are uncut yardage of a neckband and cuffs for an official costume. The type of weaving, colorful and complex, is called kesi, Day said.

It's an intricate form of weaving using a combination of raw silk for the weft, or horizontal direction, and boiled silk for the warp, or vertical direction. The resulting design segments of differing colored areas are not interlocked as they are in typical woven fabrics.

"When you look very closely, you can detect a small slit where the change in color or thread type appears," Day said. "They are all colorful, intricate and delicate. Some of the embroidery is filled with detail so fine you can't see the stitches with the naked eye, like the eyelashes on people that are only an inch tall and the antenna on a praying mantis. Colors remain vibrant because we keep the collection in climate and light controlled storage to protect them."

Two upcoming lectures at the Beach Museum, both free and open to the public, are in conjunction with the "Dragons and Dragonflies" exhibition.

Fran Wasielewski, an authority on the history of the Silk Road, the 5,000 mile route from Chi'an to Antioch. Her presentation, "The Silk Road: Highway of Dreams and Nightmares," will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 6. As early as the 7th century, the Silk Road linked China and Europe through a region now in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A reception will follow at 5 p.m. with Chinese style refreshments, music, costumes and displays.

Mary M. Dusenbery, former president of the Textile Society of America who works with the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Kansas, is guest curator for "Dragons and Dragonflies." She will present "Under the Manchus: Textiles and Costume for Court, Temple and Household" at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at the Beach Museum.

The "Dragons and Dragonflies" exhibition links with the Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands" exhibition, from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, now on display at the Beach Museum. It also runs through May 29.

The Chinese textiles on display are only a small part of the genre in the collection donated by Frank Harris, Erma Currin and Helen Hostetter.

The entire collection in the department of apparel, textiles and interior design contains more than 15,000 pieces.