Rug and Textile Ecumenicalism
Walter and folks -
I need to admit that this is an aside. It is not about your subject here, but was triggered again (this has happened to me before) by it.
One of the things that interests me about our collecting neurosis is what groups of textiles engage us individually and what do not.
Virginia Delfico, the long-time Education Director at the TM had occasion (since she arranged and surpervised the Saturday morning "rug and textile appreciation mornings" for years) to observe such interest or lack of it over a considerable period of time.
She said to me once that rug collectors tend to be more ecumenical in their collecting interests than do textile collectors and will often attend and show interest in programs far removed from their primary collecting focus. Textile collectors, she said, seemed more focused and specialized. If you collect a particular sort of Southeast Asian textile, it was, she said, unlikely that you would show interest even in those from Japan, much less in Middle Eastern rugs.
But aspects of this latter tendency seem to be to occur also among rug collectors. Steve Price, clearly is interested in Laotian (and maybe other Southeast Asian textiles) but confesses that it takes a pretty unusual Turkish yastik to engage him. Similarly, many Americans, myself included, find Navajo weaving intensely interesting, but Filiberto once said, when presented with some examples of it, that they did not speak to him compared to Middle Eastern rugs.
I need to confess here that, while I see the beauty and technical viruosity that is often exhibited by these Southeast Asian textiles, they do not really engage me as a collector. Similarly, the quite substantial current efforts by the TM here to attract attention to Japanese "Rozome" textiles (a traditional, but for some time lost, set of techniques involving hat wax and delicate painting of textiles) leave me cold.
I have mostly Turkmen material, but, claim not entirely to be without a degree of ecumenism in my collecting interests. Some American textiles that I have not studied at all, appeal to me (felt "penny" rugs, some quite small hooked rugs, some examples of traditional knitting), I own and enjoy a Swedish-style "rolakan," and I bought, absolutely on aesthetic impulse, a plaited vegetable fiber skirt made in Africa's Ivory Coast.
What I wonder about is what triggers our aesthetic interest in some kinds of rugs and textiles and not others. I have repeatedly touted a novel by Evan Connell, Jr called "The Connoisseur." Connell is clearly himself a collector and I think he has many aspects of collecting "down cold."
One thing that takes up much of this novel is the continuing surprise and puzzlement by this NYC businessman who has come down with the disease of collecting things Yucatan, about how little control he has over the character of his collecting interest, its strength (it is ruining his business career) and the direction in which it might move next (he has become a member of a community of dealers and collectors of a variety of American Indian artifacts).
Perhaps the place where this question applies most interestingly is to those collectors who display great focus in their collecting (something that is in some circles strongly recommended). They, it seems to me, provide some of the best occasions for asking the question of how did it turn out that that particular sort of rug or textile and not others was able to command their exclusive interest.
Anyway, the question of the width of the ecumenicalism we experience in our interest in rugs and textiles, and the possible triggers that activate it, interest me.
R. John Howe
I found myself focused on a geographical area, more than a certain category of textiles: from Caucasian rugs and flatweaves to Caucasian silverwork (including some arms) and even some woodwork.
Then, it all has to do with the opportunity of having access to interesting material.
I know that Parviz Tanavoli is also a collector of Persian metalwork, arms and armors. There is a book on his collection, “Persian Steel” by James Allan.
You said in your opening essay that you have been coming to Thailand for many years, but were moved to explore these textiles only recently.
Would you say a little more about what it is about them that has come to attract you after having "walked by" them, so to speak, for so many years?]
R. John Howe
I didn't put up an answer to your query right away because I was on a trip up to Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos, for a few days, and I just returned. Thank you for your question about why I became interested in these textiles. It's a good question. I hadn't actually thought about it before, and it made me pause for a bit to consider it. I think I now know why. There are really two questions, as you pointed out: The first one is "Why didn't I see them before?" and the second is "Why did I start to become
interested in them?"
I hope you'll not be bored by these answers, but here goes. The FIRST question - "Why didn't I see them as collectible before?" The answer to this one is three fold:
1. These textiles were not really visible to me as objects that involved weeks or months of preparation followed by artisan-like work in weaving because they are not prominent as collectible objects for someone who is not already interested in cloth textile weavings or someone who is not fairly deep into the culture so that they become more visible. No one that I know or knew over the past thirty-five years ever mentioned them. They were invisible to me, and on top of that they are taken for granted by the local population as traditional up-county wear.
