Ikat is a fabric that got its name from the resist dye technique used to make its patterns. But I’d like to show you ikat from a different perspective. In this article, we will look at ikat not as a unique artistic creation, but as a social phenomenon whose role has changed from one historical period to another.
Professor, Chief Researcher at the Institute of Art Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Lecturer in the Republican Scientific Consulting Center NC Uzbektourism.
Ikat. What does it mean?
Ikat fabrics are found among many peoples, including in Central and South East Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, West Africa, and Latin America. But in Uzbekistan, specifically, the fabric became a kind of prestige symbol in the country’s culture. The local name for ikat is abr fabrics (abr means “cloud” in Persian), since the patterns resemble light clouds floating in the sky and reflected in the water of a river. In Europe, resist-dye fabrics came to be called ikat, from the Malay term mengikat, meaning to “wrap” or “tie” (i.e. to tie the threads during the dyeing process to prevent selected areas from coloration). This name was given by European scholars.
Where and when did ikat first appear? Unfortunately, this remains a mystery. Ikat possibly had one place of origin, but it is equally likely that it appeared in different regions and countries independently.
Interestingly, the characteristic effect of ikat—the vibrating colors flowing into one another—can also be found in the decoration of medieval paper (called abri in Uzbek, ebru in Turkish, suminagashi in Japanese), and in Chinese ceramics in a style called san qi. These parallels between abr fabrics, abri paper, and abri ceramics point out a new direction for studying the genesis of the abr style.
The effect of fluid colors created by abri/ebru paper also suggests a new possibility for the origin of the word abr: it may have come from the word abrang, meaning “watercolor.” Therefore, abr fabrics can most likely be translated as “watercolor fabrics.”
From Sogdian silk to Arab cotton
The resist-dyed textiles probably came to Central Asia with the Arab conquest. Before the Arab invasion, the region was famous for completely different fabrics – the famous Sogdian silk samites, which were the main commodity on the Great Silk Road.
After the Arab invasion, however, silk samites disappeared. They were replaced by different types of cotton fabrics and, first of all, resist-dyed ikats, known now as asb in Arabic (from the Arab verb asaba, “to tie up”).
It is interesting to compare Sogdian samites with Arabic asb textiles. Three important differences stand out.
First, samites were woven from silk, but Islam regards silk as a luxury item and forbids wearing it. Famously, the Prophet himself forbade men from wearing gold rings and bracelets, as well as expensive silk. According to the Qur’an, silk is permitted only as a reward in the next world. Therefore, the asb fabrics worn by Muslims are exclusively made of cotton. Cotton was a fabric consistent with the Islamic idea of egalitarianism and was not considered a luxury, thus wearing it was permitted. The Arabs themselves did not produce cotton but bought it from neighboring Yemen. Surviving examples date to the 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries, but the fabric is mentioned in written sources from the 6th century. The Metropolitan Museum holds a wonderful collection of these textiles.
Second, Sogdian textiles included images of birds and animals, which were the incarnations of Zoroastrian gods. Decoration of this sort was another reason they were forbidden in the Islamic period. By contrast, the patterns of asb textiles were exclusively abstract, with no images whatsoever, as required by Muslim aesthetics.
Third, Arabic writing was either embroidered on asb textiles or written on them in black ink. These textiles with writing are known as tiraz. They were made in specialized workshops under royal control. This is the key factor that allows us to see asb textiles as having a religious dimension, since writing in Islam had a sacred aspect.
These differences help explain why the production of silk samites stopped and local weavers started producing fabrics only from cotton, with abstract designs.
Arabic epigraphy on fabrics, carpets, utensils, and the walls of buildings marked the period when Islam was conquering new territories, presenting Qur’anic postulates to the indigenous peoples and winning them over with wise moral instruction and benevolent sayings. Even if the inscription couldn’t be read, it was taken as a symbol of the holiest object for Muslims, the Qur’an. Altogether, inscriptions (as Lisa Golombek has expressed it) “performed the same role as figures did in paganism and Christianity”.
