- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Imagine this: The sheep are wandering about; the goats are nibbling on your toes you have to get them to greener pastures to graze in a hurry. The only problem is that you have to pack up all your worldly possessions within hours, and the Mayflower Moving & Storage Co. isn't around.Just throw everything into a bag and go. That's what nomadic peoples living in Central Asia in the 19th century and earlier had to do to transport their belongings from the outskirts of one village to the next.
Make no mistake, though; these bags weren't the run-of-the-mill, nondescript, garden variety. Rather, they were a testament to the skill and artistry of weavers who created utilitarian objects that possessed a distinct aesthetic.
A new exhibition, "From Amu Darya to the Potomac: Central Asian Bags From Area Collections," opens Friday at the Textile Museum in Northwest D.C. The exhibition features a collection of Central Asian pile bags dating from the 19th century or earlier. Many of the exquisite bags come from the private collections of folks who live in the area; others are rarely displayed treasures from the museum's vaults. These pile bags are all the rage, especially among rug enthusiasts.
Area collector and physicist Richard Isaacson, 59, got hooked on the colorful bags after he sauntered into a rug store in Pittsburgh in 1984.
"I'm infected with an incurable disease a passion for rugs, and these bags are great because they fit into modern-day apartments," Mr. Isaacson says. "Ever since my undergraduate days at Columbia University, I've always been interested in the visual arts."
At the Pittsburgh store, he met the shop's owner, the late George O'Bannon, a former deputy director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan during the 1960s and an expert on Central Asia. The exhibition, which runs through February of next year, is dedicated to Mr. O'Bannon, an accomplished writer and editor of the now-defunct Oriental Rug Review.
Mr. Isaacson, who is guest curator for the show, says he and Mr. O'Bannon hit it off immediately. Eight years ago, the two men traveled to Central Asia and had an opportunity to see where the bags were made.
They scoured storerooms and museums throughout Central Asia in search of the bags and other interesting textiles. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to see what was available on the market shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mr. Isaacson says.
Mr. Isaacson, a native New Yorker who lives in Arlington, says Central Asia has long been a difficult place to access. Today, many people don't know its geographic location, nor are they familiar with its republics, which include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and northern Iran.
The show takes its name from the Amu Darya river, one of Central Asia's major river systems. The Amu Darya flows northward from Afghanistan to the Aral Sea and serves as the boundary between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Central Asia has been inhabited by both nomadic and settled peoples for more than 2,500 years.
"There were really two kinds of textiles: Textiles made by the nomads, which are highlighted in this show, and there were equally beautiful and luxurious fine silks and embroidery," Mr. Isaacson says.
In the nomadic home, called a yurt, which is a portable structure, bags of different shapes and sizes provided storage space and decoration for the interior walls. Visitors will see weavings from the Turkmen, Baluch, Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnic groups. Various tribes within these groups are represented by bags with distinctive characteristics, colors and motifs. The show also explores the dyes and materials, along with the patterns and weaving techniques unique to each group.
"Bags played a major role in the life of the nomads. … The bags in the show were woven by women to carry salt or large-size items. They lived in harsh times, yet the bags possessed a beauty, and they became small treasured objects," Mr. Isaacson says.
He says the exhibition will feature a variety of bags in various sizes and shapes the smaller bags (mafrash) were used to hold valued personal items. The large bags (chuvals) were containers comparable to Western chests.
Other examples featured in the exhibition include torba (a long narrow storage bag), bohche (an envelope-style square storage bag), khorjin (saddlebag), ok bash (a tent-pole cover), chinakap (a cylindrical bag used to hold household utensils) and namakdan (a salt bag).
Not only were the bags pragmatic, they were used for decorative purposes. Sometimes they were offered as part of a bride's dowry, Mr. Isaacson says.
"In the show, the predominant color of the bags is red. It comes from the madder plant. The madder root would take on a lot of colors depending on how it was treated from reds to pinks, even oranges depending on what it was mixed with," he says.
"The women made the dyes themselves. Yellow came from a variety of sources and was the hardest to get. Some of the dyes they would trade for, and there's a color blue from indigo, which is the same dye used in jeans today, which is probably from India. The blues that appear in these bags would always be used in small areas to create contrast," Mr. Isaacson says.
"But some of the materials used to make the bags would be produced locally, like the wool and the goat hair grown by people in old urban areas. Sometimes they used horsetail hair, and occasionally they used cotton and silk luxury items which they had to trade for," he says.
The exhibition is displayed in three of the museum's rooms. A total of 31 bags are included in the show.
"Six come from the museum's private collection, and the rest from private collections from the Washington, D.C., area. So these bags used to be treasured, and now they're equally prized along the Potomac," says Mr. Isaacson, who works for the National Science Foundation in Ballston.
Mr. Isaacson credits Textile Museum Director Ursula McCracken for including the community in the new exhibition. The area has many well-traveled people, and she wanted to honor them and their contributions to the museum, he says. Most important, she wanted to showcase their wonderful treasures.
The first room features the large 5-foot to 6-foot bags. The second showcases examples of weaving from different cultures and gives an overview of all the possible uses for the bags, Mr. Isaacson says.
The last room houses a collection of bags masterpieces from the Turkmen people, the most renowned weavers, he says.
"It's a small room, so just imagine that you are inside a very elegant yurt, and the walls are covered with all of these beautiful red-and-blue bags," Mr. Isaacson says with a laugh.
He says the Textile Museum is a great resource for new collectors interested in learning about Central Asian bags. Every Saturday, the museum hosts lectures on rugs and various other textiles. This Saturday at 11 a.m., Mr. Isaacson will host a walk-through and talk about the exhibition and his love of Central Asian bags.


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