"Ethnographic": An Attractive Distinction Hard to Maintain

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Posted by R. John Howe on November 29, 1998 at 06:48:44:

Dear folks,

As a fellow Turkoman collector, I am like, Jerry, drawn in part to these pieces by the possibility that they were woven for use and are therefore, cultural artifacts in a way that a 9 X 12 rug woven in the city of Hammadan at the turn of the 19th century is probably not.

My mother is 85 and like Jerry’s grandmother has knitted all her life. She is similarly an example of the fact that a craftsperson can be surrounded by intense commercial pressures without being influenced by them. My mother explicitly refuses to knit items for sale. So the presence of commercial influence does not in principle prevent the production of craft items for non-commerical purposes (read: at high levels of quality, i.e., time and expense are often not much considered by such a craftsperson).

But as attractive as the notion of an "ethnographic" distinction is, and as legitimate as it may be in principle, I fear that it is going to be difficult to maintain and to use reliably in practice.

One of the things I admire about Murray Eiland’s writing is a rather thorough-going "I’m from Missouri," "show me" sort of skepticism that seems to me to be a very healthy position to adopt. When Jerry first talked about having this particular discussion, I was reminded that I should, when it occurred, look again at what Eiland has said about allied terms such as "tribal" and "authentic." Since his new edition of his nice guide has just been published ("Oriental Carpets: A Complete Guide," Murray Eiland, Jr. and Murray Eiland III, Bullfinch Press, Little Brown and Company, 1998, pp. 368) I went to it to see if he had changed his mind. Eiland is also a good person to consult because he was apparently the primary ultimate selector of the rugs included in the "Mideast Meets Midwest" catalog in which a longer version of the contribution Jerry has made here appears. So Eiland wrote in 1998 with a specific familiarity of Jerry’s proposal.

Eiland is still unconvinced that such a distinction, however useful or attractive it may be, can be sustained. He explores the two allied concepts of "authenticity" (pp. 71-72).and "tribal," (p. 79) and pretty much concludes that at bottom we cannot really distinguish the "authentic" from the "commercial," or the "tribal" from the "non-tribal."

Jerry seems confident that this problem doesn’t really touch the Turkoman pieces we collect but Eiland points to such pieces as the wonderfully sophisticated Salor trappings (See, Mackie and Thompson, Plate 14) display such technical excellence that it is hard to see them as woven in a yurt. Among other things they seem not to contain any areas of abrash, suggesting large dye lots and settled weavers. Some of the Eagle group pieces seem similarly suspect.

Eiland also argues that designs tend to flow from the city to the tribal areas rather than the other way around, undercutting our notions of designs as having been created more spontaneously by "noble savages,’ so to speak. He says that the Turkoman gul might well descend from sophisticated workshop designs for silk fabrics.

So Eiland is worth reading on what Jerry proposes. His final two sentences under his discussion of "tribal" are:

"But just which rugs qualify? A 1994 rug exhibition in Chicago begged the issue by describing the rugs as "ethnographic," almost certainly referring to the same rugs others call tribal."


John Howe

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