The High Art of Silks From Central Asia

'Ikat' textiles weave together bold color and complex design

If you lived in Uzbekistan in the mid-19th century, your eye for art would probably gravitate toward the colorful. After all, the desert was pretty barren and the mud-flat homes were a bit droll.

So it follows that brightly colored textiles wove their way into craft, art, currency, and social status, particularly valued silks known as ikats. Celebrating the art of these textiles is an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, entitled "Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia." The show was drawn from the private collection of Guido Goldman and is being billed as the largest, most comprehensive museum exhibit examining ikat, an ancient - yet little-known - textile technique. Next year, it will embark on a nationwide tour (see dates and venues below).

Ikat refers to the design process as well as the actual cloth of exquisitely patterned silk weavings.

The ikats on display are prized not only for their lively color, but also their complex design, achieved through an ancient method known as resist-dye weaving. This method involved dyeing directly onto fabric's individual silk warp threads. The warp threads, divided into sections, were tied off tightly with cotton thread, wound loosely on sticks and dipped into vats of dye, then rewound and dipped again. Sometimes as many as seven different series of ties and dye baths were used to design elaborate ikats.

The 40 silk works on view here were produced in workshops during the 19th century in Bukhara and Samarkand (present day Uzbekistan), and range from velvet panels and wall hangings to special-occasion robes.

Ikat weavings have been produced from Indonesia to South America going back hundreds of years. But in the 19th century, Central Asia's master craftsmen embraced a bold style along the famous Silk Route. Their works were so vibrant and energetic, scholars believe the pieces acted like brilliant gardens in a region of barren landscape. The bloom wouldn't last too long, however, for at the end of the 19th century, synthetic dyes and new techniques began to take over.

The creation of these works involved many different workshops and various ethnic groups, including Tadjiks, Jews, and Uzbeks.

Once people bought ikats, they treated them with cultural reverence. Ikat was regarded as high art, and the silks defined social status. The silks also helped celebrate or commemorate certain occasions, such as a wedding, funeral, or the welcoming of VIPs. Sometimes large ikats were used to construct an outdoor pavilion for special ceremonies or festivals. In the home, wall hangings brought vivacity to dull, mud-plastered walls.

While an ikat's motifs may have been complex, its motives were simple. These silks are intended to refresh and enliven, and honor color, harmony, and flow. Museumgoers drawn to their colors may find they get lost in the designs - just what their makers intended.

* 'Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia' remains at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Aug. 24. It will travel to M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (Nov. 18-Feb. 23, 1998); the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington (May-August 1998); the Jewish Museum, New York (February-April 1999); the Art Institute of Chicago (September 1999-January 2000); and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (spring 2000). Other venues will be announced.

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