February 15, 2023

“Washitales” Exhibition at Lewis Center for the Arts

“WASHITALES”: An exhibition by visual artist Kyoko Ibe is on display in the Hurley Gallery at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts through March 5. An artists’ talk and book launch is on February 23 at 6 p.m. (Photo by Jon Sweeney)

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Programs in Theater and Visual Arts at Princeton University, in collaboration with the Department of Art and Archaeology, now presents “Washitales,” an exhibition of work made from traditional Japanese washi paper by renowned visual artist Kyoko Ibe. The exhibition is on view through March 5 in the Hurley Gallery at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus and is presented in conjunction with the Lewis Center’s theatrical presentation of Felon: An American Washi Tale by Freedom Reads founder, lawyer, and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, with development and direction by Elise Thoron, on March 2 through 4. Additional events including a book launch of Ibe and Thoron’s The Way of Washi Tales and artists’ talk are planned as part of Ibe’s residency. The exhibition is free and open to the public with no tickets required; performances of Felon require tickets through McCarter Theatre Center.

The set for Felon is designed and created by Ibe from 1,000 squares of “prison paper” that papermaker Ruth Lignen constructed from the clothes of men Betts first met serving time together in prison. Ibe also incorporated letters from men Betts had lived with in prison, friends who were still locked up and with whom he corresponded, helping them find freedom through parole. The paper kites  — “kites” is a slang moniker for letters received from family while in prison —  hang suspended from floor to ceiling in various groupings around the spare stage set. The “Washitales” exhibition in the Hurley Gallery includes work related to the theatrical set for Felon along with other works created by Ibe building on traditional techniques for Japanese hand papermaking.

Washi is traditional handmade paper. In 2nd-3rd century BCE, Chinese artisans developed a special technique of making paper using tree fiber as the raw material, and this became the prototype for the production of washi. The development of papermaking in Japan traces back to the 7th century and emerged due to the country’s geo-ecological conditions, climate, religious beliefs, and the culture of its people. Throughout Japanese history, paper has played an important role in daily necessities including clothing and materials for homes, along with its use in rituals, ceremonies, and festivals. In the 20th century, most everyday paper is made by machines but there are a few hundred remaining Japanese families who engage in traditional papermaking    people who are living cultural treasures for not only Japan, but the world.

“This exhibition — which interweaves history, art history, theater, and the fine arts — is an example of the exciting interdisciplinary collaborations that are possible at Princeton,” said Rachael DeLue, chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology. “Kyoko Ibe’s work draws on a centuries-long tradition of papermaking while transforming the practice in extraordinary ways through constant experimentation with the medium and its limits. In the case of her designs for Felon: An American Washi Tale, paper becomes an eloquent part of an urgent conversation about incarceration, justice, and human dignity. Likewise, the work on view in the exhibition illuminates just how much paper has to say.” 

On February 23 at 6 p.m., the Lewis Center and Department of Art and Archaeology will host an artists’ talk and book launch with Ibe and Thoron in the Hurley Gallery marking the publication of The Way of Washi Tales, a new book by Ibe and Thoron that celebrates their long history of collaboration.

The Hurley Gallery is an accessible venue on the mezzanine level of the Lewis Arts complex, reachable via the Arts Tower elevator. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. All visitors to Princeton University are expected to be either fully vaccinated, have recently received and be prepared to show proof of a negative COVID test (via PCR within 72 hours or via rapid antigen within 8 hours of the scheduled visit), or agree to wear a face covering when indoors and around others. For more information, visit arts.princeton.edu.