Thursday, 24 July 2008

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Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Every Era Sees Oriental Rugs It's Own Way

PRAGUE, August 15, 2008 -- Oriental carpets have caught the eye of Western writers ever since they began trickling into Europe in the 13th century or earlier.

But how Western writers look at these exotic creations has changed dramatically over the years.

In the early days, carpets were symbols of impossible luxury and power. They helped seal alliances between the Ottoman court and European kings, and ambassadors carefully recorded their acceptance and delivery.

Just what potent symbols these objects of art could be is apparent in this brief description of the victorious Sultan Suleyman II summoning the Hungarian king John to him immediately after the battle of Mohacs in 1526:

“Along the short mile the King traversed to go to the Emperor, Turkish and various fine carpets were laid on the earth as far as the tent of the Emperor.”

The words belong to the Hungarian royal chaplain George Szerémy, who was there. The picture of Sultan Suleyman II above is from an Ottoman court miniature.

Over time, carpets as trappings of royal command found their way (in reduced versions) into more and more Western households. First nobility, then merchants and then, with the industrial age, the ever more comfortable middle class bought eastern rugs. So many, in fact, that by the mid-1800s, how carpets were displayed in western homes could be an issue of public debate.

Edgar Allen Poe is best remembered today as an American pioneer of the Romanticist Horror genre. But he was also a well-known literary and, sometimes, social critic who contributed an essay entitled 'The Philosophy of Furniture' to Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1840:

“Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colours. A carpet is the soul of the apartment. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius. Yet I have heard fellows discourse of carpets with the visage of a sheep in reverie — "d'un mouton qui rêve" — who should not and who could not be entrusted with the management of their own moustachios."

Poe goes on to accuse the main commercial carpet centers of his day of violating all public standards of good taste. "Brussels is the preterpluperfect tense of fashion" in Western rugs, he claims, and "Turkey is taste in its dying agonies."

What does Poe like? Well, colors that are not too lively. "A carpet should not be bedizzened out like a Riccaree Indian — all red chalk, yellow ochre, and cock's feathers," he says, apparently having seen something like that on someone's floor. As for patterns, only non-figurative. "Distinct grounds and vivid circular figures, of no meaning," are his maxim.

If Poe seems surprisingly argumentative about carpets, he is only a little ahead of his time. By the end of the 1800s, passions rose still higher.

Britain's The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs offers this view of carpet collecting in a 1903 commentary:

“There are, I must suppose, but few hobbies that claim so absorbing a devotion as does the pursuit of the oriental carpet. Every hobby, no doubt demands a good deal from its victims, but the exactions of most of them are tempered with mercy: thus the collector of old furniture does not necessarily cut himself adrift from pictures, nor does the lover of old arms from bric-a-brac; but the oriental carpet is inexorable and remorseless, and the true carpet lover gives himself to carpets and to carpets only. They are his pictures, his furniture, his bric-a-brac, his all. True the field of the oriental carpet seeker is an immensely wide one. His horizon extends from Morocco to China, and the period during which the objects of his affections have existed, and existed as they do today, dates back to the days of the Pharaohs; in the palaces of ancient Egypt they were employed as decorations and the priests at Heliopolis used them at religious ceremonies.”

Whether these notes about the ancient Egyptians are well-researched, we can't say. But just a few years later, the same magazine makes it clear that a real connoisseur should and can get to a museum or bookstore to learn more about rugs:

"Not very long ago oriental carpets were bought only as house decorations. It is not much more than a decade since our museums accorded them notice on their own account. Today, however, we have turned over a new leaf. Bode, who may in one word be called the magnate of modern art dealing, has devoted intense labour to carpets and filled with them two rooms in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum at Berlin. Since the transition of our interest in this species of art from art-craft to the actual art museums, the carpet has become a distinguished gentleman in the salons of science. I know of at least half a dozen books already written or in the press which will go into the new problem. The first of these works – a standard work in compass and contents – lies before me: F.R. Martin’s 'History of Oriental Carpets before 1800.'

The article, which appeared in 1908 translated from German, is signed Professor Josef Strzygowski. Pictured here is the Central Asian collection of the Russian pavillion at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, an event that greatly increased Western interest in the rugs of Turkestan.

Today, good taste, a collector's passion, and scholarly interest are all part of our outlook on oriental carpets. And there is still a sense of medieval awe that overwhelms anyone standing before a masterwork of the Mamluke, Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal courts.

But contemporary writers also express something new, and that is anxiety - with a capital A - about something no previous generation had to think about. Today, we know that the chance of finding any new, as yet undiscovered, weaving cultures is nill and that, meanwhile, all the known weaving cultures are rapidly modernizing.

That gives rise to worries that come in both mild and potent varieties. The mild version is that carpet collecting has now reached a dead end and the thrill of new discoveries must give way to recycling what we have. The potent version is fear that the growing globalization of the carpet market will eventually drive many weaving cultures to extinction.

