Is It Kumihimo if it didn’t come from Japan?

A good friend and troublemaker recently asked the question “Does it have to come from Japan to be Kumihimo?” My first inclination was to dismiss the question because the answer seems fairly obvious – if I use a Kumihimo pattern to produce a braid, then, of course, its kumihimo. In retrospect, the answer is not that simple.

Creating a label for something certainly creates an identity for that thing. If I say the word ‘kumihimo’ to someone who braids, it creates an association with Japan, tradition, and a style of braiding. But, if I am in Japan and make a Peruvian braid on a Marudai, does that make that braid Kumihimo? There are Andean braids that look identical in pattern to Kumihimo Braids. How would we label those? Peru-mihimo? Kumi-huvian?

The fact is that the ability to communicate in words and images across the world and across cultures allow braiders to adopt and adapt techniques from various cultures into their work. While there are distinct differences between cultural braiding motifs, there is a hybrid form of braiding that has emerged using various media (beads, wire, fabric, etc) and methods to create braids that are not specific to any technique or culture.

The recent exhibition in Boston, titled “Twisted Again: The New Kumihimo,” stretched the boundaries of braiding in a number of directions. Curated by the artist Lyn Christiansen, it presented braids ranging from traditional to some that approached avante-garde. It took the concept of Kumihimo from the traditional realm occupied by Japanese forms to the boundaries of art, sculpture, and expression.

The exhibit occupied two floors and a mezzanine of sorts. The first floor contained somewhat traditional braids by Makiko Tada, Jenny Parry, Hiroko Ojima, and Lyn Christiansen. The variety of braids ranged from traditional, such as Ms. Tada’s obijimi made on the takedai, to the abstract, represented by her necklaces made from monofilament, and Ms. Parry’s takedai braids made from paper yarn. The centerpiece of this floor was Ms. Christiansen’s “Icicle” sculpture, which extended almost two floors up.

It was on the mezzanine where the first major departure from traditional kumihimo was displayed in the form of Jacqui Carey’s wire sculptures. The most impactful was one entitled “Compassion.” This was an abstract representation of two heads, conjoined at the base. Up the stairs to the second floor, Ms. Christiansen had mounted two large sculptural pieces of long braids.

It was on the second floor where one versed in the more traditional forms of Kumihimo experienced somewhat of a paradigm shift. Here, there were two major departures from what we envision as traditional kumihimo. One set by Ms. Christiansen, the other by Helen Volnow.

Ms. Volnow’s pieces were nuno-felted sculptures that incorporated wide wool braided elements with felted silk, creating a new, entrancing, mass of fabric with a myriad of rich textual elements. One piece was done with an open weave, the second using the silk to fill in the spaces between the braid elements.

Ms. Christiansen stepped far outside traditional kumihimo, using braids and other elements to create a three-stage representation of the mind: Young, middle-aged, and old/dementia. The young piece was almost a curtain, with long, straight braids made from space-dyed thread. The center of the piece was bright, mostly sunny, with a slight parting in the middle that invited one to walk through into the potential of life. The middle-aged piece was composed of braids made from hand-dyed monofilament, still hanging down, but also tangled with each other, representing the movement from the freedom of youth and the freedom of thought into a more constrained existence of habit, ritual, conformity, and impending confusion.

The first impression one gets from the final piece in the series was of anger. Of lost possibility, confusion, frustration, and doom. It is composed almost entirely of metal – wrought iron header and footer, aluminum and steel braids tangled together, trapped beads in the wire. It captures the frustration of a life at its end when memory is leaving and the possibility offered by youth is gone.

Not what one expects out of Kumihimo, but a stunning example of stepping outside the bounds of tradition, taking what was originally a decorative art, and turning it into raw emotion.

So, the answer to the question, “Does it have to come from Japan to be Kumihimo?” is most certainly no. It just has to come from the heart.