YOUNG ADULT ROBE, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, 121.9 x 129.5 centimeters, 1870s. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum.

Colors of the Oasis

ethnographic arts



It is easy to wander blissfully through the displays of brilliantly colored and patterned textiles in Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats and see ways in which these nineteenth-century Asian textiles look contemporary. With their bold designs in jewel tones of magenta, emerald, cobalt blue, sunflower, and other dazzling colors, the textiles are as graphic as any twenty-first-century poster or consumer packaging. The ikats predate Henri Matisse’s vibrant, convention-defying collage work by a century. And though the fashionistas of the late 1960s thought they were revolutionizing clothing with op art color combinations and arresting patterning, Colors of the Oasis demonstrates that the weavers of Central Asia were masters of exuberant color and pattern centuries before avant-garde Westerners broke out of their monochromatic palettes.

ROBE, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, 138.4 x 213.7 centimeters, late nineteenth or early twent ieth century.

Colors of the Oasis, organized by the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and recently exhibited at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, is drawn primarily from the museum’s Megalli Collection of Central Asian textiles. And though it is tempting to look for connections between this exquisite, nineteenth-century ikat artistry and today’s world, the exhibition stands on its own, magnificently, as a celebration of a sophisticated, highly developed craft that reached its pinnacle in nineteenth-century Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan. The craft was developed and honed in the relatively tolerant, diverse culture of Central Asia. Bukhara was an important post on the Silk Road starting in the Roman era. By the seventh century Central Asian weavers were using locally cultivated silk to make ikat.

MUNISAK WOMAN’S ROBE, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, 133.4 x 170.2 centimeters, second quarter nineteenth century.

The word ikat is derived from a Malay term meaning to tie or bind, and rigorously binding long silk threads, then dipping them into a series of dyes, is the essence of making ikat textiles. Unlike printed textiles, which are generally woven in a single color then printed in some manner afterwards, ikat is meticulously designed, literally thread by thread, before the threads are strung into the loom. The pattern designer plans the design, then dye experts bind and dye the threads multiple times to produce threads with the correctly sequenced patterns. Finally the dyed threads are strung as warps onto a loom, where weavers complete the textile by weaving the threads into lengths of patterned fabric. In Central Asian ikats, the warps—which are the long strands that extend from the weaver to the end of the piece of fabric—are made of dyed silk. The wefts, which are the threads that are strung across the width of the loom, are undyed and made of cotton or silk. Part of the skill of the Central Asian weavers was to make the wefts invisible. Look as closely as you can, but it is impossible to see the undyed weft threads in these textiles.

Walking through this exhibition is a feast for the eyes. Most of the sixty or so pieces on display are robes for men or women, with a few smaller ones cut for children. The robes were made in the nineteenth century, with many dating from the second half of the century. Elegantly displayed on simple armatures, the robes represent a culture in which people of all ages and status were pleased to be seen in glorious color. It is hard for us to imagine, since we live in a society where clothing in black or some neutral is considered a sign of refined taste. But these ankle-length robes are wearable works of splendidly colored art. The repeated patterns are symmetrical, due to the technicalities of binding and dyeing the yarns, yet the slightly blurry edges of each color change makes the textiles appear to vibrate. These are garments that seem to move even when hanging on wire frames. It is wonderful to imagine the kaleidoscope of colors and movement that must have been the usual scene at a nineteenth-century Bukhara market day.

ROBE, Central Asia, Uzbekistan 133.4 x 153 centimeters, second half nineteenth century.

Both men and women wore loose pants under the robes along with long shirts for men, and simple shifts for women. The wom en’s robes were cut slightly differently depending on their marital status. Young women’s robes were made with small gathers around the ribs to emphasize a young women’s hourglass shape. After having children, married women wore robes with slits in front to make nursing easier. Both men’s and women’s robes were lined, usually in printed cotton. Edges of garments were finished with strips of bias fabric, and tailors left almost no waste. But any tiny bits of leftover fabric were used to reinforce seams and other stress points. Ikat was expensive and time consuming to make, and ikat garments were passed from one generation to the next.

Though ikat patterns appear abstract, it is possible to discern imagery. Patterns that fan out on top may be flowers. Shapes that seem to rise then bend back down may be branches laden with fruit. The catalog helpfully notes that ikat designers sometimes included stylized cypress trees, since the trees were considered symbols of eternity. Ikat patterning became increasingly complex until the late nineteenth century, when geopolitics interfered with the traditions of Central Asia. As England and Russia jockeyed for military influence in Central Asia, ikat production declined. Trading opportunities dried up, and by the early twentieth century Soviet planners were extending their influence to all corners of the empire, including Bukhara. Ikat production declined and the once intoxicating patterns became static and less embellished. By the 1930s only Bukhara’s oldest, most traditional citizens still wore ikat robes.

Today ikat production is enjoying something of a renaissance. According to the exhibition catalog, new ikat studios in Bukhara are once again making traditional ikats for collectors and fashion houses. Oscar de la Renta used ikat in recent collections, and ikat is popular in home decor. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine contemporary ikats matching the beauty of these superb textiles. Each is a masterpiece.



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