By Lucien de Guise**

Mar. 29, 2006

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Central Asia has long had a reputation for being the badlands of the Islamic world. This is the region that helped defeat the Soviet empire in the 1980s and a century earlier had been able to crush the advance of the once-invincible British army. The UNESCO definition of Central Asia includes Afghanistan, which has generally been seen as the baddest land of all.

From the ikat-weaving viewpoint, the center of the region is the area now known as Uzbekistan. In contrast to the untamed image enjoyed by most of the region, this is a land of urban centers of near-mythical sophistication. Romantic and refined, cities such as Samarqand and Bukhara were also home to a weaving tradition of extraordinary vigor.

Of these textiles, an important collection is being currently exhibited, until July 2006, at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Abrbandi: Ikats of Central Asia is the first show of its type in Asia and should open many eyes to an art form that has so far been appreciated mainly by audiences in the West.

Ikat, the Making of a Cheerful Dream

Ikat is among the most elaborate yet most misunderstood products of the loom. The first obstacle it has to overcome is the terminology. Ikat is a Malay word that is now widely used to describe a weaving technique that exists in a variety of locations, many of them far from the Malay archipelago. The original meaning of the word ikat (tying) conjures up images of cheerful textiles — tie-dyed and ready for tourists in need of a sarong or pareo on the beaches of Southeast Asia. In some ways, the ikat technique is similar to tie-dyeing, albeit on a much smaller scale. Instead of an entire cloth being immersed in a dye bath, with certain areas protected from coloring, ikat requires each thread to be dyed separately before weaving.

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This would be a relatively simple matter if it were not for the patterns that have to be created at the dyeing stage. It is similar to an artist having an image of a painting in his mind and applying every color on different, tiny pieces of canvas. They then have to be fitted together in the hope of forming a harmonious whole. The chances are that they will not. The creators of ikat also tended to fail, but by such a small margin one has to marvel at their conceptual and technical ability.

The difference between perfect and almost perfect in their art is the same as that between machine and man. While many Muslim artisans have deliberately added imperfections to their carpets or wall hangings, the ikat weavers of Central Asia haven’t needed to. There was no danger of anyone suspecting a challenge to God’s omnipotence in their work.

Home of the Ikat Tradition

Upon a close viewing of ikat, the first impression is that it is slightly out of focus. The patterns have none of the crispness that comes with mechanized production. Instead, there is a dreamy quality. From a distance, the impression is different; dazzling combinations of color become the overwhelming factor. These show the urban landscape of 19th century Central Asia with a vibrancy that would be hard to imagine in most parts of the Islamic world today. While Muslims increasingly favor traditional-looking monochrome for their outfits, in colorful enclaves of Islam, such as Malaysia or Indonesia, eye-catching acid hues for men and women are still very much part of the sartorial scenery.

Great oasis cities such as Samarqand and Bukhara revived a little of their former imperial glory during the 19th century and at the same time created a fashion revolution. Like most revolutions, it was short lived. By the early 20th century, Central Asia had been largely subsumed into the Russian empire, and worse was to come with the arrival of the Soviets. Before this was a belle époque of bright colors and cultural pride.

Men and women of sufficient means dressed in a splendor that matched their optimism. Their preferred medium of expression was silk, a sensitive issue in Islamic teaching regarding men’s dress codes. It has to be said, in defense of the male population of Central Asia, that silk was so commonplace at the time that it was not making quite such a gesture of ostentation as would have been the case in the Hijaz (Arabian Peninsula) during the early years of Islam. Twelve centuries before, silk had been declared to be an appropriate attire for ladies only, along with males suffering from skin afflictions.

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During this last mentioned flowering of Central Asian culture, men and women alike would flaunt their wealth. Looking at the condition of their homes — as recorded by photographers at the time — it would seem that their financial resources were limited, or that most of their money was invested in their clothing. Robes were long, lavish, and often worn in layers for maximum effect. The patterns on these coats and on textile panels for brightening the home were inspired by tradition and their surroundings. Among the most common motifs were boteh, the tree of life, amulets, and stylized versions of ram’s horns. Although many of these symbols are of pre-Islamic origin, none of them are un-Islamic. There are no Greek-style nymphs disporting themselves in the way they may have appeared in those parts of Central Asia that have an entrenched Buddhist past.

Beyond a Deep-rooted Tradition

More than one factor encouraged this Central Asian art to flourish. The region’s position on the Silk Road was vital to its ikat history. Not only was silk more easily found, and the secrets of its creation revealed, but there was also a cosmopolitan environment in which to enjoy this most exquisite fabric. Individuals of different ethnic and religious backgrounds coexisted with slightly less tension than in Europe or Russia.

Textiles were no guarantee of an easy life for their makers, however. For the different communities involved in ikat production, the brilliance of their output belied working conditions that were little different from sweatshops of the 21st century. Whether it was the satanic mills of England’s Industrial Revolution or the worst excesses of contemporary globalization, textile workshops have generally offered an alternative to the rigors of life on the land. Yet, what is beyond doubt is that ikats will live on in more museum collections than Nike T-shirts.

The collectibility of Central Asian ikats has increased enormously in recent years. As with most textiles, they have gone from being items of ethnographic interest to acquiring the status of art objects. Admiration for textiles of the Islamic world has not increased at quite the same rate as for those from China, a market that has developed at an extraordinary rate.

Over the past decade, the only market to have risen faster is Russian art that encompasses more than just the sentimental 19th paintings that Russia’s nouveaux riches enjoy so much. Soviet-era plates and other surprises have become highly sought after. It is just possible that Central Asian ikats could join this oligarch shopping list. Not only do they have chintz linings that were usually made in Russia, but they were also a vital part of the Russian orientalist tradition. During the 19th century, it was common for Muscovites and other sophisticates to pose for photographs wearing ikat or to hold theme parties based on the culture of their southern neighbors.

At the moment, ikat collecting activity is concentrated solidly in the West. As with so much Islamic art, interest from other Islamic countries tends to be limited by nationalist considerations. Iranians and Turks tend to collect Qajar and Ottoman works because they are Iranian or Turkish, rather than because they feel part of the great creative urge of the Muslim Ummah. Seeing the connection, though, between all the arts of the Islamic world is vital to understanding that world. This unity in diversity is what makes the contribution of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia especially significant.

* All credit goes to the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

** Lucien de Guise is the head of publications and acting head curator of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. He has a master’s in Islamic Art and History from Oxford University. He has become one of the most widely published art writers in Asia. He combines these interests with being the editor of Malaysia’s leading food guide. You can contact him at [email protected]