It saddens all of us to tell you that one of the great oriental rug specialists has gone to Heaven. We shall remember his friendship, passion for life and many accomplishments.
George W. O’Bannon, oriental rug scholar whose writings on the textiles, costumes and people of Central Asia inspired a generation of enthusiasts of tribal arts, died in Tucson, Arizona on October 2, 2000. He was 64. The cause was lymphoma.
George’s first love, developed while still a youngster growing up in Artesia, New Mexico, was gardening and horticulture. He frequently credited his early interest in plants and taxonomy for his ability to see connections in the myriad combinations of patterns and designs in oriental carpets, particularly those of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. Until the time of his death, George remained an avid gardener.
After serving in the navy in the 1950s, George studied Political Science at Cornell and earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford. While studying in California. He met his wife, Helen Bohen, a graduate student in economics. Shortly after their marriage in 1962, the couple relocated to Washington, D.C., where George worked for the Department of Agriculture and the American Friends of the Middle East. In 1965, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan where he began his lifelong study of carpets and Central Asian culture. “Carpets seemed like the only things that had any value in Afghanistan,” he said on several occasions. In time, though, George developed an appreciation for all aspects of the culture of the region that he came to love and write about so passionately.
In 1968, George and Helen returned to the United States where George took a position with the department of foreign studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1971, George organized an exchange program between Pitt and the University of Kabul, Afghanistan with funding from the Fulbright Foundation. He remained Director of the program until 1975 when he went into business for himself. That year, he opened O’Bannon Oriental Carpets in Pittsburgh, at about the same time, he published his first book, The Turkoman Carpet, a seminal work in its field.
In 1979, the O’Bannon family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when Helen, despite being a Democrat, was named Secretary of Welfare for the state under Governor Thornburgh. In those years, George commuted frequently to Pittsburgh to run his business while continuing his studies and scholarship in tribal arts. In 1983, after Helen was named Senior Vice President at the University of Pennsylvania, the family again relocated to Philadelphia. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, George sold his business in Pittsburgh and opened a gallery in Philadelphia specializing in textiles and Central Asian art.
After his wife’s death of cancer in 1988, George closed the gallery and concentrated on his career as writer, guest curator and speaker on oriental rugs. From 1987 to 1991, he served as the Editor of the Oriental Rug Review, the only American magazine reporting exclusively on rug and textile art.
In 1993, George O’Bannon retired to Tucson where he wrote and spoke extensively on textiles and returned to his hobby of gardening. In Arizona, his love for the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert was rekindled. During his years in Tucson, he argued for the preservation of wildflowers and clashed with those who, he thought, wished to sanitize the desert. He also led frequent study trips to Central Asia and the Far East. Trips to India, Indonesia, Turkey Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan occupied much of his time. George also shared his love for textiles with southwesterners: in 1998 he served as curator for “Tribal and Village Rugs from Arizona Collections,” a part of the “Tucson Collects” series of exhibitions at the Tucson Museum of Art.
In 1996 George realized a long held dream by co-editing the first English translation of Carpets of the People of Central Asia, by famed Russian ethnographer of the 1920s, Valentina Moshkova. In 1998, he organized the award-winning exhibition, “From Desert to Oasis: Arts of the People in Central Asia,” at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia. At the time of his death, George had recently finished editing two works on the carpets of Kyrgyzstan.
In addition to his numerous written and edited volumes, George was co-founder of the Pittsburgh Rug Society and the Arizona Oriental Rug and Textile Association. For his scholarship and stewardship in Islamic textiles, George was the 1993 recipient of the Joseph V. McMullen award given by the Near Eastern Art Research Center. He leaves a legacy as a brilliant and talented man, whose many accomplishments include horticulture, photography, dancing and cooking. His quick wit and exceptional intellect endeared him to many: to be fair, others found his honesty abrasive.
George O’Bannon is survived by his four sons and three daughters-in-law, Patrick and Pia Deinhardt of Philadelphia, Colin of Columbus, Ohio, Sean and Nancy of Boca Raton, Florida and Casey and Susan of Philadelphia; two grandchildren; and his longtime companion Arlene Cooper of Manhattan.
The family requests that those who wish to make memorial donations direct them to the Textile Department of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to which George recently bequeathed a substantial portion of his collection of Central Asian textiles and costumes.
Donations can be sent to the:
George W. O’Bannon Memorial Fund,
c/o Niloo Paydar, Textile Department Curator,
Indianapolis Museum of Art,
1200 West 38th St.,
Indianapolis, IN 46208-4196.
Here is a selected annotated bibliography of George’s writings that was distributed at the Textile Museum show dedicated to him, From the Amu Darya to the Potomac. It was prepared and kindly provided to us by Claudia Brittenham and Richard Isaacson.
1974 The Turkoman Carpet. Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd, London. An early book with emphasis on more recent Afghan production.
1975 Oriental Rugs from Western Pennsylvania Collections. Westmoeland County Museum of Art, Greensburg.
Exhibition catalog of 19th century rugs from Pennsylvania collectors, exhibited by the Pittsburgh Rug Society.
1979 Kazakh and Uzbek Rugs from Afghanistan. George W. O’Bannon, Pittsburgh.
Princeton Rug Society exhibition catalog.
A small booklet on these 20th century primitive rugs from Central Anatolia.
1990 Vanishing Jewels: Central Asian Tribal Weavings. Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester.A catalog of Marvin Amstey’s collection with good introductory essays on the peoples of Central Asia and their culture.
1990 Princeton, anyone? Tibetan Tiger Rugs. The Gallery at Bachelor’s Hall, Philadelphia.
1993 The Gallery at Bachelor’s Hall Presents Pieces de la Resistance: Afghanistan’s War Rugs. The Gallery at Bachelor’s Hall, Philadelphia.
1994 Tribal Treasures: Carpets and Jewelry from Central Asia. Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut.
1994 Oriental Rugs. A Bibliography. Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, New Jersey and London. An essential reference work. This is the first comprehensive bibliography written in English on the oriental rug and carpet literature, beginning with the first publication on oriental rugs in 1877 and including all known publications in any language published through 1992.
1995 Oriental Rugs: The Collector’s Guide to
1996 Moshkova, V. G. Carpets of the People of Central Asia of the Late XIX and XX Centuries. Edited and translated by George W. O’Bannon and Ovadan K. Anamova-Olsen. George W. O’Bannon, Tucson. A translation of Moshkova’s field research, with editorial commentary and updates on recent advances by O’Bannon. Strong on non-Turkmen Central Asian rugs. A very important reference for the serious student.
1997 From Desert and Oasis: Arts of the People of Central Asia. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens. An exhibition catalog largely drawn from the collection of Tamor and Elaine Shah. It covers 20th century Uzbek and Kyrgyz weavings.
1998 Tribal and Village Rugs from Arizona Collections. Arizona Oriental Rug and Textile Association, Tucson. Exhibition catalogue for the 1998 AORTA convention. About twenty percent of the examples are Turkmen, twenty percent Baluch.
2000 The Kyrgyz Carpet. Edited by George W. O’Bannon and Ovadan Anamova. Two volumes. George W. O’Bannon, Tucson.
“The Decorative Arts of the Kyrgyz”) and one by Beresneva (“The Kyrgyz Carpet Collection in the State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow”). Also included are O’Bannon’s commentaries and short essays on Kyrgyz weavings. This is an essential book for Kyrgyz textiles.
Contributions to Oriental Rug Review
1988-89 Near the Rio Arriba in August, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 23-25.
Reviews of Books, Exhibitions, Conferences and Auctions