We acknowledge Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land and give respect to Elders – past and present – and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Trappings of a tribal nomadic lifestyle

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Trappings are the functional and highly decorative woven accessories essential to supporting the lifestyle of pastoral nomads. Trappings from Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia are particularly well represented in the Powerhouse Museum collection. The livelihood of nomadic tribes was dependent on the welfare of their animals, so access to good grazing and water was essential in all seasons. When fresh pastures were needed, the tribe would pack up and move on, necessitating a home that was easy to take down and put up again.

Trappings facilitated the nomads’ migrations. Consisting of wide and narrow tent bands, bags of different sizes for transporting and storing belongings, and animal coverings and ornaments, they were made by the women of the tribes using wool from their sheep, goats and camels. Additional touches of silk and cotton, the products of agriculturalists, were acquired through trade or purchased in nearby markets. Each tribal group had its own characteristic designs and their dyes were primarily madder red and indigo blue plus the range of creamy white to dark brown natural colours of undyed animal hair. Trappings complement the range of beautiful rugs and carpets also produced by the women.

The demountable home of the Turkmen nomads was a felt-covered yurt or tent whose underlying structure was a circular wooden trellis with a framed space for the doorway; roof struts were tied onto the trellis and attached to a central roof wheel. The stability of this structure relied firstly on encircling the lattice with wide decorative tent bands, the finest facing inwards to decorate the interior; secondly, narrower bands were looped from one roof strut to the next internally to separate and secure them. In the doorway would be hung an engsi, a rug whose field is characteristically divided in four.

The Museum collection features a large number of colourful storage bags of different shapes and sizes, many of them woven by Yomut Turkmen women and donated to the Museum by Robert Upfold. These were essential for both transporting the family’s diverse belongings and keeping them tidy and organised in the yurt. The largest bags are called juvals, while the commonly found smaller bags are known as torba, mafrash and kap. The collection also includes a large rectangular bedding bag from northern Iran, a pair of ok bash for holding roof struts from northern Afghanistan, and a rare rifle bag.

For the highly-prized horses and camels of the tribe, the women made gorgeous blankets, bridles, knee covers and special occasion ornaments. Examples of these in the Museum collection include two finely-woven Turkmen horse covers and, for celebrations and special occasions, spectacular trappings such as the Lakai Uzbek camel headdress, camel knee covers or dizlyk, and trappings for the wedding camel such as a Kizil Ayak jollar from northern Afghanistan and several large five-sided Yomut Turkmen asmalyks.

Christina Sumner OAM, former Principal Curator Design and Society, Powerhouse Museum, 2020