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Silk, gold and sublime artistry: The inimitable world of Islamic textiles

Christina Sumner OAM, weaver, teacher and former curator at the Powerhouse Museum, 9 May 2018

HEIDI PRITCHARD: Good afternoon everybody. Well, see, you can tell I’ve spent too many years as a teacher. Good afternoon everybody. Sorry, I don’t know how I defaulted back there. My name is Heidi Pritchard, and I’m the Manager of Public Programs here at the National Museum. I’d like to welcome you to this, the second lecture series. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of our lands on which we meet today. I acknowledge their culture and their ongoing commitment to the land.

Now today’s lecture, Silk, gold, and sublime artistry, the beautiful world of Islamic textiles, is going to focus on some of the stunning textiles that we have featured in the exhibition. Who’s actually been to the exhibition? Great. I really encourage you to go and spend some time in it. It is stunning. The nice thing is it’s free, so it means you can come back as often as you want and really immerse yourself.

Now Christina Sumner is the Vice-President of The Asian Arts Society of Australia and was formerly the Principal Curator of Design and Society at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. I’ve noticed that all of her friends have also have similarly beautiful taste in textiles, from meeting you all.

Christina has a background in Middle Eastern archaeology and she is primarily a textile historian whose research interest spans out of West, Central, South, and Southeast Asia. She’s curated numerous exhibitions for the Powerhouse Museum, she’s co-authored their associated publications, and has lectured widely. I think we’re very lucky to have her here today. I know in developing this lecture series, it’s been great fun to be talking to her on the phone.

Now in putting together this lecture series, we have consulted very widely with the Islamic community. When the exhibition itself was first pitched to the Museum, we struggled to understand it. We struggled to understand why the Vatican, of all places, would have this incredible collection of Islamic garb. It wasn’t until we fully understood the title, ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’, that the exhibition came into focus.

Suddenly the concepts of interfaith and cultural understanding were brought to the forefront of our understanding. In putting together this series of programmes and events, what we’ve tried to do is harness that interfaith, cross-cultural understanding. I do hope that this second lecture in this series really starts to illuminate some of the textiles for you. Please join me in welcoming Christina Sumner.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: Thank you, Heidi. I guess we better get started. I should confess at the beginning that I am going to read this because it follows a storyline, and so I don’t just wander off and talk about textiles for the next hour, which is what I’m going to do anyway. These textiles of all sorts have been my passion since childhood. The path of my life, including nearly 30 years at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, has brought me so many opportunities to engage with outstandingly beautiful textiles, both Islamic and otherwise.

I’m afraid I can’t speak Arabic and I can’t read Arabic, but I have been fortunate to spend quite a lot of time in many countries where the Islamic faith is strong. Of central importance in my work at the [Powerhouse] Museum was to encourage cross-cultural understanding, and we must all, I think, in what is without a doubt a deeply troubled world, do what we can, in the words of Mathew Trinca, who’s the director of this museum, to promote dialogue and peaceful coexistence as well as recognition and respect for world cultures.

My aim today is to try and deepen our understanding of just one aspect of this complex and beautiful world, these Islamic textiles and dress, fine examples of which you will, if you haven’t been already, see in this exhibition.

I’ve divided the talk into three sections. Firstly, this brief introduction to textiles themselves. Secondly, some guidelines to assist us in looking at Islamic textiles. Thirdly, given the enormous geographical, historical, and cultural dimensions of our topic, a summary review of these splendid textiles from the early Islamic period to the present day. Let’s go for it.

[Points to slides] Textiles. These images remind us of their extreme antiquity and their vital utilitarian presence in our lives. The earliest evidence known of flax spinning comes from Georgia and dates to some 30,000 amazing years ago. On the top left is a fossilised cord, which was found in Southern France and dates to 20,000 years ago. It took quite a long time for all of this process to happen until recently.

Thinking again about textiles, because they’re made from organic materials, or at least they were way back then, they were very vulnerable to wear and tear over time and the vagaries of climate as well as serendipity would result – Those fragments that survived from long ago, rare and precious, and a job lot. They’re a random mix.

