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Central Asian Ikats

Woman's Robe, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, mid-19th century.

[The Megalli Collection, The Textile Museum. Photo by Renée Comet.]

The Seattle Art Museum opened in 1933 in an art deco building within Volunteer Park. This was still its home when I arrived three decades ago. Dr. Richard Fuller, the man behind the museum, focused his collecting on Asian art, the museum’s early strength. It was therefore natural, when the new downtown building opened in 1991, to devote the Volunteer Park building to Asian art. So it was that after renovation, it re-opened in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. On the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, SAM became a three-headed institution. (A fuller history can be found here. And yes, ‘fuller’ is an intentional pun.)

I don’t think we’ve been to the Seattle Asian Art Museum more than a couple of times. Gail says not at all, but now that I think of it, I went once with Joel many years ago so that he could complete a school assignment, and Gail wouldn’t have been with us on that visit. In any case, we found our way there three nights ago for the opening of a new exhibition, Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats. Here is Curator Pam McClusky’s description of the show, taken from the website:

Exuberant clothes were a common sight in the Oasis cities of Central Asia. During the 19th century, patrons wore rich colors and mysterious designs on a daily basis. Their encouragement led to a flourishing use of ikat, a labor intensive process that requires many stages and layers of experience to complete. Positioned as a trading center where goods and people flowed in from India, China, Iran and Russia, Central Asia fostered an aesthetic that made the most of overlapping influences.

This exhibition will recreate a sense of walking into a crowd of cosmopolitan clients who wear robes of distinctive boldness. As an English visitor (William Eleroy Curtis) wrote in 1911: “Everybody wears a coat like a rainbow… No matter how humble or hungry a man may be, and even if he has but a single garment, it is made of the most brilliantly colored material he can find.” Over 40 robes will provide a vision of the Oasis crowd. Some feature sharp graphic designs of rigorous abstraction, but others favor delicate harmonies with flowing floral motifs. Scorpions and Arabic script, paisleys and European florals, jeweled tassels and cypress trees swirl together in a design pool that reflects Oasis life.

Wednesday’s opening celebration began at 5:30 with a video presentation on Oasis Cities, hosted by Ilholm Nematov, the Uzbek ambassador to the US. We weren’t able to make it to that, arriving only at 6:45, in time for the tail end of the wine reception. The central gathering space at SAAM is small, and it was crowded. The exhibition galleries were open for viewing, but we started at the reception. Within moments everyone was being encouraged to head downstairs to the auditorium for the exhibition overview. We took our seats and waited over 10 minutes before it began.

Seattle and Tashkent are sister cities, which I presume is the reason our mayor, Mike McGinn, was invited to make the initial remarks. He focused on this sister-city relationship and our close ties to Uzbekistan, expressing his fond wish that he could visit when he had more time. (He’s sufficiently unpopular around here that many people would be happy to help him find the time.) SAM board president Winnie Stratton then spoke about the exhibition and the people who made it possible. It is on loan from The Textile Museum, an institution in Washington, D.C., that I knew nothing about. I now know that in a couple of years it will move into a new building on the campus of George Washington University, in a partnership with the GWU Museum. The collection itself, as Stratton explained in her remarks, is the gift to The Textile Museum of a single collector. From the Textile Museum’s website:

The Textile Museum mourns the passing of its friend Murad Megalli, who was killed in an airplane crash on February 4, 2011. It was through the generosity and foresight of Murad Megalli that this remarkable collection of Central Asian ikat textiles is available for the world to share in the appreciation of their beauty. Megalli, recipient of the 2010 Textile Museum Award of Distinction and Museum Trustee, donated his collection of nearly 200 spectacular nineteenth-century ikats to the museum.

Megalli’s son, wife, and other family members were at the opening. Stratton pointed to them in the front of the auditorium, but we couldn’t see them. She also pointed out the Textile Museum curator who organized the show and a few other dignitaries. Oh, speaking of dignitaries, I forgot that there was another speaker, the Uzbek consul-general for the western states, not listed in the program. And then Pam McClusky gave a slideshow presentation about the exhibition and the 19th century ikat tradition.

After that, we returned upstairs, where one could return to the site of the wine reception to have more drinks and a buffet dinner or tour the galleries. We started with the surprisingly good food, the main feature being a choice of lamb or vegetarian plov. Pam McClusky had mentioned in her lecture that the plov cooked all day at the loading dock, its smell drifting in as finishing touches were put on the exhibition. (What’s plov? Why, the Uzbek national dish of course. For some background, go here.) The plov consisted of rice, carrots, onions, herbs and spices, and the lamb, if one chose it. Next up was excellent naan (flatbread) with a mint dipping sauce. And then apple tartlets. Our program credits Sergey Petrenko for the “traditional Uzbekistan plov.” And there was music too, Uzbek music I suppose, but mostly it sounded like jazz, with a sax player, two guitarists, and a bass guitarist.

Soon we were off to see the exhibition. The individual ikats were interesting in their own right — some striking, some less so — but of equal interest was the evolution of ikat style through the century that the layout allowed one to observe. Complementing the ikats were enchanting photos of people and architecture in the historic silk road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. When Mayor McGinn heads off to Uzbekistan, I hope he takes me with him.

Several guests wore ikats, draped over their modern clothing. Maybe a half dozen men, of whom a couple wore the appropriate hats as well, and another two women. If only someone had told me. I don’t have an ikat, but my bathrobe, the one Gail got me at Christmas, might have worked. Independently, both Gail and I looked online for ikats the next day. We found blankets, shirts, even underwear. Not outer robes.

We’re glad we went. The exhibition runs through August 5. Drop by.

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Categories: Clothing, Museums
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