- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000


Nomadic tribes roamed the plains of Anatolia for centuries. Populating land that is now mostly in Turkey, they brought unusual weaving and design traditions from the nearby Caucasus, Syria, Persia and Armenia.
They made these traditions into their own stunning styles, as visitors can see in the Textile Museum exhibit "Tribal Traditions: Village and Nomadic Weaving of Anatolia."
This exhibit of 35 kilims (flat-woven rugs), bands and bags is meant as a guide to mostly 19th-century and early-20th-century weavings of the four major Anatolian cities of Bergama, Konya, Malatya and Erzurum.
The exhibit is much more, however. It displays outstanding artwork characterized by brilliant colors and bold designs. Consider an enormous, 15-foot-high kilim made in Malatya that descends from the wall of the museum's 19-foot-high central gallery. Its strongly geometric design of crosses and diamonds is a bold aesthetic statement that would be arresting at any time or place.
Scholars identify Malatya rugs through their cochineal, a pink-red dye. The dye's beauty lies in its shading from a pink that verges on orange to a red that can be both rose and rust. Craftsmen make the dye by drying and pulverizing insects that feed on cactuses in the region.
The rug is a tour de force in its display and craftsmanship. So also is a group of five "Niche Kilims" from the Erzurum area in northeastern Turkey. The small, narrow carpets seem to float as they are hung at different distances away from the wall. These prayer rugs show the jewellike teal-green color and mixed Anatolian-Armenian motifs typical of the region.
The exhibit aims to show that specific designs on nomad kilims served to identify groups of herdsmen. It was a nonverbal form of communication in which the designs were large. The designs had to be clearly readable from a distance so family members could spot their relatives from far away and see where they were going.
Although many of the patterns came from realistic forms such as stars and flowers, they became more geometric and simplified — the menacing-looking hook was a favorite motif — as time went on.
The Ottoman rulers in the 16th century changed this symbolism and usage. They insisted that the nomads settle in villages so that taxes could be collected. This forced settlement of many diverse groups merged different design traditions. The designs lost their former identity and communication uses but continued to be valued as aesthetic statements.
The show traces the curatorial journey through Anatolia of Sara J. Wolf, head of conservation at the museum and the exhibit's curator. She became interested in Turkey when she led a Textile Museum-sponsored tour there in 1993.
"I have a real passion for textiles. My mother's a weaver, and my father a painter. I grew up with artists around me," she says.
Miss Wolf returned to Istanbul to teach a museum studies course at the University of Marmara the next year. She decided to study restoration techniques on her own and found she could learn most from the restorers in the bazaars.
"I started learning from the older pieces and wanted to study how to identify them. I found the only way to do this was to see a lot of rugs from each area," she says.
The museum approved her idea for an exhibit of kilims from the four major areas, although she says there were more than 1,000 villages from which to choose. She has been back twice a year since for extensive fieldwork and research. She used kilims from the museum's extensive holdings for the exhibition but connected them with ones still in Turkey.
The project was not easy. "Everyone in Turkey seems to know about rugs, and if they don't, they make it up," she says. She organized the exhibit from west to east, using Istanbul as her base.
The kilims of Bergama, in western Turkey, are closest to their Caucasian roots. Grain bags, saddle bags, salt bags and storage bags, as well as rugs, covers and cushions, give this section a wider presentation than the others.
The designs are boldly geometric, including zigzag lines, lozenges, lattices and five-pointed stars. Reds and blues, with strong white accents, are the favored colors.
Miss Wolf next journeys in the exhibit to central Anatolia and the Konya region, which is situated in the large, fertile plain of the same name and always has been the trade crossroads of Anatolia.
Many people have come and gone and left multiple weaving and design traditions behind. Konya, therefore, has the largest range of motifs and colors of any region in Anatolia.
Colors are muted with apricots, deep reds and yellows, and earthy tones. Hooked designs were favored.
One of the most unusual kilims in the exhibit is a vertically hung one of browns and olive-greens, with the upper part undecorated and the center embellished with a deep-blue hook design. The artist masterfully contrasted the empty with the decorated areas.
Another kilim nearby is more crowded with orange and red hooks that make up a niche design.
Miss Wolf moves farther east with Malatya and Erzurum. For years, Erzurum was a strategic gateway to Anatolia. It was part of the Armenian empire, then a garrison town of Rome at the easternmost edge of the Byzantine Empire. It fell to the Seljuks in 1071. The city backed up against the mountains and provided an entrance for Turkish groups into Anatolia.
Miss Wolf points out that the kilims of Erzurum have an urban, rather than a nomadic, tradition. They favor finely woven niche designs, now popularly known as "prayer designs," sometimes with accents of metallic-wrapped yarns.
"Tribal Traditions," a valuable show, is one of the many illuminating and handsome exhibits the Textile Museum regularly presents. Miss Wolf clearly identified tribal and village weavings and designs through the many subtle differences and similarities. Yet it is the brilliance of certain of the kilims and their aesthetic sensuality that are most enjoyable.
Scattered through the show are small color photomurals of some of the villages and people. Taken by Miss Wolf, they enliven the exhibit. More and larger ones could have been mounted in the long entrance hallway.

WHAT: "Tribal Traditions: Village and Nomadic Weaving of Anatolia"

WHERE: Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 28

TICKETS: Free, but a suggested donation of $5

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