[Points to slide] Lower left is a pleated linen dress from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and top right, on the centre top, is one of the Tarim Basin mummies, which were preserved in the dry sands of the Taklimakan Desert for some 4000 years. Amazing. [Points to slide] Lower right, which you’ll recognise, is the oldest carpet in the world, which is so sophisticated in its execution. It dates to about 400–500 BCE, but its execution is so elegant and sophisticated that the carpet art must have already been known for a long time.

[Points to slides] More textiles. They’re ever-present around us and have a tendency to be beautiful, but are perhaps, above all, useful. Unlike pottery, stone, metal, and wood, textiles are malleable and can be folded and manipulated to cover and wrap us, to shelter, curtain, transport, and cushion us. I’m sure there are lots of other functions as well. They also offer us a nonverbal language that speaks of our history and our customs and our geography, aesthetics, and beliefs. Lots of different functions there.

Textiles as dress. When textiles are formed into clothing, textiles mirror our bodies and protect and warm and adorn us. Clothes, in particular, are eloquent vehicles through which we communicate our identity and our cultural affiliations, our status, and often our economic standing as well.

Here’s some very different and recognisable solutions to dress. There’s this Moroccan villager dressed in his blue jalabiya; four young, Kyrgyz women demonstrating different headdresses between their cultural groups; three women from Damascus; two contemporary, well-dressed housemen; and three Uzbek women, who are sightseeing near Samarkand.

This map is from John Gillow’s book, Textiles of the Islamic World. At this point, I’d like to remind us, me as well, of the geographic breadth of the Islamic world. You can see it clearly there.

This brings us to the second section of my talk, beginning with asking the question: what do we mean by Islamic textiles? Perhaps, surprisingly, answering this question isn’t as straightforward as we might expect. There are basically two different approaches with some complications.

On the one hand, Islamic textiles may, strictly speaking, be understood to mean those textiles that’s specifically referred to a Muslim context or which have a ritual function. These textiles exemplify this definition. On the left is a black silk fragment in the exhibition. It’s believed to come from a kiswa, just a ceremonial cloth that covers the Kaaba building in Mecca. My apologies to Arabic speakers for any errors in pronunciation.

This was woven around 1700, and it bears selected verses from the Qur’an, with calligraphy worked in silver and gold. Each year, on the ninth day of the Hajj, the Kaaba is washed before the new kiswa is draped over it. The old one is then cut into pieces and donated and distributed as gifts.

You can get a sense of the massive scale of the kiswa textile, the whole cover, from the photograph of the Kaaba in the centre. The shrine, of course, plays a crucial role in Islamic history, as Muslims are required to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives, as long as they are financially and physically able.

Top right is what’s called a kandil or separator, also in the exhibition that’s part of the kiswa. At lower right is an embroidered silk bag, which is made for the magnificent key to the door of the Kaaba. The inscriptions on it are from the Qur’an, with information about it being made in Saudi Arabia in 1986.

I mentioned complications in definition, and there are established conventions when it comes to all art produced in the Islamic heartlands of Western Asia – that is, Egypt, and the areas of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – as they embody the aesthetic benchmark against which all others should be assessed. We may, thus, choose to expand our definition to include textiles produced in those areas. Historically, this makes sense as it was textiles such as the silks and carpets of Ottoman and Persian looms and the linen of Muslims of Egypt and Syria that charmed the customers of the ancient world and beyond.

On the other hand, Islamic textiles may be understood more broadly speaking to include all textiles and dress produced by Muslims for use by Muslim people in Muslim countries. According to this definition, wherever we find Muslim people, from Morocco and Spain in the west through to Southeast Asia and China in the east, there we will also find Islamic textiles.

Here, for example, we can see three from the exhibition. Top right, a Syrian meshlah, a short-sleeve coat, a pair of West African wide trousers, and, lower left, Central Asian dowry embroidery – these objects are all from the Vatican museums – the dowry embroidery known as the suzani.

These textiles all come from Muslim countries, but they and others like them are customarily perceived as Syrian or African or Asian rather than Islamic per se. They’re characterised more by their cultures. Although, as we shall see, they also abide by Islamic ornamental conventions. While we can look at textiles and dress like these from different cultures and compare them with each other, it is, of course, important to remember that they are integral components of the much broader material culture of their own societies. Textile imagery relates directly to that of the architecture, ceramics, metalwork, glasswork, et cetera, produced in the same cultural contexts.

