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Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia

February 7, 1999 - May 16, 1999

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For centuries the Central Asian cities of Bukhara and Samarkand and the towns of the Ferghana Valley (modern Uzbekistan and part of Tadjikistan) were stations on the fabled Silk Road, the overland trade route between China and the Mediterranean. In the fifteenth century, political instability and the opening of new sea routes disrupted overland trade; Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Ferghana Valley became forgotten backwaters of the Islamic world. Only in the nineteenth century did this rugged region of desert and steppe experience a revival. For a brief moment, before Russian rule and industrialization transformed these areas, the art of ikat flourished.

Ikat is an intricate resist-dye technique in which threads are patterned by repeated binding and dyeing before they are woven. Derived from a Malay-Indonesian term meaning to tie or to bind, ikat also refers to the textiles themselves. Another term used in Central Asia for ikat is abr, or "cloud." It is believed that the blurred visual effects of an ikat imitate the reflection of clouds in the still water of a pool, a heavenly refuge from the oppressive heat and aridity of the Central Asian landscape.

Although ikat is an ancient technique practiced in many parts of the world, it reached its zenith in Central Asia during the nineteenth century. Ikat making was a multi-step cooperative endeavor that employed people from various backgrounds. The process began in homes where women tended silkworms, and continued in specialized workshops staffed mostly by men. Uzbeks and Iranis were predominantly weavers of silk and cotton ikat fabrics; Tadjiks specialized in the hot dyeing of red and yellow colors; and Jews did the cold dyeing, primarily with indigo, and also controlled the indigo trade with India.

Because of their beauty and utility, textiles played a vital role in the lives of Central Asian peoples. Ikats were made into clothing and were used to decorate homes. Both Muslim and Jews used textiles in religious contexts, such as festivals, weddings, and funerals. In this barren landscape, ikat hangings and robes lent vibrant color to daily life and ceremonies, creating the atmosphere of a garden, an enduring metaphor of Paradise in both Jewish and Islamic lore.

This exhibition is the culmination of a rich artistic tradition that offers many visual parallels to modern abstract painting.

Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia from the Guido Goldman Collection has been made possible in part by generous support from OFFITBANK and Nathalie and Charles de Gunzburg.


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