Carolyn Wargula (Bucknell University), “Medium, Materiality, and the Body in Japanese Buddhist Embroideries” (Council on East Asian Studies)

Event time: 
Monday, November 27, 2023 - 12:00pm
Rosenkranz Hall 202 (115 Prospect Street) See map
Event description: 
Buddhist images were materialized to illuminate what is unseen giving presence to absent celestial deities and the untraced sacred realms they inhabited. Yet, images also served as conduits to connect the human body with the Buddha, particularly through ritual practices of contemplating mandalas and in placing corporeal fragments within sculptures. This talk investigates how the preoccupation with the interconnectedness between the image and the body led to the makings of embroidered textiles of silk and human hair at the end of the 1100s, reaching a peak in popularity during the following three centuries. Audiences from elite women to leading monks viewed luminous paintings and somatic embroideries of the same “Welcoming Descent of the Amida Buddha Triad” image differently: the former operating as a site of multisensory engagement while the latter a site of embodiment. By weaving together analyses of neglected material objects, accompanying inscriptions, and literary sources, this talk tells a new story of the affective, aesthetic, and religious life of premodern Japan: one where fabrics gave material presence to mourning, needlework enacted transcendence, and forms visualized complex teachings of Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism. In so doing, this study challenges modern assumptions about the hierarchy of artistic media while elucidating the entangled visualities of Esoteric Buddhist and Pure Land Buddhist doctrine on stitched surfaces.
Carolyn Wargula is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Bucknell University specializing in Japanese Buddhist art. At Yale, she will write her forthcoming book project, “Embodied Embroideries: Gender, Agency, and the Body in Japanese Buddhism,” which examines the mortuary practice of hair embroidery from the late twelfth- to the seventeenth centuries. She considers how this medium appealed particularly to women as a means to achieve enlightenment and to circumnavigate doctrinal teachings concerning the impurities of the female body. Carolyn was born in Japan and grew up in Okinawa and Sendai before moving to the United States at the age of sixteen. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020 and conducted archival research at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies as a Japan Foundation Fellow. Prior to Yale, she was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College.