Megumi Shauna Arai’s Enchanting Textiles Are Patchworks of Stories and Traditions
For Megumi Shauna Arai, textiles are universal indicators of culture and identity. Like 19th-century crazy quilts or the lively blankets that emerged in the 20th century from the hands of women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, her work incorporates salvaged fabric, but with a twist: Arai’s materials come from various countries and eras, and mingle with textiles dyed with natural pigments that the self-taught New York–based artist mixes herself. She layers the geometric scraps as one might pictures on a mood board, and displays the resulting bold, colorful tapestries in engaging ways—some hung in her interpretation of noren, traditional Japanese fabric dividers that are suspended in windows and doorways (seen in a Manhattan pop-up of Beverly’s Shop last year), and others laid flat, as was one particularly striking piece on a bed at the Eliot Noyes House in New Canaan, Connecticut, as part of the 2020 edition of the art and design fair Object & Thing—that invite viewers to consider the histories and techniques they represent.
Arai’s work is inspired, in part, by boro, the Japanese custom of mending and patching textiles, along with fabrics that represent other times and places. One type of traditional textile that regularly makes its way into her pieces features vibrant, roller-printed florals. “These fabrics were produced in small textile factory towns in Russia in the early to mid-twentieth century, but they were produced for the central Asian ‘market,’ which is so interesting to me,” Arai says of the cloth. “It’s this idea of two cultures meeting. One assuming what the other one likes, but also putting its own aesthetic leanings and perceptions into it.” This type of cross-cultural phenomena is a driving force behind her patchworked compositions, and for Arai, who grew up in Tokyo and the Pacific Northwest (her father is Japanese; her mother is Jewish-American), the idea of plurality feels especially resonant.
Initially drawn to textiles because of their tactility, Arai began focusing her artistic practice on fabric beginning in 2015, and cites the physical act of movement as a crucial element in her work. She begins each piece by making dyes using plant materials that she often forages herself, and then composes her work on the floor, arranging pieces of material until they achieve a sense of harmony. From there, she stitches the composition with a sewing machine or by hand. “The process of making work is so embodied for me,” she says. “It feels especially important now, in a world that wants to take us farther and farther away from that. It’s working in a way that lessens the hierarchy between mind and body.”
She’s currently preparing for multiple presentations. This spring, Arai, together with the ceramicist, gardener, and photographer Frances Palmer, will be part of a two-person Object & Thing exhibition at the Madoo Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the garden and structures created by artist, gardener, and writer Robert Dash in Sagaponack, New York. Titled “Object & Thing at Madoo: Megumi Shauna Arai and Frances Palmer” (May 27–June 25), a portion of its proceeds will benefit the property. In September, Arai will unveil 12 new works, each created using botanical dyes that represent the changing seasons, at a solo exhibition in New York with the Los Angeles gallery Tiwa Select at a to-be-announced location.
As Arai continues to refine her textured visual language, an emphasis on the composite nature of identity is key. “It’s tempting to read only one dimension of who someone is, because you can package or brand it more easily,” she says. “But we’re such multidimensional creatures. Each of us is a combination of unexpected things coming together.”