As Islam is not only a religion but a way of life, it fostered the development of a distinctive artistic culture with its own unique language. This is reflected in art and architecture and objects throughout the Muslim world.

These are some examples of the sublime artistry practised by Muslims and also, we should note, by the indigenous artisans of the lands they conquered. Lower left is the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Yes, that is me on the right-hand side there. The Mezquita, the beautiful Mezquita in Cordoba, bottom right, and the Taj Mahal in India, a mosque lamp from Egypt, and an Iznik disc from Turkey, just as examples.

Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by Muslim societies has unifying ornamental conventions. Perhaps the most important of these is a preference for all-over surface decoration, which we can see in all except perhaps the plate at the top left, which is a very early example. The decoration is accomplished by three basic components: calligraphy; geometric patterns; and plant patterns or vegetable patterns.

Generally speaking, we can say that the qualities that distinguish the Islamic textiles from those produced outside the Muslim world are the use of rich ornamentation and abstract designs that sought to avoid the portrayal of humans and animals. Although these, in fact, comprise a fourth form of ornament, of which more later.

Plant forms and geometric patterns proliferate, while the ornamental nature of Arabic script, which we can see here on the left and lower right, lends itself to beautiful calligraphic ornament. That enshrines Qur’anic verses, and so at the same time bring spiritual benefits.

Looking more closely at Arabic scripts, the most important are al-Kufic, al-Naskh, and al-Thuluth. You can see them all here. During different periods and in different places, calligraphy has varied in the way it’s been creatively used. In some cases, it’s the dominant decorative element, while highly regarded calligraphic works are sometimes enhanced with decorative frames to give them prominence, or they’re integrated into overall decorative themes and schemes.

[Points to slide] Calligraphic ornament. Calligraphy is regarded as the most sublime form of Islamic art, not only on paper but in architecture and in many decorative objects including textiles. It’s significant that the Qur’an was transmitted in Arabic and that the highly ornamental Arabic script has enormous decorative potential. Taken together, religious texts and ornamental calligraphy had an underlying talismanic component. Although not all Muslims, who would have been literate and able to read them, all understood that this was a means to transmit the message of Islam.

The top right is an early fragment of an Egyptian turban that bears an embroidered Qur’anic inscription. It’s a type of textile that’s known as a tiraz. We’ll see more of those later. On the left is a Spanish, very early Spanish, 14th-century Spanish, silk. At the lower right is a very, very stylized Kufic inscription on one of the mosques in Samarkand.

Geometric patterning is the second non-figurative type of decoration in Islamic art, decorating not only the surfaces of architecture but also serving as a decorative element on a wide range of objects. While geometric ornamentation is now associated with the Islamic world, its sources can be found among Greek, Roman, and Sasanian art. Islamic artists took key elements from these classic traditions, elaborated upon them, to create a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. I think we can see that in the Ismail Samanid mausoleum on the left. It’s an amazing survival of a 10th century Bukhara.

These geometric patterns we can see somehow seem remarkably free, perhaps because of their repetitive quality. This also offers a possibility of infinity, also, again, conveying a spiritual message.

The Islamic designers seem to have an endless ingenious appetite for exploring a huge range of design possibilities offered by the natural variety, in plant life, calligraphy, and geometry. As time passed, the stylization tended to become even more complex. Now, what did I miss? Plant ornamentation. Let me move this on. There we go. Plant ornamentation.

Moving on to the fact that Islamic ornament tends to be composed of small units. Very often it can be endlessly and decoratively multiplied. They can also be combined in a synthesis. Here we’ve got plant ornament and calligraphy. These ornaments, this style of ornament, can be used to learn in Islamic textiles or in combination, as they are here, on tughra, on paper, Ottoman tughra.

This is a gorgeous combination of tiny, tiny repeating plant motifs and the essential calligraphy. Top right is an ornamental, decorative batik from Java, which is similarly ornamented with plant motifs and calligraphy. The calligraphy is also confined within these bird motifs, and that epitomises perhaps the remarkably enduring nature of Islamic arts.

