If you feel the urge to escape to somewhere exotic and colorful, maybe even travel back in time, visit “Colors of the Oasis” at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Step into a Middle Eastern souk of a century ago, and surround yourself with people in flowing robes of dazzling colors. The 65 silk ikat coats and hangings that form the core of the exhibition represent a pinnacle of textile art. On loan from the Megalli Collection at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., almost all are from the area around Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan. The show is a window into Central Asia of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. The view is glorious.
Bukhara was for centuries an important city on the Silk Road, the trade route connecting Asia and Europe. The techniques of silk production were exported from China to central Asia and Europe around the fourth century A.D. By the 19th century, sea-going trade was replacing Silk Road caravans and Russia was colonizing Central Asia. During this period, artisans in Bukhara and the surrounding valleys developed the art of ikat dyeing to the brilliant but brief peak that produced the works in this show.
In the first gallery of the exhibition, a group of gorgeously colored coats on standing figures is surrounded by text panels and photographs that give historical and cultural context to the garments. The photographs, from an early 20th century Russian government survey, are digitally reproduced in hyper-realistic colors. They show Bukhara as an ethnically diverse and exuberantly colorful place, with men, boys, and the occasional woman wearing long boldly patterned coats in the souk (marketplace) and on the street. Subsequent galleries are a feast of color and pattern. The largest gallery is staged like a bazaar, with two dozen coats lining the walls and displayed on figures casually assembled as if passing time in the town square. One long wall is filled with Alida Latham’s photographs of contemporary Bukhara and Samarkand with their densely decorated buildings. Color and pattern are endemic to this region. These coats are as much about pride of place as personal expression.
All of the coats are of the same simple style; the fabric is what is important. The back is the largest expanse of whole cloth, so pattern motifs are centered across the back, and coats are displayed with their backs to the viewer. Reflecting the influence of Islam, designs are non-representational but are full of organic forms: flowers, fruits, even insects. The longer the eye looks at the complex patterns and colors, the more the mind imagines it can see.
The technique of ikat dyeing is found in many of the world’s textile traditions from Africa and Asia to Central and South America. Most fabric is decorated by applying color to whole cloth. Ikat involves dyeing thread before it is woven into cloth. Threads for an entire length of fabric are painstakingly tie-dyed in small groups, creating blank areas and colored areas that form the design. The dyed thread is put on a loom and woven while carefully maintaining the pattern. Ikat demands great skill of both weaver and dyer. Even so, there is always a slight shifting of the threads, so the colored areas of the design have fuzzy edges. The Persian word for cloud is “abr” and Central Asian ikat is called “abrbandi” meaning “binding clouds.” While modern designers and manufacturers have imitated this cloud-like effect in printed fabrics, a true abrbandi or ikat can only be created by hand. The exhibition includes a video of the ikat process that shows just how labor-intensive it is. Samples of thread show the hundreds of colors that can be produced from natural materials such as plants, insects and minerals. The exhibition concludes with two short films by Kazakh filmmaker Almagul Menlibayeva, adding a contemporary perspective on the region’s culture. “Colors of the Oasis” is an expansive visual feast and a small slice of history and culture from a region that Americans could afford to know better.
“Colors of the Oasis” continues through August 5 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. Saturday, June 16 was “Central Asian Textile Day” with lectures and discussions by textile scholars and curators. For more information visit: www.seattleartmuseum.org or call (206) 654-3121. A color catalog of the exhibition is available at both SAM and SAAM locations.