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Two mannequins wearing thick black cotton firefighter uniforms stand in front of a projection of billowing flames.

This fire in the Minneapolis Institute of Art's Target Galleries represents one that happened in Japan during the Edo (1603-1867) and Meiji periods (1868-1912), in the densely populated cities of Tokyo and Osaka.

Fire is at the center of "Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan," an exhibition focused on the making of naturally sourced textiles using materials such as fish skin, banana leaf fiber, cotton, silk, wool and more.

"All the houses are made of wood," Japanese and Korean Art curator Andreas Marks said. "Edo, which is today called Tokyo, was already by 1700 a million people. … That is a lot of people, so if a fire starts in one corner, it spreads out. Fire brigades were in charge of different areas."

The Great Meireki-Era Fire/Furisode Fire of 1657 killed up to 107,000 people and destroyed 60-70% of Edo. The threat of fire was so grave that anyone who set a building on fire could be put to death. Firefighters were seen as heroes and protectors of the city, and their dramatic acts were often portrayed in woodblock prints — several of which are on display — and in Kabuki theater.

In the exhibit, visitors travel the archipelago of Japan, from north to south and through 1750-1930, from frigid Siberia to subtropical Okinawa.

More than 120 textiles in the show come from the collection of Thomas Murray, a private collector/dealer of textiles in California. Marks acquired the collection in 2019 for Mia after pursuing it for nine years. Only a few prints in the show will return to other institutions when the exhibition closes.

North to south

The collection begins in Siberia and northern Sakhalin Island, which is now part of Russia and home to the Indigenous Nivkh people, and the northern part of Japan where the Indigenous Ainu people live. The effects of colonialism greatly decimated the groups.

Nivkh women used the skins of chum salmon and Amur carp to make fish-skin robes, which were used in festivals. Ainu robes made of elm bark fiber, with thick indigo patterning and nettle fiber striping, seem like they could withstand frigid temperatures. The robes on display are all ceremonial.

"Over time, people suppressed their heritage and now there is more of a re-finding and actually Japan just opened a National Museum of the Ainu, but there's like a dozen people who speak the language fluently," he said.

Toward the end of the northern Japan and Siberia section, there is an early 20th century photograph of an Ainu woman, and around her mouth is tattooed what looks like an outline of a mouth, making it appear larger. She most likely got this tattoo when she was a child, Marks said.

"There are some theories why [the tattoos] might be, but it could just be a beauty thing like henna," he said. "That is also one of those things, when the Japanese took over, they didn't want [the tattooing] to happen anymore."

Another room dedicated to travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes a stylish travel cape, called "bōzugappa," or "priest's coat," made of cotton cloth with a layer of mulberry paper treated with persimmon tannin.

Cotton first arrived in Japan around 799 and remained a luxury item that had to be imported from China and Korea until 1600, when people discovered a species of cotton that grew well in Japan's climate and soil. During the Edo period, farmers turned cotton into a cash crop.

An entire section is devoted to indigo dye, which made textiles more durable. For that reason, farmers frequently wore it. Indigo textiles didn't need to be washed that frequently, like blue jeans, and could withstand a lot.

The show ends in tropical Okinawa, which has a climate much like the Bahamas. During the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), social hierarchies were visible through which fabrics, textiles, dyes and prints that people wore. When Japan annexed the kingdom in 1879, these restrictions were dropped. In this subtropical region, fiber banana was blended with cotton to make robes. Everything was handmade.

"That's one of those amazing things about Japan — you still have people interested in material," Marks said. "You still have some who can continue with these traditions and create garments in the old style of old materials. That does exist."


Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan

When: Ends Sept. 11.

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Target Gallery, 2400 3rd Av. S.

Cost: $16-$20, free for under 17.

Info: or 612-870-3000.