More synthesis, this time geometry and calligraphy. Calligraphy combines superbly with geometric design. If you look around the lower part of those pointed tabs around the bottom of this talismanic shirt from India, the entire Qur’an is drawn within them, around the base of the shirt. I’ve also included a small example of an Iranian tile, which shows a synthesis of geometry and plant motifs.

This beautiful textile in the exhibition, in which all three forms of ornament are combined, this panel was probably made in Istanbul in the early 1900s and features a gorgeous balance of the geometric circles and stars and zigzag within the overall rectangular shape. The calligraphy in the borders and in the central tughra, and in the spaces in between, are filled with flowers.

I mentioned figural representation earlier. This is the fourth and quite different style of ornament in Islamic art. Textiles, as you can see here, were all produced during the early Islamic period and, over time, however, as you can see bottom right, as Islam emerged, inscriptions began to replace these images.

Resistance to the representation of living beings in Islamic art is well-documented and stems from the belief that only God can create living forms. However, although this opposition holds true for religious art and architecture, the portrayal of living forms has sometimes flourished in the secular sphere. It’s not clear whether woven textiles were included in the original 7th century prescription, and the artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands inevitably influence the development of Islamic art. Hence, the textiles that you can see here.

By the late 15th century, however, figural representation was generally forbidden within Sunni Islam. Shia attitudes, centred in Persia, were more accepting as we can see here, or more permissive perhaps.

Safavid textiles of the 16th and 17th centuries often included human and animal motifs. The reason for this is usually given as Shia permission as opposed to Sunni prohibition. But there’s also a striking resemblance between the figures we see in Persian textiles and the ones portrayed in Persian narrative painting. As with other forms of Islamic ornamentation, artists were free to adapt and stylize human and animal forms, which gave rise to a wonderful variety of motifs, which are, as here, often combined with plants and flowers quite exquisitely.

Definition and ways of looking at the ornament on Islamic textiles. Now a brief note about – having looked at those, turn to what can only really be a whistle-stop review, I’m afraid, of the history of the Islamic world and the textiles and dress which so capability and gloriously adorned it.

This map shows the extraordinary extent of territorial expansion. As the Arab explorers and traders took Islam with them to the peoples beyond the Arabian heartland, in the Arabian Peninsula, this expansion took Islamic culture and beliefs into Byzantine Egypt and Syria and Sasanian Iran and Iraq.

The selection of Ali as fourth caliph was disputed by the Umayyad family of Syria and led to the lasting break in the Muslim community between Shias and Sunnis. Under the Umayyads, the Muslims expanded west along the African coastline, as you can see, and into Spain, northwards into Spain, and then east, all the way to China via the famed Silk Road’s network.

Back in Western Asia, the Umayyads were ousted by the Abbasids, however, who moved their capital, Baghdad, where Iranian culture was strong, trade and industry generally flourished, especially in textiles. In the following centuries, more divisions occurred, resulting in different lines of Islamic authority and, consequently, different courts.

As Islam spread, taxes and tribute to rulers became payable in exchange for protection, and these were regularly paid in heaps of gorgeous textiles, as they were very highly prized. The general fracturing came to an end, however, in the middle 1100s, when Saladin united the Muslim chieftains, sent the Crusaders packing, and asserted Sunni over Shia as a state doctrine.

Great cargoes of textiles moved out of Western Asia to Europe in the west, and eastward to China, by both land and sea. Development of this trading network was facilitated by the common language of Arabic and shared Islamic values. In addition to the exchange of goods, there were, of course, cultural and ideological interchanges, as well as an exchange of technologies, including complex weaving and textile production skills.

Another quick look at John Gillow’s map. We can see the spread of Islam over time, sometimes through conquest, but mostly through trade. There was an absorbing interplay between Islamic culture, artistic and cultural traditions, and those of the indigenous societies they encountered. This gave rise to the wonderful blend of arts and beliefs we can include in the broader understanding of Islamic textiles and dress.

