Who makes our clothing? How has the shift from artisanal production to “fast fashion” over the last 150 years devalued women’s textile labor in Asia? How are heritage textile/garment traditions across Asia being preserved and revived by laborers and the organizations that support them?

Hosted by Art History & Visual Studies professor Melia Belli Bose, Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th century Textile Crossings in Asia Pacific (GToG) united scholars, activists and artists from across North America, Asia and Europe for a three-day symposium dedicated to these issues in March 2023 . . . after twice being delayed due to the pandemic.  

The free GToG events included discussion panels, a screening of Cathy Stevulak’s award-winning documentary THREADS and a textile-based performance by visual artist Monica Jahan Bose.

Organizer Belli-Bose was interviewed ahead of the event by CBC Radio’s All Points West (sadly, the interview was only live and not archived online) and was featured in this article which ran in India’s Telegraph newspaper.

“We hosted approximately 30 scholars, artists and textile experts from various countries in Asia, Europe and North America,” Belli-Bose told the Telegraph. “I conceived this conference to unite those working with heritage textile study, revival, and preservation in different Asian cultures. We focused on women’s roles as textile makers, cultural stewards, activists working for recognition and safe working conditions, and designers. The gendered angle is rooted in the fact that women have always had an integral role in textile production, from sericulture in East Asia to making nakshi kanthas in Bengal and phulkaris in Punjab to indigo in Southeast Asia.”

A scene from Cathy Stevulak’s documentary THREADS

About GToG

Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th c. Textile Crossings in Asia gathered specialists from a range of academic disciplines and artistic/artisanal practices to discuss intersections of gender, textiles/garments/fashion, labour and heritage across Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, and the diaspora) during the long 20th century (ie: late 19th century to present).

GToG participants investigated topics like

  • heritage textiles/garments—their demise and revival
  • gendered labor in the fashion industry
  • confluences of identity (regional, communal, ethnic, religious), domesticity and agency
  • activist art that critiques the global garment industry
  • the evolution, consumption, appropriation and display of heritage textiles/garments.

Keynote address

Friday’s keynote speech featured Ashoka Fellow Judy Frater on “Threads of Identity in Kutch 2022: Gender, Value, Creativity and the Marketplace” (4:20pm in Fine Arts 103). Judy Frater is steeped in the world of contemporary textiles of Kutch, India. Residing in Kutch for 30 years, she co-founded and operated Kala Raksha, a cooperative for women embroiderers, established the Kala Raksha Textile Museum, founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. the first design school for traditional artisans, and reinvented the school as Somaiya Kala Vidya.

A scene from Monica Jahan Bose’s WRAPture

Live performance

Sunday’s live performance featured the work of Orion Visiting Artist Monica Jahan Bose, a Bangladeshi-American artist and activist whose work spans painting, film, photography, printmaking, performance, and interdisciplinary projects.

Her short film, WRAPture: A Public Art Project was also screened at the event, and was followed by a live textile-based performance in the lobby of UVic’s David Lam Auditorium.

WRAPture follows a climate justice art project from Washington DC’s low-income Anacostia neighborhood to Barobaishdia—a remote Bangladeshi island on the frontlines of climate change—as Jahan Bose leads a dozen women farmers and over 200 Washingtonians to co-create 65 climate-themed saris, which wrap five Washington buildings. While they work on the saris, the participants recite poetry, sing, and dance, creating a trans-border community. The film includes rare footage and testimony of the impacts of climate change on coastal women farmers and the power of art to bring about change.