Review: MOA’s Layers of Influence expresses culture through exquisite, global clothing

UBC’s Museum of Anthropology opened their newest exhibit to much fanfare last on November 17. Drawing from Western Canada’s largest textile collection, Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures displays 136 polychromatic, voluminous pieces selected for both the care and technique implicit in creating aesthetic beauty, as well as to highlight the multitude of ways that people around the world present their identities.

Dr. Jennifer Kramer, the curator of the exhibit and an associate professor in the UBC department of anthropology, had to choose from both well-known and lesser-known styles with great difficulty. Chinese Qing dynasty robes, Indian saris, Indonesian sarongs and Japanese kimonos hang alongside Maori feather-cloaks, South Pacific bark cloth and pieces from across the Pacific Northwest, West Africa and Central Asia.

“My original pitch was to try to just get at the sensory experience of what we share when wrapped in cloth. And I wanted to allow visitors to just come in and be in awe at the technology of production and the incredibly beautiful types of things that are applied to cloths — the way they’re made and the colour,” said Kramer. 

Indeed, walking through the “geo-cultural petals” that organize the cloths based on global location, there is the cozy, multi-sensory experience of being enveloped by the pieces which can be seen in 360 degrees, are not behind any glass and are within reach, although touching is not allowed. Without any music that could encapsulate the diversity of belongings present nor multi-media screens to distract you, Kramer suggests that one way of experiencing the exhibit is to simply have an “embodied experience” by warping and weaving your way past gently billowing textiles like a quiet market. 

If more context and information is to your liking, then each “petal” has a plaque with labels, descriptions and sometimes pictures of people wearing the clothing. There is also a table in the middle of the gallery with catalogues providing more information on each specific item.

Schematically, Kramer thought about how the four Ps apply to the displayed cloths — as pride in one’s identity, as indicative of one’s social prestige, as amplification of power, and as weather and spiritual protection. For those curious about how these patterns and symbols can mean all of these things, or how people can understand them, Kramer has a tip about culturally encoded meanings — think about the Nike swoosh.

“We know what it means, but we had to have learned that — it isn’t biology, but somehow it seems obvious. ‘Well, it’s a swoosh — of course it means speed and running!’ But if you came from another planet and you saw the swoosh, you would think that it could mean anything.”

Perhaps more easy to spot are the cultural forces that are not always woven into the fabric solely with local or regional practices in mind, but with elements of cross-cultural influence. With a sharp eye, you might spot British lions on a Tongan tree-bark cloth, a Gujarati-influenced design found in Eastern Indonesia or an insignia from King George V’s Silver Jubilee on Yoruba indigo.

Many of the textiles on display are fragile, sensitive to light and rarely put on display. As such, the team at the museum is constantly working to balance bright enough viewing conditions without frying and fading the clothes. So take this rare chance to check out the ways people around the world wrap their bodies from birth, through rites of passage, to death.

Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures is open until April 9, 2017. There are specific Layers of Influence tours that the museum operates (free with admission) weekly on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. until the end of December. There are also one-off tours by various scholars focusing on specific aspects of the exhibit and clothing in general. Admission is free for students and faculty. Timings available online.