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IKAT: Splendid Silks Silks of Central Asia
Art Institute of Chicago
Today that part of the old silk caravan route in Central Asia is called Uzbekistan, but the city of Samarkand is famed in world history as the site where Tamerlane, brutal conqueror and refined patron of the arts, lies buried. Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva mark a region which waxed in opulence and waned to desolate misfortune over centuries, and in which great arts flickered in concert to those histories.
In the Nineteenth century, the interests of European empires in North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, and particularly British interests, made Central Asia the focus of politics, trade and conflict. Tzarist Russia, a great market for trade with Central Asia and a power mistrustful both of regional Islamic aspirations and English strategies there, expanded and struggled for empire in what that century called 'The Great Game.' Peter Hopkirk, in his book of that title (Kodansha international: 1992), details the circumstances. But those circumstances also brought a renewed prosperity to art.
"Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia," on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 9, 2000, offers forty-nine resist-dye weavings -- Ikat -- from the Guido Goldman collection. These attest to the reflowering of artistry of that region, spurred both by renewed prosperity, and new respect for the Ikat. The exhibition is supplemented by two publications: a 208-page catalogue, Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia, authored by Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale (Hardcover: $45.00); and a special, slipcased, 368-page publication of the Goldman collection, Ikat: Silks of Central Asia, by the same authors. Both were issued in 1997 by Laurence King Publishing, London.
Co-author, Kate Fitz Gibbon, was present at the exhibition preview. The question arose as to why most of the items were mid- or late Nineteenth century, and Ms. Fitz Gibbon, in answer, noted that, in addition to the Russian trade and renewed prosperity of that century, a new attention and prestige encouraged the flowering of Ikat in that area. Earlier, unlike other textile arts, Ikat was not widely celebrated in poetry, or given acclaim. It had been a relatively minor element in that region's textile production, while it had long been a specialty of Yemen, far to the West. The bias toward the Nineteenth century reflects a flowering of artistry and the society, not necessarily the vagaries of preservation or collecting. Some items, while produced in the region of present-day Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara), were later collected in Afghanistan.
Central Asia, and the Silk Route were crossroads for wide-ranging influence, as well as very distinct local legacies. The term Ikat, used for both the resist-dye weaving process and the finished products, has been traced to a Malay-Indonesian verb mengikat, "to bind or tie." Several of the items in "Ikat:Splendid Silks of Central Asia" are particularly intriguing. Ikat was to some degree, much more free of conventions than other art forms in familiar Islamic culture, and several in this exhibition seem surprisingly modern and individual. In response to the question of possible foreign influences in some pieces, Ms. Fitz Gibbon noted that, although there is such a possibility of external inspiration, hope of confirming or tracing an specific item's exact provenance is nearly impossible where it was not still a private heirloom. Many items which survive were often gifts to the Tzar or foreign guests; many resided at sites abroad, and in our current political realities, numerous items are being returned to homelands, but at times without an attending documentation of their histories.
A striking example of individualism in Ikat is item 38 of curator Christa C.Mayer's brochure which accompanies the AIC showing. It is "Portion of a loom length" from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and is assigned to the fourth quarter of the Nineteenth century. This particular item stands out for its pattern, which recalls a tiger pelt. It may well reflect an inspiration exotic to the region. Many of the displayed items are loom lengths, which were often used for robes, pillows and special purposes. Ikat itself is a precision binding and dyeing of threads prior to weaving. During weaving the threads cross at right angles: weft threads are left plain in color; only warp threads are dyed. This also requires that the complicated patterns in bright colors must be thoroughly held in mind, as the final effect emerges only as the weaving progresses.
The practice of Ikat cloth primarily began with silk and cotton; but ultimately the process came to be done solely in silk. In most ikats, both repeated and alternating motifs of the patterns betray semblance to highly stylized floral designs, lamps, combs, drums, as well as pure geometries. And many recall contemporary analytic abstract art. Such motifs may once have represented tribal totems, but that information is now lost, and the different guilds and workshops which produced the Ikat textiles cannot be identified by their designs. Ikats were produced among the resident Jewish population as well as by Muslims, and a Jewish groom in 1874 paid for his bride: "nine robes, one garment of French silk, one brocaded waistcoat, a silk garment, two ikat mourning robes, sandals with gold embroidered overshoes and a bathing apron." She must have been as stunning as the ikats exhibited in this showing.
The items of the Guido Goldman collection are indeed impressive. And "Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia" is excellently presented. The accompanying photo-documentation, illustrative quotes from contemporary accounts and explications of the process and applications are clear and complete. (The initial quote of this notice is directly from the AIC curation.)
That "Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia" is excellent in content and presentation is not surprising. But one must express admiration for the collector who began searching out and preserving the textiles. No doubt it was a difficult task, perhaps even with risks; but it required recognition of the objects' merit and a dedicated will to accomplish their preservation. Today, many in the region have renewed interest in their cultural legacy. The Goldman collection is not only a pleasure for Chicago viewers, but a repository for a national art of wide interest and appeal. It indicates how much museums and nations depend upon the foresight and energies of private initiative. "Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia" will be supplemented by several lectures and related events and one should check the calendar for these. The exhibition will be in Chicago until January 9, 2000. It is an exotic delight.
Editor's Note: Kate Fitz Gibbon, textile artist, scholar and co-author of the exhibition and collection catalogues, does have a website for her studio, Anahita, at 312 Sandoval, Santa Fe, NM, 87501. The website is http://www.anahitagallery.com
--G. Jurek Polanski
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