2. This gets a little complicated by the fact that almost everyone in Thailand would like to be "modern," and phasins are generally thought of as "village wear" - not modern at all. Bangkok is a BIG, modern city of 10 million and more people with big buildings and sky trains (like the "L" in Chicago). Phasins don't fit well into this picture. In the city, who is most likely to wear a phasin? Answer - servants within a household, and maybe not even servants when on the street. That wouldn't be very modern. Of course, household servants wouldn't wear the kind of phasins I've been showing you - just plain printed cotton ones, and there are no teen choks there. You see, there is this thing called "status" that pervades over most behavior in this society. This is not to say that status is not important in our own culture. What kind of car do you drive, John? That said, I've never seen so many Mercedes, BMWs, and Volvos per capita as there are on the streets in Bangkok - generally chauffer driven, of course. Add to this complex picture that fact that there are some people who are above it and at the same time are still very much part of it. When I invited four old university friends for lunch, what do think two of them were wearing? Phasins! Of course! You can also demonstrate your status in that way. One of them was wearing a phasin from Indonesia, and the other person wore a simple and quite ordinary silk mudmee (ikat) phasin. "Why would she do
that?" you may ask. My answer? She is so comfortable with her status that it no longer is important. This person is the owner of a collection of over five hundred phasins which she is about to present to the Queen's National Handicraft Center. She is into higher level things like preserving traditional cultural values. This kind of person no longer needs status.
3. And the last part of the answer to this first question is that, for me, it is sometimes hard to see into a society to perceive things that, in fact, have great value. It takes a while to overcome a kind of cultural overload to view things in more detail. It's a shortcoming, and I admit to it, but I think it's common.
The answer to the SECOND question is easier, and it is in two parts. The first part: I literally had to have a collection of royal textiles put in front of my face before I was able to come to the thought that "Gee, these things really have great value and are by definition collectible items!" It was then that I thought that there might be other similar items that were within my grasp that also might be interesting. Not very flattering for me, is it?
But even before that event, I have to credit Turkotek. As I think on it, I believe I must have read Steve Price's piece on Lao textiles, and it struck me that I hadn't ever thought much about the topic except for getting someone a souvenir silk scarf from Vientiane, not thinking whether it was hand woven or not.
Overriding the answers to both questions above is my own approach to acquiring things of value to me. As I wrote to you before, my own (and not unique, as Steve has pointed out to me) approach to collecting is a close identification of the object and the memory of the experience of the context in which the thing of value originates. I can give you what I think is an excellent example this: a Tai Dam headdress I bought two days ago in Luang Prabang in Laos - see photo. I think you will agree about the connection between object and the contextual memory.
First ruggie reaction: "Hey, isn’t that the Kaikalak motif?"
(from Stone’s “Guide”, page 72)
Walt, thank you for your thoughtful answer. The “social” situation you describe is in some way similar to Amman, luxury cars included. And the lady you mention has a “twin sister” here that collects Palestinian and Bedouin dresses.
I think I should look better at those Palestinian embroideries, after all.
Thank you for this nice, thoughtful, revealing response. It is the sort of thing that we strive for on Turkotek, but don't always achieve. The contemporary sociology is interesting too.
I do think the "triggers" that initiate our collecting are interesting to explore.
Now hats. Since I am a person whose hair has at least mostly "slipped" toward the bottom of his head, I am very interested in hats and have collected a few of the Central Asian and Turkish varieties. I even have a very nice, colorful, contemporary, knitted hat that I collected from the Marina area of San Francisco. There is a lady in Chicago whom I think has a serious collection of hats from rug producing areas.
Filiberto, Palestinian embroidery can be absolutely breathtaking.
Thanks, again, Walter,
R. John Howe
In our family, I tend to be the ruggie, while my wife is fond of stitched work. So I suppose that our joint ecumenicalism is derived from this duality.
When we were in a market in China last year (Sichuan province) my wife found some stitched articles that attracted her. An old man who had assigned himself the role of unofficial interpreter informed us that they are baby carriers. I have since confirmed this with the assistance of Marla Mallett, who also indicates that they come from the Miao tribe in SE China. The work on the first one impressed us greatly. The design of stars, birds and fish is made entirely by folding different colours of silk to make 3-dimensional layers. I hope you can appreciate the work in the close up pictures.
The second is all stitched, and we liked the exuberance of the figures.
Though I am a ruggie, I certainly enjoy these as well.
Impressive work indeed. So impressive that I remember you posted a couple of these images some time ago. Right?
Good eye and memory, Filiberto! I think I posted them as part of a discussion about how 8-point stars
are used, or some such thing.
I thought they might be relevant in this Salon, but apologies to those who have already seen them. We have a few other pieces, but they are in safe keeping on another continent so I couldn't send pictures of them.