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On the roads of Samarkand, marvels of silk and gold” at the Arab World Institute: discovering priceless textile treasures
The Institute of the Arab World and the Foundation for the Development of Art and Culture of the Republic of Uzbekistan present an exhibition on the heritage and ancestral know-how of Uzbekistan from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Breathtaking!
Independent since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Uzbekistan is the heir to ancestral cultures and traditions. The exhibition “On the roads of Samarkand, marvels of silk and gold” at the Institut du monde arabe, in Paris, brings together 300 works presented for the first time outside the national museums: coats embroidered with gold from the court of the emir, silver horse harnesses set with turquoises, carpets, silk ikats, jewelry and costumes from the nomadic culture as well as avant-garde orientalist paintings.

This exhibition is “the fruit of my encounter with Uzbekistan, whose names of mythical and legendary cities – Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva – have nourished many imaginations for centuries”, explains the general curator, Yaffa Assouline, who emphasizes that for these works “never exhibited outside the museums of Uzbekistan, the visitor will discover the magnificence of the costumes of the emirs of Bukhara and his court.”

Alongside this inexhaustible guide, we begin a fabulous journey to discover the treasures of Uzbek identity craftsmanship.

The chapan d’or, mantle of pomp and power
“You can’t imagine to what extent this country, which was finally closed and hidden, has endless treasures” exclaims, with enthusiasm, Yaffa Assouline, showing us these artisanal splendours of the 19th and early 19th century. 20th centuries. “These chapans [coats] of the emirs are embroidered with gold. Gold embroidery is part of the Uzbek identity and of Bukhara in particular with the arrival of these emirs who revived all these traditions that had been lost”, she specifies.

This loose and long coat, which covers several layers of clothing, is the most important piece of men’s suits. At the court of the emir, the most beautiful are made on a silk velvet base and feature gold embroidery. Widespread in India, China, Iran and Europe, this art reached its peak in Turkestan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its fame comes from the techniques and creativity of the embroiderers of Bukhara. These unique pieces, decorated or entirely embroidered with gold, bear witness to the social and symbolic importance of court pageantry. It was during the reign of the Emir of Bukhara, Muzaffar-Ed-Din (1860-1885), that the art of gold embroidery reached its peak. “Only the Emir gave orders to his embroiderers. In his palace. He had his own workshops with the greatest master embroiderers”

Next to it, in other windows, very colorful coats as well as skullcaps – suspended from the ceiling – which are also part of the traditional Uzbek costume. The doppi is worn by everyone except older women who have headscarves. The ornaments, the shape and the colors are indicators of the age, the social status of the one who wears it because “each region has its specificity”. The base can be velvet, satin, cotton or silk with floral and plant motifs, like rosettes surrounded by branching stems. The colors are blue, gray and purple. The state of conservation of the exhibits remains impressive.

The rich and luxurious equestrian pageantry
Linked to the conquest of territory and the development of trade and the only means of transport, the horse is an integral part of the Uzbek way of life and identity. Its importance is reflected in the making of a dedicated craft that we discover here. “At the same time as the emir – dressed in his embroidered coat and his arms – the horses carry a whole very heavy equipage embroidered with velvet in the same way as the chapans”.

Extreme care is taken with these horses, as evidenced by the pageantry intended for them. It is a rich and luxurious paraphernalia consisting of velvet rump pads embroidered with gold, wooden saddles hand-painted with natural dyes, saddle pads completed with harnesses, silver jewelry set with turquoise, carnelian and enamel. Each element is produced by corporations dedicated to working bronze, goldsmithing, carpentry, tannery and gold embroidery.

A codified women’s wardrobe
Women’s costumes consist of several pieces: a shirt dress, trousers, a camisole (undergarment), a chapan, a hat, shoes, galoshes and scarves. If the cuts are similar to men, the quality of the fabric as well as the ornaments distinguish the social classes and the colors indicate the marital status of the woman.

The work of gold embroidery is a masculine craft in a society where it is said that gold “tarnishes with the hands and the breath of a woman”, underlines the curator of the exhibition. It is also feared that the secrets of this craft will be leaked when passing from one family to another through marriage. Just as women are forbidden to touch gold, they are forbidden to wear it ostentatiously. The gold embroidery only appears on their accessories: “It’s dotted embroidery that doesn’t cover the fabric,” she adds. The entire female costume is hidden in the public space under a parandja, a long coat that covers the head and body.


Suzanis, a decorative as well as a protective function
In the family setting, the art of embroidery also finds its symbolic expression in the suzanis, a Persian word meaning “made with a needle”. These are large pieces of fabric embroidered with silk threads that adorn the interiors. Women devote themselves to needlework, especially for the preparation of the dowry. “Only the women embroidered the suzanis. When the girl was born, we got to work. The embroiderers followed the patterns, made beforehand by a guest designer, according to the wishes of the family. These lengths were woven by hand then gathered and embroidered “. These creations, supposed to ensure a harmonious couple and family life, have a decorative as well as a protective function: abundance, prosperity, security and fertility are ensured by the embroidered symbols.

These rich embroidered patterns testify to their taste, their creativity and the influence of their environment: “Each region had its particularity, its colors and its designs”. Wall decorations, bed covers, pillowcases, curtains and prayer rugs are the works of a feminine craft that is passed down from generation to generation. “In fact, the house was a garden covered with flowers and colors”, sums up Yaffa Assouline.

Carpets from Uzbekistan, an ancestral symbolism
The next section is devoted to the art of the carpet. Given the fragility of wool, there are only a few pieces left today and the majority of the works preserved in the collections date from the 19th century. Seemingly simple domestic objects, their iconographies reveal the way of life, the environment and the beliefs of their creators, their relations with neighboring peoples as well as their aesthetic considerations. Beyond the decorative and functional aspect, the rug deploys a colorful and symbolic vocabulary. The weavers ensure, with a precise choice of patterns, the protection of the household by relying on an ancestral symbolism transmitted from generation to generation.

The steppes and mountainous regions provide an abundance of wool and woolen products. Women, experts in carpet weaving and felting, produce carpets for home furnishings and comfort. Their production also supplies local urban markets. This is why the majority of the pieces marketed are of Turkmen origin and are sold in Bukhara.

A land of inspiration for Russian avant-garde painters
The visit ends, on the lower floor, where we are greeted by an entire wall of very colorful Ikat coats suspended in the air. The deployment of symbols and colors omnipresent in the cultural heritage of the country is also illustrated in the technique of abrbandi – these silk ikats – fabrics of a thousand colors. We also admire here a gallery of jewels, pledges of protection and happiness, and paranjas.

Finally, a large part of this room hosts orientalist painting from the Russian avant-garde: “I wanted with the gallery of people and paintings to immerse myself a little more in this dream”, indicates the curator who explains to us that At the turn of the 20th century, Turkestan was the favorite destination of the Russian avant-garde, which reached its peak between 1917 and 1932. As the Empire disappeared to become the USSR, Soviet artists discovered this territory corresponding to the current Republic of Uzbekistan. The painters of the Russian school, in search of “the local color” find inspiration in the richness of the landscapes, shapes, colors and faces of Central Asia. “They told the story of this country and their wonder”. Each artist approaches this quest for exoticism by following his own symbolist,

This exhibition is “an invitation to discover the culture of beauty”, concludes Yaffa Assouline.

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