Given the intrinsically fragile nature of textiles, physical evidence for early Islamic textiles is understandably limited. But, by contrast, there’s textual evidence for huge quantities of amazing quality, and these were recorded by geographers and travellers and traders, etc. We only have to look at mediaeval manuscripts and miniatures to appreciate the enormous range of richly patterned silks, which were worn by affluent Muslims across the empire. What has actually survived, through the efforts of archaeologists and collectors and museums, tend to represent the higher end of the market, so the full range of manufacture, massive manufacture in the early years is not represented.

These three silks are from the looms of highly skilled Spanish, Central Asian, and North African weavers. Their obvious quality and diverse origin speak for the widespread artistry of weavers and the textile industry as a whole in the early Islamic world. You can see the relative scale of these classic Sasanian-style textiles and their rondelles in the image, top right, to the famous trio of dignitaries in the mural on the walls of Afrasiab, which is early Ancient Samarkand.

The manufacture of textiles dominated the economy of the Islamic world for generations. Wealth was regularly measured in fabric at all levels of society. Luxury textiles and dress were sure indicators of authority and prosperity and the tributes, as I mentioned, were regularly paid in cloth. Gifts of gorgeous robes, known as khil’a in Arabic, or [pronounces word as hila], were given as patronage and to reward service. This is a practice that has endured through later periods to the present day, certainly in Central Asia.

Also, very early, and remembering the options we discussed earlier for defining Islamic textiles, these three fragments fall into the strict classification from their calligraphic embroidered ornamentation. As mentioned earlier, these are known as tiraz. They date back to the passing of the Prophet in 632, when the newly formed Muslim state went through a series of political shifts, and new alliances were established, allegiances, and they were often reflected by inscribing bands with the ruler’s name, particularly on items of dress.

Also, clearly Islamic, these three embroidered sitaras or mosque curtains. On the right are two from the exhibition, which was made in Egypt in the mid-1800s. They were made to cover the mihrab or the prayer niche in the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, which pilgrims were also encouraged to visit during the Hajj. Both of them contain verses from the Qur’an and both incorporate plant motifs and the tughra of the Ottoman sultan who commissioned them. Sorry, just finding my way here.

On the left is another silk sitara with elaborate metal thread embroidery, also for the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. We can see that there’s a coherence in the style of these, as well as the consistent use of both calligraphy and plant motifs.

More strictly Islamic textiles. These embroidered appliqued silk curtains are known as burqas, which, of course, means curtain. They’re approximately five metres tall and were made to cover the door, the external door, of the Kaaba. They’re by far the most elaborate part of the kiswa.

Those Islamic textiles we’ve just seen are directly linked to Mecca and Medina and Hajj. Other textiles which may well be considered strictly Islamic because of their use in Islamic practice are prayer rugs. These serve to demarcate and temporarily sanctify the space for the worshipper who’s using them.

I’ve chosen three examples, all dated to about the same period. On the left is a Baluchi rug from Afghanistan. On the right one from Dagestan in the Northern Caucasus. You can see the mihrab form at the top, which always characterises prayer rugs. In the centre, this is printed cotton. It’s a summer prayer rug floor cloth or floor cover from Iran.

Moving on to the textiles we defined earlier as being culturally defined, there exists and has long existed a truly fabulous array of textiles and dress produced across the Islamic world and defined as Islamic more broadly, i.e., culturally. That’s exemplified by these items of dress by the Hadza people of West Africa.

Textiles like these are named for the cultures that produced them and can be seen to express design and embroidery styles specific to a particular village. I’ve got this upside down. Sorry. That’s what happens when you read things. You get the papers upside down. Textiles are named for the cultures that produced them and can be seen to express their own indigenous forms, which is important, as well as the characteristic Islamic ornamental conventions that we’ve spoken about.

After Islam arrived in Sub-Saharan Africa, many people adopted the Muslim codes of modesty in dress. Voluminous trousers like the two pairs of wando, illustrated, were combined with the wide-sleeved robes like the one at top right. You can see how they were worn together in the photograph. The embroidery is particularly associated with the Hadza people and is worked by professional Muslim embroiderers.

Women’s dresses, similarly identifiable as North and West African, while also displaying floral ornament on the Tunisian bridal dress, top left, and geometric designs on the other two and the cap, which are from the Hadza people.

