WASHINGTON -- Seeing a Central Asian ikat design for the first time is a pleasant surprise for many visitors to Washington D.C.'s Textile Museum:
"This is a form of creating fabric that I am completely unfamiliar with and it is amazing to see how incredibly elaborate it is and how many steps it takes,” said Mary Anne Lutz, a visitor to the temporary exhibition "Colors Of The Oasis, Central Asian Ikats."
The exhibit -- which began in October and runs until mid-March -- presents a stunning array of 19th-century ceremonial robes from Samarkand, Bukhara, and weaving centers in the Fergana Valley to introduce Americans to an art form still little known in the West.
The robes demonstrate the height of design that Central Asian artists achieved with one of the world's most demanding dyeing techniques. And they transport visitors back to a time when emirs ruled Central Asia and gave silk robes as expensive gifts and spared no expense in their creation.
Just how demanding the ikat technique is can be judged by the fact that it has only been used historically in a few parts of the world. The main production centers were in pockets of Central Asia, India, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The term "ikat" itself, which today is used internationally, comes from Malaysia, although each region has its own word for the process.
‘Cloud’ Plus ‘Workshop’
In Central Asia, the technique was traditionally called "abrbandi," a combination of the Persian words for "cloud" and "workshop." That describes two of the techniques' most salient features: the dyed fabrics look indeed like clouds of color and the dyeing is so complex that it can only be done in a workshop.
The curator of the exhibit, Sumru Belger Krody, said it is the dyeing process that makes ikats unique:
"What is interesting in this dyeing technique is that you bind different parts of your yarn, and dye it before you even weave the fabric, so you introduce the designs and colors, which end up being the designs to the yarns before they are woven into a cloth,” she said. “While usually in other techniques you see that the fabric is woven and then the design is introduced either in the weaving or after the weaving."
'The dyeing process makes ikats unique'
In effect, it is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is a differently colored strand of silk. Each strand is dyed different colors along different parts of its length, so that when the strands are strung side-by-side on a weaver's loom, a composite pattern emerges. The silk strands are then woven together with a cotton weft to make the fabric.
The whole process is enormously time-consuming, because to get the desired pattern each single strand of silk may have to be dyed in up to 10 different colors. To isolate just the part of a strand that is to be dyed a particular color, the dyer has to wrap the rest of the strand in a protective cotton and wax wadding, a process that has to be repeated over and over.
Still, the result is a cloth that shimmers with color like no other. The designs the colors form can range easily from dreamy and impressionistic to bold and forceful.Part Of Gift Tradition
In Central Asia, ikats for centuries have been popular both as a street fashion and as symbols of status and power. The dyeing technique, like other techniques such as embroidery, was used to create robes that rank among the great works of art of the region and were regularly part of state gifts leaders used to cement political alliances.
"Many khans and emirs of Bukhara, Samarkand sent gifts which included many ikats to Russian tsars,” Krody said. “And they exchanged (gifts) among themselves as well, so it was part of a very ancient tradition of gift giving."
The tradition of leaders giving robes of honor to other rulers, to loyal subjects, or to distinguished guests is believed to have originated on the Eurasian steppes millennia ago. Steppe rulers traded horses for silk from China and the robes made from it became the centerpieces of elaborate court ceremonies underlining the power relationships between rulers and their nobles.
That court culture was still very much alive through the first half of the 19th century, as shown by the robes in the Textile Museum's exhibit. And it was during the 19th century, said Krody, that the ikat technique in Central Asia reached its zenith as artists experimented with ever more technically challenging designs.
At the start of the 19th century, she said the ikat designs shown on the robes offered an overwhelming sensation of color for color's sake.
"It looks very much like you are looking through a kaleidoscope,” she said. “The colors change very frequently, there is ambiguity in (what is) the foreground and the background. You have to come very close to the object to really see what the design is and study it."
Sharply Defined Borders
But by the middle of the century, she said the artists also began to show their mastery of the medium by adding sharply defined borders among the colors, something technically very difficult to do:
"Later in the century, the second half of the 19th century, there were much more clearly identified backgrounds and foregrounds and motifs,” she said. “And they were very skillful at this point. They know their medium very well and they achieved these very sharp edges, which is very hard to do if you are working with an ikat dyeing technique."
Today, while ikat designs remain popular in parts of Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, the heights the art reached can only be seen in museum collections. Royal patrons disappeared with the emirs of the Silk Road cities and during the Soviet era the art form was severely set back by the communist emphasis on quota-driven, power loom production using inexpensive dyes and synthetic fibers.
Still, there are some hopeful signs that better days lie ahead. In recent years, some of the power loom mills producing ikats have transformed themselves into artisanal manufactories and have returned to using real silk and natural dyes.
That change is encouraged by a growing local demand for genuine silk ikats in countries like Uzbekistan, where ikats are still popular on the street. But it also has been encouraged by a growing international interest and the promise of an export market. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta visited Uzbekistan and subsequently filled his 2005 collection with ikat-influenced skirts and coats. Diane von Furstenberg, too, has paid heed to the art form.
Now, the momentum continues with increasing numbers of museum exhibits. In 2008, London's Victoria and Albert Museum exhibited ikats from Central Asia and historical Afghan production centers such as Kunduz and Kabul. And this year, quite independently, Washington's Textile Museum organized its show and published an accompanying illustrated catalog.