"...Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas, a sweeping survey of stunningly vibrant textiles from the bold weavings of the nomadic tribes of West Africa to the plush carpets and shimmering silk velvets produced in the sophisticated courts of Persia and the Himalayas."
(New York Times, Feb. 1, 2009)

April 18, 2008


All the Colors of the Rugs the Nomads Walked On


THEY are knee covers for camels -- 10 inches wide, and fringed -- and could not seem less glamorous. They were made in the 19th century by young women in Central Asia who were preparing for their weddings. Yet the curiosity is that they are so intricately woven, so richly patterned and so extraordinarily colorful.

That is to say, seemingly so much more glorious than they need to be, as are dozens of the 110 carpets and assorted textiles in a new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, "Woven Splendor From Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles From New York Collectors."

"These objects are very much about people, the people who made them and used them," said Jon Thompson, the curator of the show, a retired fellow in carpet studies at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

"Everything here was made for some purpose," he added. "And someone put effort and energy -- and love -- into making it."

The show, which opened last week and will be on view through Aug. 17, is both an overview of the history of the Oriental-rug mystique in New York and a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Hajji Baba Club. This little-known Manhattan organization is, according to the society's curators, the nation's oldest and most prestigious group of rug connoisseurs.

Most of the exhibition's objects were lent by some 40 Hajji Baba members; others came from institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and Winterthur.

The Historical Society's 4,000-square-foot south galleries are a festival of unfurled carpets and assorted textiles that challenge the 18-foot-high ceilings and spill out into the ground-floor corridors. The abundance of rugs, hangings, costumes, bags and decorations dating from the 15th century to the 20th exemplifies not only the traditions of the Islamic Near East but also of China, India, Tibet, Central Asia, Africa and Moorish Spain. The hues of the nomadic artifacts are especially arresting in contrast to their original environment, "a riot of color in a landscape that is beige," said Michael Chagnon, the exhibition's assistant curator.

The items' value ranges from more than $100,000 to about $250, said Kurt Munkacsi, the president of the Hajji Baba Club. The total insurance value of the members' contributions is $1,469,490.

The show's theme of utility seems counterintuitive at a moment when antique carpets are increasingly rare, connoisseurship is more sophisticated, and prices are escalating.

Dr. Thompson, who is not a Hajji member, wrote the show's lavish, 308-page catalog. "There is a tendency among collectors to focus on the object as a work of art on the wall," he said. "But I hope to restore the balance a bit, to focus on functionality and to get back to the people themselves."

He added: "There is an in-group, and an exhibition can speak in a language that only appeals to that group. But I prefer to make this show a window into other human cultures and their tremendous diversity."

The Hajji Baba Club, founded in 1932, is of course a quintessential in-group. Worldwide there are some 140 Hajjis, as the members are called, including collectors, dealers, curators and museum executives.

Their club's name means "pilgrim father," and the title comes from the roguish hero of a 19th-century English novel by James Morier, "The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan."

To prevent the show from being promotional for the lenders, the Hajjis had to agree that "the rugs can't be offered for sale for three years," Mr. Munkacsi said.

Hajjis were able to amass valuable collections thanks to bargain-basement prices during the Depression; later many donated their finds to museums.

The group -- which meets once a month in the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park -- has been a major influence on rug collecting, scholarship and public education, according to Linda S. Ferber, a Historical Society vice president who is director of its museum.

As for the creators of the works here, "these cultures are more or less dead now," Dr. Thompson said. But their stories can be pieced together in the textiles and carpets they left behind. A shining, richly patterned 19th-century silk velvet robe from Central Asia is the exhibition's centerpiece; the largest offering is a 21-foot felt cart cover from Daghestan, the smallest is the adorned 9-inch outer face of a bag from Baluchistan.

As for the camel knee covers of the nomad brides, "the colors and patterns were part of their cultural identity, and they demonstrated these women's skill as weavers," said Dr. Thompson, who is an Islamic scholar and a medical doctor who did research for 16 years before he ran away with the caravan. "There was a certain sort of competitiveness in all of this."

One of the stars of the exhibition, because of its rarity and beauty, Mr. Chagnon said, is an 18th-century bridal veil from Tajikistan. "It would have been used only once and passed down as an heirloom."

And an unusual 2.5-foot-square embroidered tent hanging of silk and cotton, created by 19th-century nomads in Uzbekistan, is so abstract it "could be mistaken for a modern art piece," Mr. Chagnon said.

The exhibition is augmented with a companion show, "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930," a display of 60 objects illustrating the infatuation New Yorkers had with the Near East in the late 1900s and early 20th century. It is the impulse that inspired the Hajjis.