In the Arab world – these garments are in the exhibition – traditional ceremonial garments for a man and woman from Sharjah, which reflect both their Arab culture and the Muslim faith, if they’re wearers. The man wears a long loose-fitting robe, called a kandura, over his white robe and a ghuthra or head cover held in place by an agal, and a traditional curved dagger at his waist.

For her Emirati wedding, the woman on the right would wear a red dress with silver embroidery, a specially shaped burqa or face mask, and a headscarf and her jewellery, and the whole covered by a decorated wool overgarment or aba.

In the Arab world of Palestine, these four dresses are immediately recognisable as traditional Palestinian, as also shown in the photograph. On the left is the embroidered thobe of locally woven linen from the Bethlehem area in the exhibition. The distinctive chest panel was believed to protect and bless the wearer.

Palestine was once famous for its rich and diverse embroidery traditions, which young girls learned in order to embroider their garments for their trousseaus. Designs and embroidery styles were specific to a particular village or district and reflected the owner’s economic and social status, as well as her identity and beliefs. After 1948, these individual local styles, like the ones we see here, replaced by Pan-Palestinian designs in red, green, black, and white, embroidered by women in refugee camps and in exile to reassert and keep alive that Palestinian identity.

Still in Palestine, on display in the exhibition are the two jackets on the right called taqsireh, their special occasion, in a style originally inspired by the uniform jackets of Ottoman and British officers and officials. They soon became a key item in a Palestinian girl’s trousseau. You can see how they were worn in the photograph, that wonderful classic photograph, top left. Worn over a dress with a kind of voluminous sleeves you often see. Later taqsireh were made of imported velvet rather than broadcloth in imitation of the uniforms.

We’re still in the Arab world. In Syria, in the exhibition, there’s the meshlah, a beautiful woven wool coat that’s on the left-hand side. I’ve added three more very similar coats; two from an image I found online and one from, bottom right, the Powerhouse Museum collection in Sydney. In the middle, also found online, is a fellow wearing a meshlah.

Though the cut of the abas, on the lower part of the screen, is different from the meshlah, the coat, there’s an obvious design continuity within them and with the woman’s headscarf above. It tells us they’re also probably Syrian. Those seem to cross the shoulders, and, the middle, the two abas.

The top right, the wonderful pink dress with those long sleeves, is also in the exhibition and was made at Tel Kaif, in the Mosul area of Northern Iraq. This area is home to a range of ethnic groups who speak different languages and follow different religions.

In the 18th century and afterwards, Dominican monks and nuns were sent there to serve the Christian communities. They set up hospitals and schools and villages like Tel Kaif, where they taught sewing and embroidery to the girls. This dress is one result. Across the centre, at the bottom of the slit in the front, it’s embroidered with the community’s ancient Syriac script as well as a having human figures, flowers, and birds, et cetera, across the elaborate front.

Back a little in time to Ottoman Turkey to the northwest of Syria and to the undeniable splendour of Ottoman silks. There’s typically, in Ottoman silks, a noticeable absence of figural representation, which it is thought maybe as much because they were influenced by Italian textile production at the time as for religious reasons.

[Points to slide] The top left are woven as tomb covers, and we might well say that they are primarily Islamic. This is a recurrent design for tomb covers, and features calligraphic Qur’anic verses and invocations in the zigzag stripes. To the right is a man’s silk robe, which appears to have belonged to an Ottoman sultan who reigned around 1600.

Below is a very interesting velvet fragment with what we now see is a classic Ottoman design known as the tiger-stripe and Chintamani. Chintamani is Sanskrit for ‘precious jewel’. The design actually originated in the auspicious flaming pearls of Buddhist iconography, but in the Ottoman world, it became tiger stripes and leopard spots, both symbols reflecting desirable strength and courage.

Three more gorgeously fine Ottoman silks. The lead design on the left resembles illustration or illumination in court manuscripts of the 16th century. Again, Ottoman Turkey, to show the range, there’s a carpet on the left. These are all 17th century, the little carpet on the left. We can’t look at Turkey without reminding ourselves of the vast range of exquisite embroidery that decorates domestic textiles as well as dress. These two are typically naturalistic in their design.

