The exhibit opened Saturday afternoon with the smooth rhythm of a traditional Chinese instrument flowing through the exhibition room, filled with walls and walls of carefully stitched quilts in a variety of colors and patterns.
The musician, Zixuan Wang, played the pipa, a Chinese string instrument, for a crowd of around 50 community members and visitors from China.
After the brief concert “Quilts of Southwest China” opened to the public. The show, a display of textiles ranging from decorative to functional, is the culmination of a binational initiative by a range of partner museums both in the United States and China.
Lijun Zhang, an alumna of IU with a Ph.D. in folklore, said the quilts come from a variety of museum collections and demonstrate an inspired collaboration.
“As you can see from the exhibition, these quilts are very different from the word ‘quilt’ in traditional American quilting,” Zhang said.
The word for “quilt” in Chinese is actually an umbrella term used to describe different types of cloth, baby carriers, hats or any other item of quilted design.
Zhang said one of the challenges she faced with this exhibition was bridging the gap between the meaning of a quilt in American contexts and the broader definition given to the Chinese term.
“Those items made with quilting techniques such as piecing, applique, patchwork, we call all of those items by that term in Chinese,” Zhang said. “We tried to use the accurate word in this exhibition. It’s not just a translation of language. It’s also a translation of culture.”
Another challenge was working with so many museums across countries to create this bilingual exhibition.
Project partners for this exhibit are Yunnan Nationalities Museum, Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, Guizhou Nationalities Museum, Michigan State University Museum, Museum of International Folk Art, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the American Folklore Society and the Chinese Folklore Society.
“We had a lot of coordination work in the curating process,” Zhang said. “We have quilts from different museums, we also had different professionals collaborating in the project. Within each museum, we did collaborative work between different people in the museums and, at the same time, the different museums need to be coordinated.”
The music played as an introduction to the exhibition also contributed to the feeling of cultural bridging, Zhang said.
“In China, pipa is the traditional instrument, so it’s very different from Western-style instruments,” Zhang said. “The music expresses emotions through the performance, also that carries a story — up and down, down and up. A lot of musicians actually have stories behind them.”
Wang, vice president for public relations in the Chinese Calligraphy Club at IU, said she has been playing the pipa since third grade. She trained through eleventh grade, when she came to the U.S. and continued to play.
She said her feelings about playing fall in line with how the music connects to her and the audience.
“It’s not nervousness,” Wang said. “It’s like a connection. Each song has a different meaning behind them.”
Wang said she was impressed once she saw the quilts go up for this exhibition.
“I heard of these quilts before the winter break, and then I was so amazed by this beautiful exhibit we have at IU,” Wang said. “I only saw them in the book, and now I really see the actual things and they become more connected to my life. They remind me of life back in China.”
Wang said her bedcovers had a similar sort of design, though they are simpler than many of the ornate flower and color patterns of the quilts on display at Mathers.
Jason Baird Jackson, director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, said the students and staff at the museum contributed greatly to the success of the exhibit.
“One of the best things about the work of a university museum is the special relationships that these institutions develop with students,” Jackson said. “Dr. Zhang is an IU alumna, and the roots of her project go back to her time as a student.”
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