Today I drove to Palm Desert and back to give a lecture on Japanese ceremonial gift cloths, or fukusa. My friend Chip is a curator at Heather James Fine Art, a stunning gallery that is not only broad in its chronological range but also its geographical scope. Thanks to Chip, it often features Asian art, ranging from ancient Buddhist sculptures to contemporary Chinese and Japanese art, and most recently a small but very choice collection of framed fukusa. These square silk gift cloths were used by Japan’s upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries to cover gifts presented at special occasions like weddings and New Year’s celebrations. Embroidered, woven, dyed or painted with a wide variety of traditional motifs, the cloths revealed the givers’ scholarship, cultural sensitivity and wealth, and if chosen correctly helped preserve the givers’ social status.
Although I am not an expert in these textiles, when Chip asked me to give a lecture, I jumped at the chance. Although Chip and I have known each other for 15 years or so now (we just realized!) and are both in the Asian art world in Southern California, our paths don’t cross as often as we’d like. The Japanese textiles seemed intriguing, and any chance to work with him, I take. Chip is a curator I admire for his scholarship, cultural sensitivity and his curatorial creativity and integrity. His recent exhibition, The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America explores the immigration experiences of two cultural groups a century apart and is one of the most thoughtful and engaging exhibitions I’ve seen in a long while. He also had a great way with people and has made many friends among the clients he works with at the gallery, all people with a passion for learning about art. Today, I gave him a catalog about a local Asian artist who I thought he might find interesting, but the real gift was the purple Japanese furoshiki I wrapped it with, a simple cloth compared with the spectacular gift covers displayed in his gallery and described in my lecture. Unlike the more elaborate cloths, it doesn’t give away much about the giver – except that I am truly grateful for our friendship and look forward to many more professional moments like today in years to come.