Persian, moving further east, these differ enormously, as we can see, from their Turkish counterparts. They commonly future humans, figural representation, humans and animals. At the same time, however, they’re likely to incorporate a strong presence of regularly arranged plant motifs, as we can see, particularly in the Safavid red silk on the left. This is Islamic in style.

There’s a sense, as is characteristic of Islamic surface design in all media, that the pattern could probably repeat endlessly. This is also a strong feature of the small buqsha actually, the cover, in the middle, at the bottom.

In Persia, as in neighbouring Iran, with whose artisans Persian share skills, printing and painting on cotton was a great skill, and exquisitely detailed works were produced, with Isfahan a primary location. The one in the middle is in the exhibition, and it shows Shah Abbas. It’s the type of cloth that was often used as a guide or a pneumonic for telling stories of legendary kings and heroes.

Dagestan in the Caucasus is the source of these two striking Kaitag embroideries. Their design is spectacular and they were made for local and special occasions. On the right is an Isfahan carpet from the South Caucasus – Afshan, sorry. Not Isfahan, Afshan, from the Quba region, north of Baku. Both of these, the Kaitag and the Afshan, rely on plant ornament, but they’re very different.

Central Asia, my first love. These textiles, together with those we’ve seen from elsewhere across the Islamic world, symbolise the aesthetic fusion that occurred between Islamic culture and the indigenous cultures that the Muslims engaged with over time. Below left is the superb suzani in the exhibition from Bukhara. The word ‘suzani’ comes from Persian for ‘needle’. These urban domestic embroideries are among the most characteristic, traditional textiles of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Above is a suzani from Shakhrisabz, also in Uzbekistan. It has some of the finest embroidery I’ve ever seen. It was incredibly fine. To the right is a detail from a wedding bedsheet that belonged to the wife of the last emir in Bukhara. I hope in it you can see how bright the colours still are and how detailed and fine the embroidery is.

Also in Central Asia, in the centre, is an example of the other form of urban textile production – primary form – which is ikat. You can see how ikat was used to make these absolutely fabulous robes, and were worn in Central Asia. The girl on the right, in her wedding finery, apparently for – She’s got the baby there, though apparently that was what she wore for her wedding. On the left, this is in the Fergana Valley in 2015, still wearing dress made from ikat.

Lower left is another suzani, a little bit like the one in the exhibition. This is the one that took me to Central Asia in 1985 and with which I fell in love. Lower right is a detail of a paliak, meaning – They’re called paliak for the Arabic word for heavens or the firmament. Paliaks were made in Eastern Uzbekistan in Tashkent and Piskent. Their designs are strongly geometric with astrological elements.

Very quickly now, South Asia, India. There’s the beautiful red embroidered textile from the exhibition, an Indian carpet. Very early, lower left, cashmere shawl fragment. On the right, a classic Mughal design with the red poppies on the floor spread. But you can also see the rhythm in those, the repetition, and the order and the unity, and all are plant designs.

[Points to slides] Southeast Asia, the textile in the centre and the two on the right, they’re identifiably Malaysian and Filipino and Javanese, but they’re also identifiably Muslim in the way the design, top right, geometric ornament on the headscarf. In the centre, there’s geometry and plant ornament. Lower right, there’s all four really. There’s geometry, plant motifs, calligraphy, and the representation of a living form.

[Points to slide] On the left, a silk vest made, I believe, from the internal kiswa fabric from the Kaaba. It was found on the Malay Peninsula. Interestingly, the fabric, if you remember, is exactly the same as that made in Egypt for tomb covers.

Today’s world, who knows? On the right, Islamic fashion in Dushanbe and Malaysia. One very traditional, the other one much more contemporary. Lower right, the kind of interior we might have seen in the 19th century. It’s a set-up in Azerbaijan. On the left, a trader’s house I visited in Bukhara, which gave me a sense of the volumes of textiles that were traded and still are traded.

And in the centre is one of those presentation robes. I mentioned that that tradition survived to the present day. This one was given to the Director of the Powerhouse Museum in 2004, when we displayed a lone exhibition from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Well, it’s not wonderful, I have to say, but it reflected the tradition beautifully.

Last of all, faith-fashion fusion reflects a new global Muslim aesthetic while preserving modesty in women’s dress. Just in time. It’s nearly half past, so thank you very much.