Here is the abstract of a scholarly paper presented in 1999 by anthropologist Tom O'Neill of Canada's University of Western Ontario. It describes how classical Tibetan weaving (below left) has turned into modern Tibetan-refugee weaving (below right) in Nepal:

"The popularity of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet in the European hand-knotted carpet market created a modern industry in peri-urban Kathmandu, Nepal, that established the Tibetan refugee population there as well as a new class of Nepalese entrepreneur. This paper employs Igor Kopytoff's (1986) perspective on the social life of things and Keith Hart's (1982) definition of commoditization to argue that the short career of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet as an export commodity has been one of increasing homogenization that has transformed the materials, weaving techniques, and meanings of the carpet.Easy access to the lucrative 'middle' markets of Europe has meant that Tibeto-Nepalese carpets are now standardized to compete with other categories of floor coverings, and that the unique hand-knotted quality desired by connoisseurs and collectors is slowly being eliminated."

The article is entitled 'The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet' and appears in the Journal of Material Culture, 1999.

How will writers of future eras view the art of oriental carpets? As the 21st century only just begins, it is far to early to guess. But if the past is any guide, the subject will remain as full of surprises tomorrow as it is today or was yesterday.




Related Links:

Edgar Allen Poe: The Philosophy of Furniture

The Burlington Magazine: On Carpets

The Burlington Magazine: Oriental Carpets

Tom O’Neill: The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet

Friday, 18 July 2008

In Afghanistan's Turkmen Rug Belt, It's Globalization vs. Tradition

ANDKHOY, Afghanistan; August 1, 2008 -- Twice a week the men whose wives and daughters weave the traditional red rugs of Central Asia come to this town in northern Afghanistan to sell their work.

The carpet bazaar is a rectangular courtyard with a two-floor gallery of traders’ stalls on every side, and the men approach it with trepidation.

Many of the men have dropped in as onlookers on the previous market day to learn what they can about the going prices. Now, accompanied by friends for support, they file into the bazaar and line the sides with their bundled rugs.

When the traders come by, the bargaining begins. First, the carpet is spread face-down on the dusty ground. The uncut top is of no interest; it is only the back the trader wants to see.

He inspects for knot density and evenness of weave. He folds the edges to see if they meet in the middle. And he looks for evenness of tension by carefully measuring the length and width at various points. And all the time he is checking for flaws.

Then he makes an offer: $75. The seller, who wants $120 won’t hear of it. Slowly the offer creeps up to $85 and onlookers begin to exhort the seller to agree. The trader tries to grab the seller’s hand and pump it to show there is a deal. A third person joins the negotiations, probably an agent of the trader, and pretends to be a fair-minded broker.

But still the seller refuses until, finally, the meeting breaks up. No deal.

The seller will try several more traders before he chooses between accepting what seems to be today’s price or coming back another day. He knows that on Mondays and Thursday, so long as this is Andkhoy, the traders will be here.

Andkhoy’s bazaar is described in fascinating detail in a report prepared for the World Bank. The authors, Adam Pain and Moharram Ali of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit surveyed the town’s carpet business over the years 2001 to 2003.

Their work offers a look into a world of sellers and buyers that few Westerners ever see as the famous red rugs of Afghanistan begin their journey to the outside world.

The men who come to the market are heads of Turkmen households that produce carpets on an independent basis. These families have the financial means to purchase wool on credit and usually have at least one other source of income such as land or livestock. They are the most successful producers because when they sell their carpet, they keep the full selling price.

How much can these independent weavers earn? The profit depends a great deal on the quality of wool they are able to buy.

If they weave with low-quality wool from Pakistan, Pain and Ali calculate (in 2003) that they will earn about $25 per square meter from a traditional red rug that sells in the United Kingdom for $250 per square meter.

But if they weave what is known locally as a ‘Biljeek,’ that is a rug woven with finer wool imported from Belgium, they can earn $58 dollars per square meter on a red rug that sells retail for $429 per square meter.

Pain and Ali estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of the weavers in the Andkhoy area are independent. The rest work under entirely different arrangements and, in fact, never come to the bazaar to sell at all. Instead, they work under profit sharing or wage-labor contracts.

A minority of the contract weavers --like the independents -- still produce the Turkmens' traditional repeating ‘gul’ designs or more recent varities of red rugs such as Khal Muhammadi or Mauri. Exporters’ agents provide them the wool and the dimensions and the weavers get 50 percent of the rug’s local market value.

But today the majority of local weavers (the researchers estimate 50 to 70 percent) produce carpets that have no local roots at all. Agents give them some $35 square meter (for a carpet that retails for $549 per square meter) and wool from the Mideast to produce Chobis that have a modified Indo-Persian design.

The Chobis -- which ironically use natural dyes while the ‘traditional’ local designs use chemical dyes - strongly resemble the commercially successful Zieglers produced in northern Persia by Western firms in the early 1900s.

