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Posted by Daniel Deschuyteneer on November 25, 1998 at 20:34:53:

Historical Background:

The Khamseh Confederacy of Fars ("khamseh" means five in Arabic -'khamesh' in the closely related Hebrew), is a political entity, that originated in 1862 with the unification of five tribes under the auspices of the central government and the leadership of the powerful Qavam family of Shiraz. The purpose was to counteract the growing influence of their neighbors, the Qashqa'i. The five tribes are the : Basseri (ethnically mixed tribes of Persians, Arabs and Turks, who probably migrated from Khorassan), Arab (Arabs), Baharlu (Turkic, once part of the Qizilbash confederation of Azerbaijan), Ainalu or Inanlu(Turkic, probably related to the Shahsavan Inanlu), and Nafar (ethnically mixed tribes of mostly Turkic and Arab and Lurs). The confederacy was disbanded in 1950.

Rationales for Weaving Groups

At ICOC in Hamburg, Cyrus Parham argued that there was little common ground among the Khamseh tribes in terms of weaving tradition, and that grouping their weavings was unsound. One question this raised was, what are the useful bases for grouping tribes or geographic locations? The answer seems to be, when grouping the weavers provides a convenient shorthand for talking about their products. Stephen Louw was particularly critical of the use of the term "subtribe", as essentially meaningless, and notes that many of the habits of those writing about rugs are obsolete in anthropological circles.

Is this a Khamseh rug?

The reaction of many of the participants was that it is an unusual and attractive rug with wonderful color, above average in its group, although some doubted the Khamseh attribution. My basis for making this attribution can be found in the original description in the Salon.

Is it Arab Khamseh?

When James Opie tentatively attributes a rug to one of the sub-groups it is always based on reasoned scholarship, and keys to identifying Khamseh rugs were presented in his 1981 book. I was unable to use them to make a convincing sub-group attribution, so it seems preferable to use the more general Khamseh attribution for this rug. John Howe wrote, "Someone has said that one of the great skills to develop in attribution is knowing when to stop. That is, being able to detect accurately when we have come to the limits of what we know."

Considerations about the design

A consensus can frequently be reached by collectors about the desirability of any particular rug. But it is extremely difficult to quantify (or even specify) the factors leading to their evaluations. Wendel Swan introduced monochrome vs. color comparisons of this rug, a most interesting (and novel) way of looking at it. This clearly demonstrated the simplicity of the organization of this rug's design. It was also a very useful way to show the extent to which the attractiveness of this rug depends on its color, rather than its graphic design. John Howe wrote, "I want to draw attention to three aspects of this rug's graphics the inadequacies of which, I think, are made clearer in the B&W image. First, it might improve our assessment of this rug's design if the weaver had omitted many of the small devices that fill the field. But good design is not just a matter of clearing away clutter(although it may permit the better evaluation of what remains). It is also a matter of the shape of the ornaments: both their positive shape and the shape of the negative that surrounds them.

The shape of the central medallion in this rug is for me uninspired. Compare it with medallion of the dust jacket rug on Opie's "Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia" and you will see what I mean. Look at just one feature. The lobbing of the edge of the most central part of the Opie dusk cover medallion is for me much superior to the simple steps in our little Khamseh piece.

The point about the function of negative space seems to me also to be relevant to a critique of the drawing of the rows of botehs just inside the top and bottom borders of this rug. Now a boteh is a widely used device. It is legitimately what Chris Alexander calls a "center": a design element that is a "whole," that looks complete in and of itself. And these botehs are "wholes" too but their effectiveness is limited by the fact that the negative space that surrounds them is small and has no distinctive shape of it own."

"A third graphic weakness of this rug, revealed clearly by the B&W image, is that the main border, already indistinct in color (although it is one instance in which the weaver used a slightly different scale), nearly disappears in B&W. Rather than framing the field, it drifts away into obscurity."

I posted another image of the rug, with many of the filler devices painted over with the ground color. This allows viewers to judge for themselves the effects of the crowding with fillers. Some reactions were, "It has been speculated that tribal weavers were trying to simulate a garden in full bloom, as a respite from the dreary desolation of their surroundings. This rug certainly seems to try to show this, with the "fence" of botehs around the field, the sprouts growing "up" from both the top and bottom of the medallion, and the plethora of colorful "flowers" in bloom. It seems that some of us feel that it has a few weeds in among the flowers!"

"For me, many Southern Persian rugs, like this one, convey a sense of fecundity and joy. I don't think a clean, monumental composition, however visually stunning, would serve nearly so well as this funny, casual little zoo. I think this weaver knew what she wanted to say and she said it well."

Is it a dowry rug?

Perhaps this rug was part of a dowry woven by a relatively young weaver. There is a lack of sophistication within the well developed design tradition of the area, wonderful colors and naivete. Wendel Swan offered some comments about the frequent use of the word "dowry". He pointed out that it has different meanings that depend on the group, place, customs and economic conditions of the woman. He wrote, "... the fact that the Khamseh piece before us seems to have been made with exceptional wool and color does not necessarily mean that it was woven by a girl for her own dowry. My general observation is that the better weavers (more experienced and with greater technical skills) use or were supplied with the better wool, dyes and looms." The dowry items of the Turkmen do not include rugs, but are trappings and bags. Do the Khamseh have a known tradition? The question is still open.

Muslim weavers and horror of empty spaces Rug fields are often filled, but what other evidence is there that these people really abhorred empty space? How did it originate, and are these people, presumably nomadic Muslims, fearful of unfilled space when other nomadic Islamic peoples prefer a spacious presentation in their best weaving? Stephen Louw argues that the diverse forms of Islam play no role in this aesthetic consideration.

A number of other interesting issues arose as subtopics within the discussions. These include the influence of formal Persian carpet designs on tribal weavings, practices relating to spouse selection among the peoples of central and western Asia, and the confluence of religious traditions in the area.

I am sure all of these will be revisited in future Salon discussions.

Daniel Deschuyteneer

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