"Woven Splendor From Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles From New York Collectors" and "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930," continues through Aug. 17 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, at 77th Street, (212) 873-3400; nyhistory.org.

Stalking the Rogue Rug



They take their name from the hero of a 19th-century novel. They meet, once a month,in the oak-paneled Victorian rooms of the National Arts Club, at Gramercy Park, to discuss Oriental rugs and textiles. They are enthusiasts of scholarship, conservation, and collecting. They are the Hajji Baba Club.

Founded in 1932, the Hajji Baba Club is New York's oldest and best-known carpet club, with roughly 140 current members. They are the sort of people who know the difference between, say, Turkmen and Persian weaving: collectors, scholars, and carpet aficionados with a taste for objects from the Near East and Central Asia. And while theHajjis are largely unknown outside the world of Oriental carpet collecting, that may soon change.

Beginning April 11, the New-York Historical Society will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the club with an exhibition, "Woven Splendor From Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles from New York Collectors." The show gathers more than 100 objects -- Tajik bridal veils and tent strut covers from Kyrgyzstan, Ottoman silk, and Kurdish tapestries. The pieces come from the collections of Hajji Baba Club members, as well as objects once owned by Hajji that are now in museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Textile Museum in Washington. Curated by Jon Thompson, an Islamic textiles scholar at Oxford's Ashmolean, "Woven Splendor" is the first comprehensive museum survey of Hajji collections since anexhibition at the Asia Society in 1982.

"We just didn't want to have what you would call a 'vanity exhibition' where collectors get together and hang their pieces on the wall," the president of the Hajji Baba Club,Kurt Munkacsi, said. For that reason, Mr. Thompson was asked to organize the exhibition -- with the free hand of an outside authority. "Because the Hajjis do makethis claim to being the oldest and most prestigious of the rug societies in the U.S., we decided we wanted have a prominent scholar curate the exhibition and write a publication around it. Not just a picture book, but an actual text," Mr. Munkacsi said. A self-described "Turkomaniac" who keeps his collection of Turkmen weavings in a climate controlled, cedar-paneled room, Mr. Munkacsi, who is Philip Glass's producer, has been collecting Islamic textiles since the early 1980s. Five are included in the exhibition, among them a magnificent wool-and-silk "bag face" (the decorated front of a bag) from what is now Turkmenistan.

A historian and Hajji Baba Club member, Thomas Farnham, who contributed a chapter on the history of the club to the "Woven Splendor" catalog, said that although the Hajjiswere not themselves scholars, they helped introduce modern scholarship to the field. "The people who formed the club were committed to the concept of the carpets as art,"

Mr. Farnham said, adding that members of the Hajji Baba Club were among the first to appreciate the rugs as part of a thousands-of-years-old artistic tradition, not merely as "exotic" decorations. "They were a bunch of autodidacts. They set to work studying very, very diligently howthe carpets were made, how the carpets were used. They didn't start with a lot of information but they taught themselves and got good at it," Mr. Farnham said, adding that the softening of the rug market during the Depression allowed the Hajji to amass their collections relatively cheaply.

One founding member of the club, George Hewitt Myers, also founded the Textile Museum in Washington. Another, Joseph McMullan, would donate his extraordinarycollection of Islamic carpets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, forming a pillar of the museum's holdings. The Bronx-born McMullan is one of the most distinctive Hajji. His interest in carpets was sparked by a trip to Gimbels Department Store, to buy a rug, and it never let up. A onetime pipelayer, McMullan trained his eye during trips to the New York City Public Library and auction rooms of the American Art Association.

"He's one of two collectors who really made the collection for us," a curator of Islamic art at the Met, Stefano Carboni, said. Mr. Carboni added that one of McMullan's gifts to the museum, a rare 16th-century Ottoman prayer rug, is one of the treasures of the collection. "The rarity. The knotting. The field is so well defined. The condition is so good. It's recognized as one of the earliest of this type that is in any collection in the world, including Turkey." The rug has been lent to the "Woven Splendor" exhibition.

Today, members of the Hajji are more likely to collect the tribal textiles of Central Asia than the "classical" carpets prized by McMullan's generation. "Those carpets are hard tocollect," the curator of textiles and Islamic art at the Cleveland Museum, Louise Mackie, said. She cited their cost as a prohibitive factor, adding that today's collectors are more interested in the utilitarian role of textiles.

