Chinese art exhibit honors minority group culture

By Kelli Miura and Wenchen Tu

A rare collection of over 300 costumes from ethnic minority groups throughout southwest China has made its way to the University of Hawaiʻi Art Gallery.

The Writing with Thread exhibit began on Sept. 21 and continues until Nov. 20. The show highlights intricately woven and embroidered items from 15 ethnic groups and 100 subgroups dating from the 1700s to the 1980s. Gallery emeritus director Thomas Klobe said Taiwan-based collector Huang Ying-feng’s pieces reflect one of the best ethnographic collections shown in the U.S. Huang dedicated the last 20 years to the preservation of the minority groups’ culture for future generations.

Klobe met Huang in 2003 and invited him to show his collection in Hawaiʻi. This became a reality through years of e-mails to convince Huang, who agreed in 2004 to meet with one of Klobe’s former students, Li Lundin. In March 2005, a group of 10 experts traveled to research the exhibit.

The show will travel to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wis. in January and will open at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M. in May before returning to the Evergrand Museum in Taiwan.

Click the photo to view a video featuring pieces on display at the Writing with Thread exhbit at the UH-Mānoa Art Gallery and an explanation from the gallery director.

The meaning behind the name

“The exhibit is called Writing with Thread because a lot of these Chinese minority groups don’t have a written language, so it’s really the women in the culture that become the keepers of their history,” explained gallery director Lisa Yoshihara. “The symbols used in their culture, the language – it’s all sewn on to the costumes, so the thread becomes their ink, the needle becomes their pen.”

Most of the elaborate costumes on display were worn for special occasions, like courtship, marriage and New Year’s celebrations. Making clothing was a way of life for the minority groups in southwest China as even brides were chosen based upon how well they could embroider. Mothers began teaching daughters embroidery skills at ages of 5 or 6.

All generations of women in the families would participate in making costumes. Grandmothers would spin materials, like cotton, linen or wool, and older women would dye and weave the cloth. Younger women would do the fine embroidery because their eyesight was strongest.

Highlights of the collection

Among the collection is an abundance of baby carriers. Carrying a child meant a great deal to the women in the culture, said Yoshihara, noting that the carriers were adorned with full embroidery in intricate designs stitched entirely by hand.

“Think of the hours it would take to do this and how special that child is,” Yoshihara said. “A lot of the times the baby carriers are adorned with animals that would be symbolically protective for the child.”


One of several baby carriers being featured at the art gallery shows the faces of children and other good luck characters reflecting the Yao group of the Pearl River. The carrier is from the early to mid-1900s.

Women were also responsible for household tasks, like doing the laundry and cleaning, making the carriers convenient. But, obtaining the carriers was no easy task. Yoshihara said the women didn't want to sell their carries to Huang because it was a memento of their children. Through economic need, however, they eventually allowed him to purchase the carriers provided the straps were cut off for the mothers to keep because these represented a tie to their children.

The pieces on display also reflect how universal patterns are, Yoshihara said, noting how she felt that some of the designs looked similar to those of Navaho Indians, Pacific Islanders, Indonesians and Japanese. But, the exhibit is ultimately a tribute to the work of women in the ethnic minority groups of southwest China.

“A lot of the costumes in here are for women,” Yoshihara said. “You could almost say this show is really a celebration about women (and) women’s work.”






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