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Posted by Jerry Silverman on December 11, 1998 at 19:21:06:


“Ethnographic,” it appears, is a term much like “pornography” in that it defies useful definition.
We can say that it is what weavers weave when they weave for themselves. We can all agree with that. But when confronted with a 100-year old textile, how can we know whether it was woven for the weaver’s own use? And what of the 200- and 300-year old textiles?
This topic encouraged our salon to lurch off in several directions. A fair amount of heat, but not much light, was generated over a discussion of why it was that ethnographic textiles struck such a resonant collecting chord in so many of us. For some there is an innate urge to collect which means that collecting is collecting, and it makes little difference whether the collected item is khorjins or beanie babies. But more than a few of us opined that there may well be something missing in our lives today that makes us desire these manifestations of long-ago daily life.
Trying to pin down “ethnographic” proved difficult. When my musings about primordial Eagle Kazaks were examined, we concluded that many patterns have antecedents vastly pre-dating the rugs that form our common experience. That many of these ancient antecedents were woven on contract for commercial purposes complicates matters accordingly. This point was raised in several other threads as well. (For instance, what about the theory that the Turkman gul descended from the cloud-collar motif on 15th century Chinese porcelain? Not likely, say the advocates of a two-way dissemination of design motifs between the urban and the rural.)
Well, then, prayer rugs must surely be ethnographic, right? No, not right. Or at least, not necessarily - which launched several brief but highly enlightening discourses on the use and meaning of prayer rugs. And more fundamentally, our assumptions about what constitutes a “prayer rug” were challenged. If it looks like a niche, is it really a niche? And is the presence of a niche essential to a rug’s being a prayer rug? Could the majority of what we know as prayer rugs really have been woven in response to a Western taste for things Eastern in that nothing is more fundamentally Eastern to a Judeao-Christian-Westerner than a “prayer” rug? There was even some input suggesting that prayer rugs were not always hung with the mihrab pointing upwards and that in actual use they were hung to indicate the direction of Mecca while the devotees simply kneeled on “a clean place.”
So in the end it turns out that “ethnographic” may not have enough reliable, reproducible meaning to be of much use in our day-to-day decisions about textiles. It would be nice if it did, as so many of us would like to collect such items; but until scholarship fills in more of the unknowns about nomadic life it is unlikely to be much more than another of the rug world’s “terms of art.”

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