THERE IS NO shortage of exhibitions with an Islamic theme and almost all of them proclaim their Islamic credentials with relish. Occasionally there is an exhibition that barely mentions the religious connection. Abrbandi: Ikats of Central Asia is one of these. This is just as well, as the connection with Islam is tenuous. The market was mainly Muslim, and so were most of the craftsmen who made these textiles, but their content was definitely secular. It is quite a relief to read about items whose form is rooted in their surroundings instead of having any supposed religious message. And what a form it is. Few cultures have produced fabrics as stunning to look at as these.

Not only are ikats impressive to look at, they are also extremely difficult to make. This is a form of textile that has been attracting a lot of attention over the past decade or two. Whether from Central Asia, Southeast Asia or South America, it is something that excites admiration for the demands it makes on its creators. The slightly out-of-focus appearance looks like nothing that comes from a production line. Just like tribal carpets gaining popularity over their slick, city counterparts, ikats suggest the values of individuality and non-commercialism.

Paradoxically, the ikats of Central Asia have a more sophisticated background than might be expected. They are not the products of anarchic out-of-towners. Instead they come from the most urban and urbane – parts of the region. Bukhara and Samarqand suggest the savoir-faire of a latter-day Babylon. Before the 1 9th century they had fallen on harder times than when they were the capitals of the Silk Road. Within a short period they had regained some of their former glory. The most visible expression of this was the way their inhabitants dressed. There was no hiding of sartorial light under a bushel. Instead of wearing just one technicolour silk coat, they might wear up to ten layers of them. This could apply just as well to the male population.

The Abrbandi exhibition and catalogue tell this fascinating story with a combination of words and pictures. The title refers to the Persian word for ikats and the process by which they are made. This is not an easy function to explain, but the book manages it with more ease than most. In brief, it is a form of weaving in which the dyeing of patterns is done before the threads are woven together. This requires imagination and lots of patience. The more colours that are involved, the more expertise that is needed. No matter how virtuoso the dyers and weavers may have been, the results would never match the expectations entirely and this is where their charm lies. In addition to the dreamy quality of their appearance there is the appeal of dazzling colours and motifs that go back to the region’s preIslamic past.
The catalogue features almost 300 images of ikat textiles. Most of them are robes, along with some panels that were used for decorative purposes. The rich- ness of the colours is apparent in the numerous plates, and this is supplemen- ted by some of the most fascinating photographs from the early 20th century that are to be found anywhere. Taken by a Russian photographer between 1905 and 1 9 1 5, they show the declining years of the region’s renaissance. The most extraor- dinary aspect of these photos is that they are in colour. For textile enthusiasts this is an unprecedented bonus. Usually the best they can hope for is hand-tinted monochrome images to show them how clothes were worn in the pre-colour era. Lovers of Central Asian ikats can see the objects of their passion in an original setting, often with a backdrop of mosques and other landmarks that can still be identified. The Russian Prokudin-Gorskii used an ingenious colour-filter system on his photos that enables them to be digitally reassembled a century later.

The illustrations are just one of the winning features of this catalogue. Accessibility is perhaps its greatest strength. This will never be the standard work on the subject, as nothing could ever surpass Ikat: Silks of Central Asia, written by Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale in 1997. This has 380 pages and is so much more expensive it hardly bears comparison. It is also missing those all-important colour pictures, concentrating instead on what looks more authentic in the form of sepia, which actually gives away less of that colourful era. Abrbandi manages to condense the information and present it in a fresh, new fashion. Being shown in Southeast Asia gives additional relevance as this is the other corner of the world in which ikat is truly at home.

Abrbandi: Ikats of Central Asia may be the catalogue of an art exhibition but it is also a work of sociology. It documents the flowering of a cosmopolitan society in which the majority Muslim population coexisted in relative harmony with other groups, although one of the book’s shortcomings is failing to analyse this in sufficient depth. Still, it tells about the flamboyance of the past and, like most Muslim societies, this was not well treated during the 20th century. Instead of being Western imperialism that brought the area now known as Uzbekistan to its knees, it was their northern neighbour that did the damage. Russia is still an unpopular presence in many parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The kindest thing that can be said is that Russians 100 years ago took as keen an interest in ikats as modern viewers do.

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