HEIDI PRITCHARD: We have a couple of moments for questions, if anybody who’d like to ask you questions. We have microphones, if you’d like to use them.

QUESTION: Thanks. I was just curious to know, both in history and today, where is the balance between, I guess, commercial selling of Islamic textiles to the actual – I guess the faith’s control or the religious control over their production?

CHRISTINA SUMNER: What was the beginning of that?

QUESTION: From, I guess, the point of the past, where did the religious control hold on textiles to, I guess, the trade routes?

CHRISTINA SUMNER: Compared with?

QUESTION: Like a commercial kind of selling.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: Yeah. I think it depends where you are. Commercially, that image I showed that’s in Bukhara, the trader there will be doing his own thing. There’s so much pressure in the world today for economic prosperity, far more than just sheer survival so often, that I think the textiles themselves, and probably other objects, are produced within the parameters of convention. But I think that’s all. The further you get away from the Arabian Peninsula, the more individual authority is asserted.

QUESTION: Thank you.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: Excellent. There’s one [questioner] up there. Did you want to ask something?

QUESTION: I was just going to ask, you spoke about the suzani. What are they used for – a piece of cloth?

CHRISTINA SUMNER: [Laughs] Don’t get me started on suzanis. They’re dowry textiles. I speeded up at the end. That particular one would be about two-and-a-half metres by one-and-a-half metres. They are made in a household, traditionally, by the women of a household for a girl of the family’s dowry. They were like that. They also made table covers, bed covers, cushions, all sorts of different things, curtains, prayer mats as well. They embroidered suzani prayer mats. They’re dowry.

But they’re made everywhere now, and the quality has declined in many areas of production. There are many embroiderers now in Turkey who are making them. That colours the question just asked by the woman sitting next to Sheona. Yes?

QUESTION: I was interested in the trade distribution map that you showed, that had some clear gaps through Central Africa and Southeast Asia in particular. Presumably those gaps are due to what geographical barriers, political barriers, empires controlling their boundaries?

CHRISTINA SUMNER: All of that. All of that. Remember that there was a drying of the – The Sahara was very dry. That formed a natural barrier to go into Central Africa. In fact, the, Islam was taken by traders around from West Africa, round and down from West Africa and Egypt down into the further south. Down into Egypt, into Sudan and beyond.

I remember being going through islands in Eastern Indonesia and being staggered as we went in this very slow put-put boat. On every island near the coast, there was a village which had a mosque in it. It’s one of the most illuminating experiences I’ve had of the way Islamic, and the way anything, any ideas spread, that you travel there and you set up camp and you start to live your life. But certainly that had a unifying effect throughout.

In Indonesia, of course, there is a gap in the middle. There was the Majapahit Empire in Java and, of course, Bali is still Hindu, primarily Hindu. That was a block. Just east of Bali is Lombok, which, of course, is Muslim. Yeah? QUESTION: I’m not sure whether you can give me any illumination about this, but I was under the impression that in the Islamic culture, that silk was frowned upon for men to wear, yet you see so many silk items. I was just wondering why is that so.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: It’s interesting, isn’t it?

QUESTION: Yeah.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: You’re absolutely right. It’s just one area of it. It’s such a huge topic. I couldn’t look at the materials really, the technology, because it seemed important to have a look at the breadth and the dimension and understand how Islam has travelled and how it’s affected textiles and dress throughout the world as it is touched by Islam.

But you are right. There is a prohibition against silk and also against gold. Whereas the dress, the Sharjah dress, in the exhibition has silver embroidery on the sleeves, but a lot of gold jewellery. People always find ways around sumptuary laws, and I think that’s as true of Muslim rulers as it is of us; although the mullahs might not be happy about it.

HEIDI PRITCHARD: We might call that as the last question. If anybody has any further questions, then you’re quite welcome to stay behind, if you wouldn’t mind staying behind for a few moments.

CHRISTINA SUMNER: Yeah, [inaudible 00:58:39].

HEIDI PRITCHARD: Well, would you all please [inaudible 00:58:40] me in giving a rousing round of applause for Christina Sumner. Oh, that’s brilliant.

Date published: 26 June 2018