fig. 1: Passing Through, ceramic sculpture
© Haruko Okano, 1993

Women on the Pacific Rim
© Joan M. Jensen, 1997
Professor Emerita, New Mexico State University

A sense of place or a response to the art of a place may give a group of seemingly diverse people a common experience that allows them to form a type of community. Such a community of women lived along what we sometimes call the Pacific Rim and consumed, collected, or produced art that derived its inspiration from Asia. The ceramic sculpture of Vancouver artist Haruko Okano (fig. 1) draws on her grandparents' experience of immigration to Canada. The walking legs focus on Japanese culture as it was transformed by the pressures of the reluctant host culture. Hers is just one way women have mapped this community of experience.

Consumers of Textiles and Clothing

The term "Pacific Rim" is an artificial construct, an imaginary map that at its fullest includes the Americas, East Asia, the islands of the South Pacific, and, to the north, Russia. Women of many cultures, in North and South America, have helped create this Pacific Rim community of interest in and experience with the art of Asia. The community began to form as the first Spanish and Portuguese galleons unloaded textiles and art objects from China and India in the ports of the Americas and it continues today, especially in the art created by Asian American women artists.

fig. 2: Wool-on-wool Colcha embroidery, 1800-1850, 2.03x1.42 m
Collection of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, Inc.
on loan to the Museum of New Mexico
Photo by Blair Clark

Between 1600 and 1800 India was the greatest exporter of textiles and Hispanic women in the Southwest were among the first to incorporate East Indian textile designs into wool embroidery they called colcha (fig. 2). Eighteenth and nineteenth century trading ships continued to bring huge quantities of textiles from India, as well as from China and, after the 1860s, from Japan. Women of the Americas adopted Asian patterns into their own fiber arts, used fabrics to adorn home and person, and wore imported clothing, especially jackets from China and kimono from Japan.

fig. 3: Rich China crepe shawl with embroidered border
The World of Fashion, July 1854, Plate 1
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, Cal

In the nineteenth century, ships that carried California hides and tallow to China brought back Chinese silks on their return trips. By the 1850s, stores in San Francisco, such as Tobin & Duncan's Chinese salesroom, offered a wide array of Asian textiles, including very popular silk shawls. Women on the Atlantic Coast also incorporated these shawls for high fashion where the rage spread through illustrations in such periodicals as The World of Fashion. (fig. 3).

When importation of shawls declined in the late nineteenth century, Euro-American women began to adopt ready-made Chinese and Japanese clothing which became immensely popular between 1890 and 1920. First used privately for relaxation, Asian clothing gradually influenced the form and cut of women's public clothing, especially in features such as round necklines, tubular sleeves, loosely defined waistlines, and tunics that allowed free movement of the body. Asian styles dramatically changed the shape of women's clothes, substituting looser, less restricting styles for the shaped and tightly fitted often boned, Western garments. Historian of clothing Barbara F. Kawakami has also documented the continuous use of Japanese textiles and forms of clothing, especially among Japanese immigrant women in Hawaii during the early twentieth century.

fig. 4: deColonization, Installation
© Yong Soon Min, 1991

More recently, Asian American women artists have used Asian clothing and textiles as signifiers of ethnicity to raise questions about how immigration has affected them and their families. Korean-born Yong Soon Min, who was brought up largely in the United States, uses women's clothing to represent her struggle to reconcile Asian family values with the emphasis on individuality for artists in the United States. In deColonization (fig. 4), her 1991 installation at the Bronx Museum, she used a lengthened Korean gown, a hanbok, to meditate on the experience of having "a foot in here, a foot in there."

fig. 5: Interior of Grace Nicholson's Treasure House
Pasadena, California, showing Native American and Asian Objects
Grace Nicholson Collection
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, Cal.

Collectors of Objects of Art

Textiles and clothing remain a major part of public as well as private collecting of Asian art, but most collecting moves beyond fiber to three-dimensional objects. Until World War II Americans and Europeans alike bought, bartered, and plundered Asian objects. On the West Coast, two women, art dealer Grace Nicholson and collector and curator Gertrude Bass Warner, were responsible for collecting Asian objects in the first half of the twentieth century. Nicholson, who began as a dealer in Native American baskets, eventually became an expert on Asian art and constructed a building based on Chinese architecture that today houses the Asia Pacific Museum in Pasadena (fig. 5).

Gertrude Bass Warner assembled the first major West Coast collection of Asian art, now housed at the Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. She too self-trained herself as an expert in Asian objects in order to understand the objects she purchased. Like Nicholson, Warner saw the purchase of Asian art as a way to legitimately transfer the cultural objects from one nation to another and to explain the value of Asian art traditions to Americans. Warner felt art formed a language transcending national borders, that through art people could understand distant, foreign cultures, and that her collection might be a "channel for international friendship and understanding."







All text © Joan M. Jensen.
For a more comprehensive discussion, please see:
Jensen, Joan M. "Women on the Pacific Rim: Some Thoughts on
Border Crossings." Pacific Historical Review 67 (Feb. 1998):3-40.

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