That may be for the best. Although the taste of its members may have changed, the Hajji Baba Club is still distinguished by its intellectual curiosity. Now, as then, such curiosity is bound by neither region nor religion. "Anyone who spends time collecting in this area has to learn about the people who made them," Ms. Mackie said. "So in this day and age where we learn about the Middle East because of conflict, these carpet collectors have always known about the region from the strength of its culture."

"Woven Splendor From Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles From New York Collectors" and "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930"; New-York Historical Society;

May 6, 2008

Though the Hajji Baba Club sounds like the moniker of a secret society, in fact it's the name of the country's oldest and most prestigious rug collecting club. This year Hajji Baba celebrates its 75th anniversary. This exhibition marks the event with a display of 75 objects owned by current club members. Among the treasures on view are world-renowned rugs, costumes, and an array of textiles from Eastern and Central Asia. Complementing the show are images depicting the rugs' creation andphotographs of the rooms they eventually came to adorn. A companion exhibit, "Allure of the East" further explores the popularity of all things "oriental" among Manhattanites during the late 19th and early 20th century, with a display featuring paintings, photographs, books and decorative objects.


Who is Hajji Baba?

That's the first question that arises from an exhibition of Oriental rugs celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Hajji Baba Club. The loan exhibition, "Woven Splendor from Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles from New York Collectors," is now at the New-York Historical Society at 170 Central Park West, Apr. 11-Aug. 17, 2008.

For the record, Hajji Baba was a Persian picaresque hero in the novels of the Englishman James Justinian Mortier (1870-1849), who was also a representative of the government at the court or Persia (now Iran). This country's oldest group of rug collectors adopted his name when they formed in 1932, becoming the Hajji Baba Club.

Once I actually peeked at the spectacular rugs and textiles on display, I forgot names and was lost in rich colors, vibrant patterns, and complex abstract designs that would leave any Neo Geo or Op artist gasping. This array of more than 100 carpets, coverings, decorative items and pieces of clothing dates from the 15th to the 20th century. And it is spectacular.

Most come from the Islamic Near East and Central Asia. One prayer rug is composed of tiny abstract elements but also has a "mihrab," or niche representing the direction of Mecca in a mosque, a combination of the abstract and the naturalistic common to many of these rugs. Yet the deep, shimmering colors of this one, produced in the 19th century, probably by a sub-tribe of the Baluch, who skirt eastern Iran and Afghanistan, make it anything but common.

A small Baluch bag for containing personal items, woven in one piece then folded in half and sewn, may be simply made, but its zigzag design produces an Op Art buzz as if it were a miniature Bridget Riley.

For elegance it's hard to beat a velvet ikat (tie-dye) robe from Uzbekistan. Made for a woman, this 19th-century garment of silk velvet has a sumptuous texture. While current Uzbek pieces may not be as wonderful as this example, at least the same techniques are being used to make textiles today. This can't be said of many of the pieces here.

Felt boots, from Turkey in the 20th century, for example, are no longer being made, having been replaced by rubber ones. Felt is a fabric but not woven, and so not really a textile; it is made of pounded fibers of wool, a long, physically taxing process. Formerly, shepherds and others would have worn felt boots and capes, but not any more.

Felt also appears in a Kyrgyzstan decorative panel that was probably created to help form the inner walls of a tent. The striking lights and darks were cut out of felt pieces and stitched together. Usually this was done with two colors, not five as here, with the pieces swapped and the two panels put together.

Notable examples of textiles in the show also come from China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Africa and Moorish Spain. A silk curtain fragment from Nasrid Spain (1232-1492), the last Islamic dynasty in southern Spain, substitutes golden thread for the precious metal threads that were popular earlier. This "Alhambra silk," so called because it was made at roughly the time the Alhambra Palace in Granada was being constructed, around the 14th or 15th century, has Arabic script amid registers of stars, flowers and interlaced bands that glow in gold against red, green and black.

A Tibetan rug with a vivid orange tiger skin from the 20th century brings to mind the show of Tantric rugs that Rossi & Rossi assembled for the last International Asian Art Fair. Like those, this image of a flayed tiger skin may have been used as a meditation rug.

Embroidery adds another dimension to pieces like a rare 18th- or 19th-century Tajikistan bridal veil with a rooster border that may point to Zoroastrian origins and a 19th-century silk-embroidered saddle cover for what must have been a very prized horse from Azerbaijan.

To dive into the unknown, just stare into the central, dark blue field of a "talesh" rug from the Caucasus. It's like being transported into the outer reaches of the solar system. But a glance at a colorful woven, fringed and tasseled camel knee pad (for weddings in Central Asia) brings you right back to earth.

