An upcoming exhibition at The Textile Museum will explore the complex uses and meanings of red in textiles across time and place. “Red” will be on view February 2–July 8.
Included in the exhibition are 21 varied textiles from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East that delve into the significance of this bold color. The earliest object is more than 2,500 years old while the most recent is less than five. Complementing the textiles is a series of photographs depicting the use of red textiles in contemporary life, including an official portrait of Nancy Reagan standing in the Red Room of the White House.
From the pre-Columbian high Andes to the Twenty-First Century streets of New York, red textiles are a potent symbol, used to denote status, power, love, death and much more. In ancient Peru, red was reserved for important religious textiles while the Sixteenth Century Persia, red was used to pattern textiles with verses from poems of love.
Before the invention of synthetic dyes, achieving this evocative color was no easy task. Large quantities of dye material were needed to color a single piece of fabric, making red cloth expensive or impossible to produce. Such difficulties heightened the importance and allure of the color and it became a prestige commodity restricted by cost to the elite.
The textiles on view are drawn from The Textile Museum’s collections of more than 17,000 rugs and textiles as well as other holdings. Contemporary objects in the exhibition include the tapestry-woven “Tommy USA,” on loan from artist Thomas Cronenberg. Part of his “Identity Series,” “Tommy USA” is a self-portrait of the artist that explore his identity as he moves from America to his ancestral homeland, Germany. In reflecting on his choice of color Cronenberg said, “The color red is central to this work for its visual and emotional impact.”
The exhibition also includes a Halston ball gown from the 1970s and an AIDS lapel ribbon on loan from the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Together these contemporary objects demonstrate the continuing importance of red in the Twenty-First Century.
Historical objects in the exhibition include a Peruvian border fragment that dates to between 300 BCE and 500 CE as well as a Coptic tapestry fragment from Sixth Century Egypt depicting a leopard in motion. Shown together are two shawls form Twentieth Century Tunisia that illustrate the tradition of dyeing red patterns into white cloth after a woman has been married. A Nineteenth Century Navajo rug and a Chinese wedding collar provide contrasts in both the application and significance of the red textiles.
The exhibition is curated by Rebecca A.T. Stevens, The Textile Museum’s consulting curator for contemporary textiles. Working in consultation with the museum’s entire curatorial staff, Stevens chose each object to represent a unique perspective on the use and significance of this bold color.
The Textile Museum is at 2320 S Street, NW. For more information, 202-667-0441 or www.textilemuseum.org.