Therefore, thanks to inscriptions we can regard Arab ikats or asb textiles as important religious symbols transmitting new religious rules and norms. During the first centuries of Islam, when the religion was striving to win people’s hearts and minds, textiles acquired a social function and became one of the instruments in the struggle for faith, as symbols of new, Islamic ideals.
We can illustrate this vividly with some examples of pieces that have repeating inscriptions, embroidered in floral kufic script, reading al-mulk lillah (“Dominion belongs to God”).
These inscriptions emphasize, once again, the role of textiles in expressing and spreading new religious ideals. The cotton asb textiles that replaced the famous Sogdian silks were expressions of religious piety.
Over time, silk began to reappear in the textile production of the Islamic world as the demand for luxury items proved stronger than religious prohibitions. As a compromise, half-silk fabrics like adras also appeared.
It is hard to say today how long the period without silk lasted after the ban on producing silk samites began in Central Asia. In any case, Sogdian silk designs did not disappear without a trace: we can see traces of them on abr textiles of the 19th century. Large circle motifs are distant memories of Sogdian medallions surrounded by pearls. Examples like this show us that the period during which the production of silk stopped in Central Asia was not long enough for the Sogdian legacy to be forgotten.
Ikat in the Great Game
The heyday of silk production in Central Asia was the 19th century, the era of the khanates. It is hard to say that abr textiles had religious significance during this period. These luxury silks were an important part of the urban economy and brilliant works of art. Abr textiles were worn by everyone, including local residents and neighboring people representing other ethnic groups, such as Kazakhs or Bukharan Jews, men, women and children, poor and rich…
During the final third of the 19th century, silk acquired another important function. It became, in a way, the Bukharan Emirate’s trump card in its game of foreign policy.
From the 1860s until 1917, the new silk road, or (as they called it) the Northern Silk Road, linked Bukhara with the capital of the Russian Empire. Caravans loaded with first-class textiles traveled continuously to Saint Petersburg. Rich gifts represented the emirs’ attempts to keep their territories relatively independent up to the October 1917 revolution in Petrograd.
Unlike the famous Great silk road, the “northern silk road” had a diplomatic as well as an economic significance. The photograph on the right shows the Emir of Bukhara, Seyyid Mir Alim Khan with tsar Nicholay Romanov and his wife.
Russian tsars were happy to receive ikats as gifts, even though they didn’t wear them—at least, no such photographs have survived.
Nevertheless, please note that Uzbek ikat eventually became part of Russian national dress as a valuable and exotic textile.
In addition, the Russians who poured en masse into Central Asia seeking new opportunities after the region was conquered by the Russian empire, enjoyed dressing up in local costumes, as attested by numerous photographs from this period.
Of course, this isn’t about fashion. It’s a statement about political realities, a sort of game played by the winners, who feel like the new lords of conquered territories.
On the back side of this photograph, from an unknown family archive, the notes read, “Aunt and uncle Ivanov’s, Tashkent, 8/XI-17 year and below: uncle Vasiliy Grigoryevich and aunt Pavla Semenovna.”
In the Soviet period, people from the art world liked wearing fantastically colored ikats to emphasize their bohemian lifestyle. The photo on the left is a portrait of Kirill Kustodiev, son of the famous Russian artist Boris Kustodiev, in a gorgeous robe made of Uzbek ikat. On the right is a portrait of the academic Severtsov, and the no-less-famous architect Aleksei Shchusev who built the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square and the Navoi Theater in Tashkent.
The leaders of the Soviet Union – Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev – also liked wearing traditional national costumes from Central Asia, to proclaim ideas of a united country and friendship between peoples. At the same time, we can see the hidden political meaning in these photographs – they convey a message about power and submission.
