The Japanese art of indigo dyeing, or aizome, experienced a boom in the Edo period. Using leaves from the indigo plant, the process dyes natural linens and cottons in a spectrum of blue shades. Japanese people are nothing if not keenly detailed; apparently, 48 shades of natural indigo have been identified, from the palest of icy blue (ai-jiro, or white indigo) and bluish green (sabi-asagi or rusted turquoise), to aubergine purple (appropriately named nasu-kon or eggplant navy) and grayish blue (kachi-iro, kachi being a homonym for "victory" and consequently used by Kamukura period samurai warriors for their gear). At the beginning of the 19th century, Japan annually produced close to 9,000 tonnes of sukumo, the organically composted indigo that serves as the basis for the dye.
The preparation of organic indigo dye is a labor of love that takes close to a year. During the winter months, farmers must cultivate the indigo leaf fields. Starting in March every year, the farmers sow the seedlings, first into pots. Come May, the seedlings are planted in the fields and tended to throughout the summer months. A crop of indigo leaves can usually be reaped twice in the months of July through September and then dried. In the autumn months, the dried leaves are composted. In winter, the fermented mixture is stirred once a week for four straight months. Finally, in around February, the sukumo is ready. Limestone (alkaline substance), wheat husk (a fermentation aid) and wood ash lye--all natural ingredients--are combined with the sukumo and fermented for approximately 10 days, and, only after that is the dye finally ready to be used.
Given the painstaking and lengthy process involved, fewer and fewer Japanese farmers grow indigo. However, Tokushima prefecture is still widely known in Japan for its aizome. BUAISOU. is the artisanal duo of Kenta Watanabe and Kakuo Kaji who have decided to place their roots in Tokushima in order to carry on the aizome tradition and create products for contemporary times. Focusing on each and every step of process, they are involved in harvesting the indigo leaves and creating the sukumo, all the way through to product design and production. (BUAISOU. is the name of the house that 20th century Japanese businessman, Jiro Shirasu, lived in, and legend has it that Shirasu was the first Japanese person ever to wear jeans.) BUAISOU. currently produces limited editions of bandannas, totes, and other accessories.
All this talk of small batch, artisanal, organic products is bound to get any Brooklynite's heart a-flutter. Lucky for us, BUAISOU. has started to run private aizome workshops in Bushwick! At BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab, I had the chance to experience the first batch of sukumo brought to NYC. Dipping my white linen shirt into the vat of aizome (which had liquid at the top and the fermented compost at the bottom), I was instructed to swirl the shirt around in the liquid portion of the vat. Then, as the shirt was brought out and pulled taut, the indigo was exposed to air, and the oxidization set the color. Repeating the process about three times and letting the color sink in overnight resulted in a gorgeous denim-like color.
The second batch of sukumo will soon be ready and available at BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab. For those interested in attending a private workshop or potentially collaborating with BUAISOU., please contact here.
Also, come check out an installation of BUAISOU.'s art objects in Bassanova Ramen.
From July 13, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Bassanova Ramen 76 Mott St (between Canal & Bayard Sts)
Opening Reception: July 13, 3-6pm
If you've already experienced BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab, please come wearing your dyed creations!
Photos courtesy of Sayaka Toyama.
While in Bhutan, back in May of this year, I also had the wonderful chance to visit Voluntary Artists' Studio, Thimphu, known as VAST. In operation since 1998, it has been run by professional artists as a space for artists to share and create, as well as to provide opportunities for Bhutanese youth to develop their artistic talents. In promoting the importance and value of contemporary art production, VAST provides vocational and mentoring opportunities for artists and artisans to share their knowledge, talent and skills to a younger generation.
When I visited the space, artwork from younger students who were taking classes at VAST was being exhibited. Works from students of all ages--some as young as junior to middle school students, all the way to those with training outside of VAST--skill sets and mediums were exhibited in one democratic, supportive space.
VAST's artistic and spiritual figurehead, Kama Wangdi, is respectfully and lovingly referred to as Asha Kama. He kindly showed us around the space, explaining to us about his studies in art and his path to becoming a professional artist, and describing the artists behind the work that was being exhibited. His paintings--powerful and extremely well-executed work that layered on textures and symbols--were also exhibited alongside others' works. Asha Kama's works often feature Buddhist iconography using a combination of modern and traditional techniques; his thickly layered three-dimensional painting of a dragon in swirling clouds was captivating. While the experimental pastiche of modern and traditional sometimes produces mixed results, Asha Kama's work manages to achieve a fine balance, in a way that directly emulates the warm strength that Asha Kama himself exudes.