Pain and Ali say that Chobi production, which originated in the Afghan refugee camps around Peshawar, came to Andkhoy as the refugees – both Turkmens and Uzbeks -- returned home. The wage-labor terms pay as well or better than profit sharing and minimize the weavers’ risk. That makes it attractive to poor weavers even though the agents commonly reduce the final wage payment if they find the slightest flaws.

Now, as carpet production in northern Afghanistan keeps expanding, the number of contracted weavers keeps growing.

Pain and Ali note that there are clear economic benefits as the contract weaving joins sharecropping and agricultural labor as the mainstays of people too poor to own land or livestock.

But the authors also sound a warning.

They observe that the happiest position for artisans is when retail customers recognize their work as the expression of a unique artistic heritage and willingly pay more for it than they do for generic goods.

However, if generic weavings become what Afghanistan is best known for, they say, "there is little hope at present that Afghanistan’s carpets will be able to achieve that position."

(Photos of Andkhoy market from: Alti Bolaq)

(Photos of Turkmen Ersari carpets from: Carpet Collection)




Related Links:

Understanding Markets in Afghanistan: A case study of carpets and the Andkhoy carpet market, by Adam Pain and Moharram Ali

From Andkhoy to Jeddah

Habibullah Kerimi Making a Life and Rugs in Exile

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Tribal Rugs: How The 1960s Changed The West’s Taste In Oriental Carpets

PRAGUE, July 18, 2008 – In the mid-1960s and into the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of young Europeans and Americans traveled East – to Morocco and Turkey or, much farther, to Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal.

To the East, as in this verse from ‘Marrakesh Express:”

“Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home …”

The sudden longing for places with strong colors, tribal designs, and mysticism had an enormous influence on Western taste in oriental carpets. But before considering how much, it is time for the story of ‘Mercedes’ Werner.

Werner, his first name, is a retired German antiques dealer who divides his time today between Wurzburg and Prague. But even a few minutes after meeting him, it becomes clear he considers his spiritual home to be Turkey.

It began in the 1960’s, when he flew to Istanbul for a short vacation. He fell in love with the city and quickly realized he would need a car if he wanted to explore the country. So he flew back to Wurzburg for his old Mercedes and then began regularly driving 20 to 24 hours non-stop from Germany to Turkey.

To pay for his trips, he carried back Turkish rugs, artifacts and, because it was so easy to give the Turkish border guards 5 DM, even antiquities. But the story he likes to tell most is not business related. It is about a roadside village near Lake Van, which had nothing to offer except scenery.

Werner stopped so often at this village that he became very attached to it. He exchanged stories with the people at his favorite restaurant, became friends with the owner, and learned all about the local music. Then, for many years, he stopped going there as business took him elsewhere.

One day, when he was already middle-aged, Werner was home watching a documentary about eastern Turkey. Suddenly he heard the same village music he knew so well and there on the screen was the restaurant owner being asked if tourists ever came to such a remote area.

“No,” said the restaurant owner, “they only go to the seaside resorts.” And he added, “It’s not like 30 years ago when people came here just to see our mountains and learn about how we live.”

“What kind of people were those?” the interviewer asked in surprise.

“Well, like Mercedes Werner,” the restaurant owner said.

Werner says that when heard that he broke down in tears. He didn't know he had this affectionate nickname. And he had not realized how much his visits had been something extraordinary not only for himself but for his friends. The next year he returned to the village and revived what he now sees as a very important part of his life.

Interestingly, there were lots of Werners who came out of the adventures of the 1960s and 70s. Dennis Dodds, the head of the ICOC (International Conference on Carpets), says many current rug dealers got their start just that way. The rugs they discovered on their travels did much to shift their generation’s taste toward village and tribal designs and away from the elaborate city rugs favored by their parents.

In Istanbul, the travelers – including Dodds – gathered at the Pudding Shop, where they exchanged information and contacts for trips across Turkey and on to India. The café’s owner was said to be so helpful that he once gave a chair to a customer to sit on for the journey to Kathmandu. That was when all the usual seats in the minibus were full.

Dodds says that because the travelers were on a low budget and keen to get in touch with nature and natural lifestyles, they were attracted by affordable village and tribal pieces rather than by Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal-derived designs. The geometric patterns of the rugs they brought home to Europe and America fit nicely with the 1960s fashion of Op Art and they soon became the new market standard.

What weavings most owe their success to these years? Probably kilims. They suddenly became hugely popular, in part because they are so boldly graphic – offering just colors and patterns. By contrast, pile carpets add a third dimension - texture - which diminishes the clarity of the design.

The 1960s and 70s are long gone, along with long hair and long, strange trips. But it is interesting to realize that the aesthetic tastes the travelers helped set for rugs are still very current, and probably will remain so until the next great shift in Western pop culture.

(Kilims pictured here are from Turkish Culture)



Related Links

The Pudding Shop

Wikipedia: The Hippie Trail

Touring The Hippie Trail Today

YouTube: Afghanistan On The Hippie Trail 1967

YouTube: London To Kathmandu Overland

YouTube: Les Annees Hippies au Maroc (Part 1)

YouTube: Les Annees Hippies au Maroc (Part 2)