Noe Valley Voice April 2000

Florence's Family Album: The Women Behind the Turkmen Rugs

By Florence Holub

Until about 20 years ago, I deemed carpets to be little more than floor coverings to be trod upon. But since I've become a museum docent, I've had a change of heart. Two major bequests to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park have opened my eyes to the beauty of the weavings that are the major artistic expression of the nomads and villagers of Central Asia.

In 1980 the de Young acquired the H. McCoy and Caroline Jones Collection, a marvelous bequest including more than 600 oriental rugs. Then about three years ago, the museum received a second large gift of Turkmen carpets from San Francisco residents Wolfgang and Gisela Wiedersperg. From now through June, the magnificent Wiedersperg Collection will be on display in an exhibit titled "Between the Black Desert and the Red: Turkmen Carpets from the Wiedersperg Collection."

Because the people who wove these rugs were nomadic and left no written history, scholars are still debating their exact age and significance. However, to give you some idea of their antiquity, Marco Polo noted the exquisite, densely knotted carpets of Turkmenistan after a visit there in 1280.

The area that most of the rugs in the Wiedersperg Collection come from is the territory occupied by Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan today. This arid region is south of Russia and north of Iran and Afghanistan, between the Caspian Sea and the Mongolian Steppes. In the center is a river, the Amu Darya, that separates two deserts -- the Kara Kum Desert (meaning Black Sands) and the Kazil Kum Desert (meaning Red Sands). Hence the title of the exhibit.

During the last century, the wanderer Turkmen culture was virtually destroyed by warfare, displacements, and migrations. But fortunately, the textiles themselves and a few photographs, some taken by explorers in the 1920s, can transport us back in time.

The men of the Turkmen tribes tended and sheared the sheep, providing a bounty of wool for the weavings that were an integral part of daily life. Rugs served a myriad of purposes -- they were sat on, slept on, eaten on, and displayed on the walls of the dwellings. More importantly, they were badges of identification as well as status symbols.

But it was the women who did the bulk of the weaving and passed their skills from mother to daughter throughout the centuries. They created the thick, luxurious pile of the rugs by clipping row after row of tied knots looped through the plain woven foundation.

Most of a young woman's weavings were done in preparation for her marriage. The betrothed would make all the carpets for her new home, called a yurt--a round tent made of poles lashed together and covered with waterproof wool felt.

Then on her wedding day she would act as the centerpiece in a joyous procession across the sands. The bride rode hidden inside a decorated litter (called a kejebe)atop a camel adorned with bells and tassels. Over each flank of the beast hung an azmalyk, a pentagonal weaving edged with tassels that dangled as the animal swayed from side to side.

Once the cavalcade reached the yurt, the celebrants would line the tent's interior with the bride's handiwork. The ensi, the door rug, was used to cover the entryway. Above it and down each side hung a kapunuk, or door surround, decorated with the curl-leaf design that signified growth and fertility.

The most striking feature of these Turkmen carpets is the resplendent red color that saturates the overall design. The brilliant red dye comes from the boiled roots of the madder plant, which grows wild in the desert.

The Turkmen browns are derived from walnut hulls, and the yellows from any of 20 desert flowers. The black is a mixture of iron oxide and tannin. The more rare indigo blue, from the indigo plant native to India, was obtained through barter or at the village bazaars.

Another thing you'll notice at the de Young exhibit are the octagon-shaped motifs, called göls (pronounced "ghouls"), repeated in rows throughout most oriental carpet designs. Some have images of plants, birds, or animals.

Each tribe or subtribe had a slightly different göl that was used exclusively on their carpets. But there were universal göls as well. The tauk nuska göl, featuring what look like animal figures, shows up in many tribes' weavings. (The Turkmen defined tauk nuska as "hen-patterned," but don't worry if you can't locate the hens!)

The Tekke tribe distinguished their rugs by weaving lines from border to border that intersect each göl. Today the Tekke göl (shown here) is still used on carpets under the name of Bokhara, a town on the silk route to China.

On view at the de Young are rugs by the Tekke, the Yomut, and the Ersari, and three exceptionally fine pieces by the Solar tribe, thought to be the oldest and most noble of Turkmen tribes. One Solar rug -- a trapping used to adorn a camel in a wedding procession -- has 239 knots per square inch!

There are many beautiful door rugs on display in this exhibit, but my favorite has a row of eight camels trudging across the desert, each bearing a litter (and each holding a bride).

You can count the camels -- and contemplate the lives of the women who rode them -- by taking a tour of the exhibit. They're offered daily at 12:15 p.m. until June 25. (Yours truly will be the leader on the fourth Friday of each month: April 28, May 26, and June 23.)

P.S. If you'd like a rug preview, go take a look at the wonderful variety of carpets that Juan Teran is offering at his shop Artemisia, on the corner of 24th and Diamond streets. I stopped in a couple of weeks ago and noticed a gorgeous contemporary pile rug from Uzbekistan that is quite similar to a fine Ersari carpet exhibited at the de Young. This rug clearly illustrates the Turkmen -- and women's-- glorious use of color and design!