April 18, 2008
ART REVIEW | 'WOVEN SPLENDOR FROM TIMBUKTU TO TIBET'
All the Colors of the Rugs the Nomads Walked On
By GLENN COLLINS
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.