In addition to serving as an incubator for creativity, VAST is also strongly committed to evidencing the power of art to effect social change. For example, Asha Kama and his colleagues are currently working on developing a park by the river bank across from VAST's spaces. Their hope is to eventually create site-specific sculptures all along the river bank.
At VAST, artists are permitted studio space for their own artistic practice. We met Maiyesh Kr Tamang, a master potter who had built his own kiln at VAST. His beautifully executed bowls appeared to look strikingly similar in texture and style to the pots created by the potter who we had visited in Langthel Gewog. Serendipitous as it may be, it turns out that Maiyesh had taught the potter in Langthel Gewog his skills.
Keep up with VAST's activities here.
Thank you to Asha Kama and to Kesang Chuki Dorjee for so warmly inviting us to visit VAST.
Images courtesy of Ibba Rasul Bernardo, Tania Hyde, Dhruv Kazi, Helen Zhai, and Tania Hyde.
As part of the Asia 21 Young Leaders' Initiative, a program of Asia Society's Global Leadership Initiative, select members of the class of 2013 visited Bhutan and undertook a series of consulting workshops with Tarayana Foundation. Formally launched in 2003, Tarayana is a Bhuntanese non-profit organization whose mission is to maximize happiness and harmony among all Bhutanese people by providing opportunities for life improvement. By helping community members learn and integrate new skills, Tarayana Foundation promotes self-empowerment and the importance of serving each other. We had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Secretary General Chime P. Wangdi; Director of Programmes, Programme Division, Sonam Pem; Field Officer, Monggar, Passang Tobgay; Programme Officer, Head Office, Palden Ongmo; and interns to learn more about Tarayana's inspiring work.
Tarayana focuses on three core ideas in their work: (i) Life Improvement (by improving housing conditions; providing access to medical treatment; and undertaking food and nutrition programs and support for senior citizens/community members with special needs; (ii) Skills (by supporting the development of arts and crafts programs, and undertaking green technology and micro-finance programs; and (iii) Education (by organizing volunteer programs in school curricula, and providing scholarships and other educational opportunities). Headquarters staff and Field Officers alike work to put "Gross National Happiness" philosophy into action.
We spent two days traveling by bus on a series of high-altitude, hairpin-curvy, one-way roads running right by the edge of Bhutan's cliffs with Tarayana's staff members, Passang and Palden, to visit some of the villages that Tarayana supports and to learn more about Tarayana's long-term rural development efforts. Traveling 170 miles east of Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, over nine hours, we reached the region of Langthel in the Trongsa district where the Mongpa ethnic people reside. There, we met community members who undertake nettle weaving, soap making, yarn dyeing, and pottery.
Tarayana has been critical in helping members of rural villages organize themselves into "co-operatives"--first, identifying the potential product to be created, then, training community members to create the product and in inventory management and accounting, and finally, to help distribute and market the final products both in Thimphu and abroad, all with the goal of self-empowering these communities.
For example, we were informed that nettle weaving is specific to the region where nettles can be found, but had been in the process of being abandoned. Tarayana helped to resuscitate this crafts form in a marketable way to provide an additional source of income stream to the community. Nettle weaving is an intensive and arduous process by which the thorny, coarse nettle is gathered, and then spun into beautiful, soft thread. The thread is then woven on a handloom to be made in to fabric that is then sewn into textile goods such as shoulder totes. Tarayana has helped to organize the nettle weaving co-operative where women participate in the sourcing and manufacturing process, with sales of the products going back to the participants.
Here are some of the women and men from the soap making and yarn dye-ing communities. The yarn dye-ing community has just started experimenting with yarns and colors. All of the colors are sourced from natural dyes (for e.g., turmeric for yellow).
We loved seeing one of the master potters are work. The potter moves his own body around the stationary pot stand (rather than the other way around) to create his beautiful objects, some of which are customized for export to overseas markets.
Back in Thimphu, Tarayana Foundation has a lovely store that sells the products made by members of the communities:
To learn more about Tarayana Foundation and to support the work that they are doing, please follow them on Facebook here.
Images courtesy of Ibba Rasul Bernardo, Tania Hyde, Dhruv Kazi, Helen Zhai, and Tania Hyde.