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katagami in the art school

​I am currently carrying out practice-based research, funded by Arts Council England, with a team at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture at Middlesex University. The research concerns their important collection of katagami - paper stencils used for centuries in Japanese textile printing. My contribution is focused on the pedagogical potential of the katagami. It responds to the team’s wish to engage students reflectively, critically and creatively with these artefacts; that is, to go beyond simply seeing them as examples of interesting motifs, or of stencilling technique. In so doing, I’m responding to an awareness (see for instance of the challenges of engaging with unfathomable, culturally and historically alien or technically dazzling artefacts and the sense of bewilderment, frustration or impasse that they may engender.

My project as a whole falls into three parts, the first of which is preliminary to and a foundation for the other two that will then be developed in tandem. Part one involves a fine-grained, autoethnographic study of textile printing using the techniques of traditional katazome – i.e. paper stencils (katagami), sticky rice paste and indigo. Part two and part three will use the data gathered through reflective practice in order to develop a series of workshops for art and design students, and one or more publications.

I have been experimenting with the traditional techniques of katazome, and making extensive notes about my practice. Although I will continue to make these notes throughout the project, I now have a body of writing in which a number of themes stand out clearly. These include: 1) the role of drawing in understanding, developing and assimilating an existing design idiom; 2) the multiple processes of translation and transformation at work in all making and design, from those at the tiniest scale (the translation of a drawn line into a cut line) to those at the most global (processes of influence and appropriation in the ‘transnational space of things’ described by Crang and Ashmore, 2009); and 3) the very active nature of materials in craft processes – for instance here the way that the material ‘assemblage’ of katagami, nori paste and indigo produces, rather than reproduces, a distinctive aesthetic resulting from (amongst other things) the structural and material characteristics of stencils and the kinds of design ‘games’ they invite.

As this first stage of the project reaches a point of sufficient completion, I will be starting to analyse my notes more completely, and to use these themes and others to design a short workshop series and publications underpinned by the idea that slow material engagement through drawing and making is an effective way to interrogate artefacts that might otherwise remain ‘mute’ and resistant to interpretation. My hypothesis, well supported by field notes so far, is that the lively materials and processes involved in printing with katagami and rice paste are more willing to speak on their own account (about design idioms, about processes of cultural and material translation, about the frustration, satisfactions, potential and evolution of this print technology) than their material remains, the katagami, when viewed in isolation as objects in a museum collection.


Crang, P. and Ashmore, S., 2009. The transnational spaces of things: South Asian textiles in Britain and The Grammar of Ornament. European Review of History, 16(5), pp.655-678.



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