I predict visitors will give thanks to the Hajji Baba Club for their generosity in sharing this remarkable and varied group of textiles. Dr. Jon Thompson, director of the Beattie Carpet Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, has curated the show and written the informative catalogue. It contains an essay by Thomas J. Farnham on the history of the Hajji Baba Club for those who want to know more about the group and its namesake.

Next door is the show "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York: 1850-1930," which explores how the Middle East captured the imagination of New Yorkers. It offers historical context for the Hajji Baba rug exhibition with such items as a painting of Cairo by Gérôme, a Moorish chandelier by Tiffany, books, souvenirs and photos of high society's smoking dens and fancy dress Oriental-style clothing. In 1907, the writer O. Henry memorably called New York "Baghdad-on-the-Subway." Enjoy.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.

Hajji Baba Textiles: Beauty Made for the Soul

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 9, 2009

"Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas" at the Textile Museum is not about geography, and it isn't about travel. It's a show about a yearning. At its heart is a shared passion, never very common, for knowing and possessing Oriental rugs.

The exhibition's lenders, the Hajjis, as they call themselves, have felt that hunger gnaw. That's what brought them together. All are earnest members of America's premier rug-lovers' society (it's 75 years old now): the Hajji Baba Club.

There are 90 pieces on display: veils, caps, carpets, horse trappings and salt bags. Some are 500 years old. Their coloring is subtle, their handwork is meticulous, and lots of them are beautiful, especially the carpets, which surely qualify as art. But this is art collecting of a most distinctive sort. It's not like buying pictures; they come with signatures. Carpets are anonymous. Most everything by Rembrandt -- his portraits of himself, his sudden reed-pen sketches, his much-worked-over etchings -- carries a suggestion of his blunt-nosed peasant's face and his empathetic heart. The least work by Picasso, say, a poster or a pot, is similarly imbued with his giftedness, his daring, his moist black-olive eyes. Now look at an old rug. What can you say about its artist? Not much. The largest, finest carpets, those scaled to the palace, come from urban workshops and were mostly made by men. Nomadic rugs and village rugs were mostly made by women. That's about it.

Old pictures, even lousy ones, can tell exquisite stories -- of loves, or the landscape, or wild storms at sea. Carpets seldom give you a strong narrative to lean on. Which one should you choose? You're thrown back on your own taste. You have to trust your eye.

But not your eye alone. Rugs are for the hand as well, and the sole of the bare foot. The beauty of a rug is in how it feels, too.

The Hajji Baba Club was founded in New Jersey on July 9, 1932. Of its five founding members, only one, Arthur Urbane Dilley, a rug dealer and scholar, was what you'd call an expert. All of them were gentlemen. (Women, one explained, did not "have the correct attitude toward Oriental rugs.") In the midst of the Depression, bargains in fine rugs were plentiful -- for collectors in the know who had the terminology, and a bit of cash to spend. The Hajjis took their name from a picaresque novel -- "The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan" (1824) -- whose "Asiatic" hero was at ease in East and West.

"He too was a rogue," explained Dilley, "never paying for what he coveted more than ten cents on the dollar. In that respect he is our patron saint."

The club now has 185 members, not just five. And some are female.

Some connoisseurs of rugs rank them technologically (how tight is the knotting, how thick is the pile, do costly gold-wound threads of silk embellish the old wool?). Rarity, of course, also helps determine value. (The oldest piece on view, collected by Hajji George Hewitt Myers, who founded the Textile Museum in 1925, is a silk Nasrid wall hanging, circa 1400, from Islamic Spain, one of only a few known.) Fashion affects price as well. (In the 1960s heyday of hard-edge color painting, Anatolian kilims were very much in vogue; far more subtle Turkmen weavings are among what's hot today.)

But what makes a carpet beautiful? That's a far more iffy business. A certain chord of colors may please me but not you. Some people prefer opera, others love the blues; a vivid village weaving may thrill me with its gutsiness but strike you as just crude.

About the beauty of the best things shown, there won't be much dispute. Among the finest is a piece from 16th-century Iran. It isn't a whole carpet, merely a small fragment preserved from the border of a huge rug worthy of a palace. The color of its ground is the color of fresh cream; its complicated patterning is ruled by a deep red; its imagery suggests both a perfumed garden and a sky alive with Chinese dragons.

Though most rugs are strongly symmetrical, their symmetry is seldom perfect. One pleasure of this show is watching it being broken. There are two big floral blasts in that fragment from Iran. They're very much alike, except the one below is the deepest midnight blue while the color of the one above is a whole lot closer to what gearheads used to call British racing green.

Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas will remain on view through March 8 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 202-667-0441 or visit http://www.textilemuseum.org.