Colorful oriental rugs, scarves and gowns hang alongside pictures of remote landscapes in the basement of the GW Museum and Textile Museum, a colorful hidden gem straight from the heart of Central Asia.
The Textile Museum’s newest exhibit “Old Patterns, New Order: Socialist Realism in Central Asia” opened on Oct. 10 and runs until May 29, free of charge.
The textiles and paintings work in tandem to illustrate the rapidly changing culture of Central Asia: the countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The majority of the works included were created during the 1930s to 1970s, illustrating life in rapidly industrializing Central Asia under Soviet control.
Marlene Laruelle, the director of GW’s Central Asia program said the exhibit creatively displays the struggle of fading Central Asian culture in the midst of Soviet industrialization.
“Textiles are a symbol of the quest for national identity during Soviet times, and that’s why we have so many textiles represented in the paintings,” Laruelle said. “It’s a symbol of national identity.”
Located at the bottom of the spiral staircase, the exhibition room is almost perfectly silent save the sounds of other visitors. The dark room contrasts the illuminated colorful textiles and artwork. The criss-crossing patterns and warm colors invite any visitor to immerse themselves into the life of Central Asia.
The textiles and artwork on display are separated into three different themes. The first, “Encountering Modernity,” shows the arrival of Soviet modern ideas and technologies. The second, “Harvesting,” focuses on the central role of cotton production in the lives of Central Asian peoples. And the third, “Nostalgia,” illustrates the search for an older world among the newer generations of artists.
Textiles put on display included traditional dresses (kurta), scarves (qalqui) and robes (khalat) which were produced using Central Asia’s bountiful supply of cotton. Many of the rugs use recycled old cloth.
Laruelle worked directly with senior curator Sumru Belger Krody to design the exhibit in 18 months, a much shorter planning period than most other exhibits. The timeline was shorter because the majority of the collection was already available at the museum’s resource center at GW’s Virginia Science and Technology campus.
“We decided to make a joint exhibition where painting and textiles would be in dialogue with each other,” Laruelle said.
Krody added that, with the help of two collectors and curators of the Tretyakov Gallery, the team narrowed the exhibit down to 200 pieces from 900, and then down to 41 in the final display.
“We are the center of the study of Central American textiles,” Krody said, adding that their collection represents “the largest Central Asian textile depository in North America.”
The exhibit was the result of a joint effort by the GW Central Asia program and the Textile Museum and was timed to open around the same time as the Central Eursian Studies Conference, which was held at the Elliott School of International Affairs from Oct. 15 to Oct. 18.
Two private collectors in the District who have been accumulating artifacts since the early 1990s supplemented the museum’s pre-existing extensive collection of Central Asian art for the exhibit. One of the collectors is Director Sean Roberts, head of the International Development Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
The exhibit was envisioned amid a new resurgence of traditional artwork among local Central Asian producers in honor of national spirit.
“Textiles are in their heritage,” Krody said. “So when they go back to revive their heritage, textiles bubble up.”