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Rugs and trappings from Central Asia, Afghanistan and China

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Knotted pile rugs have long been woven across Central Asia, which today comprises the independent states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as in neighbouring Afghanistan and China’s western province of Xinjiang. For beauty, colour and technical excellence, the most highly prized pile rugs of this region are those of the Turkmen peoples. The Powerhouse Museum holds outstanding examples by Turkmen tribes such as the Tekke, Yomut and Chodor, that combine the even knotting, lustrous wool and mellow vegetable colours characteristic of Turkmen rugs.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘golden age’ of Turkmen weaving, many Turkmen tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic, driving their herds of animals between summer and winter pastures, camping in felt-covered tents and weaving carpets as they went. Others were settled in villages. In both cases, the women produced fine rugs to furnish their homes as well as decorative storage bags and animal trappings.

The primary ornament on Turkmen rugs is the polygonal gul, which is Persian for flower. Guls come in various shapes and are repeated in rows, often offset, across a field of deep red or reddish brown and appear to slide under the four borders in an endless repeat. Major guls are interspersed with smaller minor guls and the overall effect is a combination of formality with spontaneity. Guls were once considered tribal emblems because some were primarily associated with a particular tribe. However, since unrelated tribes would use the same guls, identifying a Turkmen rug also requires examining its colour scheme and structural details.

The most common source of the reds in Turkmen rugs was the madder plant. This yielded deep crimson, brick red, pale orange or pink, depending on the plant’s age, whether the dye bath was fresh, and which mordant (dye fixative) was applied. For example, an iron or tannin mordant with madder produced a dark aubergine colour. Synthetic dyes began appearing in Turkmen rugs in the 1880s, some of which faded quickly in the light or bled when washed. This, along with commercial pressures and Soviet collectivisation in the 1930s, led to a decline in the overall quality of Turkmen weaving.

In Afghanistan, the main rug-weaving group is the Baluch. Their rugs and trappings often seem rustic but are beautiful to the eyes and touch, with their dark blue and red palette and a variety of geometric field designs and often incorporating ancient motifs such as the Tree of Life. The rugs of the neighbouring Aimaq peoples were previously labelled Baluch, as they used a similar palette and shared certain designs, such as the Mashwani. The Powerhouse collection includes examples of both weaving groups.

In China’s largely arid Xinjiang Province, rugs were woven in the ancient Silk Road centres of Khotan, Kashgar and Yarkand by nomadic and settled Turkic tribes, mainly the Muslim Uyghur. Having been under the cultural influence of the Han Chinese since at least the 4th century CE, their rugs display patterns and colour schemes that blend Turkic and Chinese influences.

Leigh Mackay, President, Oriental Rug Society of NSW Inc, 2021