Home > Art, Museums > Central Asian Ikats, 2

Central Asian Ikats, 2

In March, I wrote about the exhibition Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats, whose opening we had just attended at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. (SAAM, housed in the original art deco home of the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park, is now one of three SAM sites.) I quoted from Curator Pam McClusky’s description of the show:

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.

The exhibition was one impetus for my new-found interest in things Central Asian. Soon I was reading Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road and dreaming of a Central Asia trip sponsored by the Met that includes stops in Samarkand and Bukhara.

We may not make it there, but last Thursday we did get back to SAAM, for a walk-through of the exhibition with Pam McClusky. It was a quiet morning. There were about 18 of us in the group, and only the occasional additional viewer passing through the galleries. Pam started us with a map showing Central Asia, focusing on Samarkand and Bukhara. She also explained her idea of interspersing amongst the ikats a series of color photographs taken around 1900 by a pioneer photographer whose name I don’t remember. He created the color images by taking each shot with three filters and combining the results. One sees men walking the streets in ikats not unlike the ones exhibited, plus the region’s grand architecture, albeit in a decayed state.

We learned about the functional role of ikats (good for wearing while riding horses), the evolution of design (degenerating with the arrival of machine methods), the silk- and dye-making processes (and the disastrous arrival of cotton). At the end of a sequence of small rooms, we arrived in a large hall, with perhaps twenty ikats in a central display that one can circumscribe. Pam explained that it is designed to represent the colorful scene one might come upon at a Central Asian market, men standing in twos and threes in their colorful robes, no two alike. On the walls are more robes and photographs, including dramatic, large-scale photos of modern-day Samarkand and Bukhara. In a final room, two short films by a young Kazakh filmmaker play in alternation. We half-watched one while Pam explained what we were seeing and took questions. Then we were off.

The exhibition originated at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., the pieces all drawn from their Megalli Collection, which consists of nearly 200 nineteenth-century ikats that Murad Megalli collected and donated. The Textile Museum’s website for the exhibition has a few photos, a video (the one at the top), and some additional information. See also Rebeka Schiller’s blog post about the exhibit, at the least so you can click on the slideshow that beautifully renders five of the ikats.


By chance, I happened to see a one-paragraph fashion note in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal about designer Joseph Altuzarra’s latest collection, featuring a Rasta belt inspired by Bob Marley and an ikat linen dress. This led me to Altuzarra’s website, which currently displays his resort collection (I’m hoping this is a permalink) with ikat-themed dresses and an amazing pair of ikat-slacks, below. Everything shows up better in the website slideshow.

I wouldn’t mind a jacket with that design.

Categories: Art, Museums
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