And, of course, in the early years of Soviet rule, the local population, both men and women, wore ikat as they did prior to Soviet rule.
In the 20th century, abr silk clothes were for ordinary, everyday wear. Abr fabrics were produced in weaving factories. However, in the Soviet period, production of silk fabrics by individual artisans was outlawed as part of the prohibition of private property. The new economic conditions had a negative effect on all types of traditional crafts.
Fashion as Soft Power
The ancient art of silk weaving had a rebirth after 1991 when Uzbekistan gained independence. Changes in the country’s economic structure and the emergence of private entrepreneurship made it possible for artisans to start producing silk textiles once again. Uzbek ikat began to be noticed by the world of haute couture and leading international fashion designers.
Sophia Loren appeared in an ikat dress on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1966—but the real heyday of ikat on the world’s fashion podiums began in the 2000s.
In his spring 2005 collection, one of the pillars of the American fashion world, Oscar de la Renta introduced a number of designs with patterns created by the weaver and artist Rasul Mirzaazmedov from Marghilan. De la Renta introduced Uzbek ikat to the whole world.
Others who have used ikat textiles in their creations include Balenciaga (in 2007), Gucci (in 2010), Roberto Cavalli, and additional designers.
Their designs are united by the common theme of Tribal Chic, and there is no doubt they served to popularize Central Asia’s culture abroad.
Nowadays, ikat has nothing to do with religion or politics – it is simply a beautiful fabric.
The transformation of ikat does not end there, however. After appearing in various manifestations—as a symbol of religious piety, a symbol of power, an item of high fashion and of everyday clothing—ikat burst into the field of art, revealing new and unexplored facets.
The first meeting of ikat and modern art occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, among the Russian avant-garde. The influence of these fabrics on the work of abstract artists and expressionists has been stressed by many researchers, as painters turned to the multicolored East in search of inspiration.
The theme of “The Russian Avant-Guard and Silks of Bukhara” was at the center of a special exhibition organized by the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) in 2006. In particular, as the exhibition catalog noted, “It is hard to say how familiar Wassily Kandinsky was with silk items from Bukhara, but one cannot help mentioning his words after he visited the exhibition of oriental art held in Munich in 1908, which was visited also by Matisse and a number of other artists. He wrote in his memoirs: ‘Robes sound like music.’”
It is possible that ikat, with its “over-the-top” appearance, influenced the development not only of Russian, but also of international modernism and postmodernism. The textile creations of the medieval masters were prophetic for many painters of the 20th century.
I can offer many more examples of direct or indirect connections between ikat and modern art. But I would like to focus on just two more. The first is the trompe-l’œil creations of Countess Borshgrav. Her painted robes made of paper are certainly charming, and her overall work is very decorative. To the left is a photo of her 2012 exhibition at the Hillwood Estate in Washington.
If we turn to the creations of the Uzbek artist Dilyara Kaipova, they aim, through ikat, to draw attention to the acute problems that modern society faces. Dilyara believes that ikat is the best way to express the identity of Uzbek culture, at the same time as announcing its destruction under the influence of globalization.
This destruction is manifested in the fact that images of popular movie characters or superheroes from European and American pop culture suddenly appear in traditional textile patterns: the logos of Batman and Captain America, the mask of Darth Vader, and many others. Yet the combination of elements that appear, at first glance, to be alien to one another does not create conflict; components taken from a local ethnic context and those taken from a globalized context coexist here with surprising ease. Mixing the aesthetics of abr textiles with symbols of modern mass culture, Dilyara simultaneously invites the viewer to participate in an intricate intellectual game of recognition.
The death of tradition or its renewal? Each of us can try to answer that question for ourselves.
Thus, ikat has been an exponent of different ideas in different historical periods. It has been a manifestation of religion, a symbol of political ambitions, a fashion world craze, and a phenomenon of modern and contemporary art. These transformations are as diverse as the patterns of this amazing fabric which has fascinated us for centuries.