Stylish Exhibit

SAM in Ikat

The new exhibit at Seattle Asian Art Museum explores the art and craft behind one of fashion’s favorite motifs.

By Laura Cassidy March 16, 2012


At the end of a press preview for Colors of the Oasis a gentlemen in our group asked how to attribute the proliferation of ikat-inspired prints in modern fashion and home decor. A curator on hand from the show’s original Textile Museum in Washington, DC pointed to Oscar de la Renta’s spring 2005 collection as a notable starting point. If you watch fashion, you know it bounced around from there; Balenciaga in fall 2007, spring 2010 Dries Van Noten. It’s now almost as common a motif as plaid or polka dots (find it on pillows, foot stools, and in big box fast fashion shops), but a new show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum gorgeously illustrates what SAM curator Pam McClusky calls Central Asia’s mastery of the complex handwoven, hand-dyed fiber art.

Other countries produced ikat, and continue to, but it’s SAM’s (and the Textile Museum’s) contention that none have rendered it as richly or intricately as Uzbekistan did during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. About 60 robes in five rooms are draped and mannequined as vivid evidence—and yes, they do cause your machine-printed ikat-esque tote to almost literally pale in comparison.

As McClusky related, the men, women, and children of nomadic communities like this one all wore the same thing: a robe, a tunic, and some trousers. There was very little difference in how each was cut. The three pieces were a uniform. The emphasis is not, at that point, silhouette or fit. The emphasis is color, and pattern. Ikat was a daily form of expression. If you were middle class, you had one or maybe two. The more affluent had many, and McClusky says they layered them on top of each other for maximum affect. Consider that next time you want to dabble in the ongoing pattern-mixing trend.

Blues, reds, yellows, purples, and more—all from naturally dyed silks that were the specialities of different cultures along the silk road—make what seem to the modern eye like fuzzily pixelated abstract narratives. Is that a river? A flower? A sun? A moon? A paisley? A dragon?

The exhibit starts with an introduction to the region—this is the first time the museum has highlighted the art of such an inland, Central Asian country—and some 1910-era protocolor prints of the region (and the ikats in action) by a Russian photographer. The next-to-last room is staged to evoke the bazaar; it’s a riot of color complete with modern prints of wildly patterned mosaic walls and hypervivid city centers and their citizens. The point is well made; it just wouldn’t do to be dark and drab or plain and neutral in this part of the world.

In anterooms, visual aids illustrate dying mediums and a video attempts to outline the complex mathematics and challenging, time-consuming logistics of this craft. The Uzbeks use the word abrabandi instead of ikat (which is actually an Indonesian word), which means "binding clouds." McClusky said one expert told her the practice was like dyeing spaghetti noodles. It’s unlike other weaving techniques, though I’m not sure how easy it is to grasp just how unlike in SAM’s show. We’d almost need a live demonstration—if not a more in-depth video, to really understand the peculiarities and beauties of the process. Maybe it’s better that a sense of mystery remains.

Two 10-minute modern-day films by Almagul Menlibayeva, a Berlin-based native of the region, brings you back to present day before you exit the show. The sociopolitical shorts are transportive, surreal, and tangentially stylish—perfectly nonlinear accompaniments to these historic examples of timeless craft.

Colors of the Oasis opened on March 15 at Seattle Asian Art Museum; it’s up through August 5.

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