East is East: Golden Colours of the Past

Textile from the Islamic World
Ashmolean Museum
Until 13 June Islamic Art never fails to fascinate with its strong sense of
aesthetics. From pottery to carpets, paintings to architecture,
miniatures to fabrics, there is a vast array of styles. The
aftermath of September 11 has almost totally erased awareness of
this diversity from the popular imagination, replacing it instead
with a rather one-dimensional and bleak idea of the religion.
Media representations of Islam have focused entirely on the
aspect of jihad, adding fuel to the Western misconception that
Islamic culture is devoted to terrorism and oppression. As a
consequence, Islamic culture in the Western imagination is tied
up with nihilism and creative sterility. A new exhibition at the Ashmolean, which is drawn from the
private collection of Lloyd Cotsen, dispels exactly such a
stereotype. Textiles from the Islamic World showcase a small but
wide-ranging selection of textile fragments from Central Asia and
the Near East, spanning the pre- Islamic period of the First
Millennium A.D. to the 17th and 18th century Safavid Persia. This
seems an ambitious timescale to attempt in what is admittedly a
presentation of “traces of textile art, rather than
monumental pieces”. However, the collage-like assembly of
fabric manages to evoke the impression of an elaborate culture in
miniature. Although many fragments are in faded and frayed
condition, the intricacy of the swatch-pattern makes it a small
effort to imagine the original grandeur of the fabrics. They
display brocades, compound weaves, lampas, plain weaves, samite,
tapestry and twill to provide a snapshot of the expansive weaving
styles of Central Asia. There are only two ’whole’ examples of textile,
which is initially slightly disappointing. It is inevitably
somewhat of a barrier when one is seeking to achieve a sense of
perspective. One of the whole pieces is a fuchsia pink Ottoman
Velvet Carpet from 17th Century Turkey. Indeed, as the
centrepiece of the display there is a marked contrast between its
sprawling size and intact nature, and the other framed fabric
pieces, some no more than six inches in width. This is, I think,
the single criticism that can be levelled against the exhibition:
that the tiny scraps of fabric seem more to be swallowed up by
their incongruous frames, than to have their detail of work
complemented. It is a shame for works that have survived the test
of time to be obscured by their presentation. The outstanding features are the fabled ‘Mongol’
cloths of gold. One feels almost a shade of sadness on viewing
the gold threads dispersing an attenuated shimmer through the
small thin material. I certainly mourned the modern age’s
premium on plastic and lycra in lieu of gold and silver. The
brocade incorporates Chinese symbols such as the dragon, fusing
Islamic motifs like vine and floral patterns with a distinctly
Far-Eastern style. This exhibition is a powerful example of how
broad the cultural influence of Islam was in Asia and the diverse
character of its complex culture. It must be seen to be believed.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2004