Archive for July, 2013

Rick Seyford on Nomadic and Traditional Weaving

Posted in Uncategorized on July 26, 2013 by rjohn

On February 23, 2013, Rick Seyford


gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. , on Nomadic and Traditional Village Weaving.

Rick is a long-time collector who lives in Staunton, Virginia.  He has taught theater at Mary Baldwin College and teaches film production at Virginia Governor’s Program.  He has attended the TM “rug morning” programs for 30 years, but has not presented one previously.

He said to me after that he wanted to do “something different,” and he did.  He mixed some excellent material with prints of famous paintings, some readings, and even a little banjo playing, to make some interesting and informative,  analogous observations about nomadic and traditional village weaving.

He began by displaying and analyzing, briefly, a print of Da Vinci”s famous painting “The Last Supper.”



He drew attention to the devices Leonardo used to impose order on and to guide the ways that our eyes track as we look at this painting.  He noted how the size and shape of the windows on the sides draw our attention toward the center of the painting.  Rick said that the use of lighter-colored windows draws our eye deeply into the back center of the painting.  Christ’s image then works to punctuate the end of this “aesthetic composition.”  Rick said that the “rules” Da Vinci was following (creating?) here, dominated western art from the late 15th century until Modern Art appeared.

(He put the painting away, smiling, that he “had to get this back to Milan.”)

Rick contrasted the kind of art Da Vinci was doing with that by members of nomadic or traditional village members working in an entirely  different media: textile weaving, and within a very different tradition.

He said that nomadic and traditional village weavers did not have access to a wide array of strategies for indicating, for example, depth in a given design.  But they are not without tools of their own.  A frequent one was reciprocal use of design devices.  Rich employed a nomadic kilim to  illustrate such reciprocity.



He drew attention to the latch hooks in this piece as an example of a nomadic strategy employing reciprocity to relative suggest depth.  Some see the white latch hooks as more prominent (forward of the black ones).  Others see the black latch hooks as more prominent, suggesting that they are closer than the white ones.  Either way, such a use of reciprocity works to suggest depth and invites us into the kilim.

Here are some detail images of RS1.


Rick said that in our effects to attribute nomadic and traditional village textiles, we treat structure importantly.  Structure, he said, doesn’t lie.

Structure can also be seen to affect design usages.  For example, this kilim is woven in tapestry, most of it in slit tapestry.  Slit tapestry works very well to define color changes clearly.  But vertical color changes result in slits and it weakens the structure of the textile if such slits are too long.  The result in the frequent use of diagonals in slit tapestry designs, something you can notice in this kilim.


Rick drew attention to the abrash in the largely plain red central field area, an indicator that dye lots were small, something characteristic of nomadic and weaving.


Another  distinction is that the identity of the artist who created a particular painting, like “The Last Supper,” can often be determined.  Nomadic and traditional tribal weaving is almost always anonymous. 

Within the community in which it was woven, it might have been possible determine who wove a given piece, but that information is lost to us.  Invariably, we have just the weaving itself.

Among nomads and village weavers the standards of the tradition are passed from parents to children (most frequently mother to daughter) without recourse to any written literature.  The traditional standards and designs are mostly in the heads of the migrant or traditional village weavers (reference to design-color cartoons would  be rare).

Rick moved to an Anatolian rug from Melez, with a niche design, to talk about how we analyze and attribute such anonymous weavings.



He said that the purple rosettes of “swelling buds,” in the main border of this rug, are a village version of one called “Kara Kecili.


“Kara Kecili, which is Turkish for “with black goats,” is also the name of an Anatolian tribe that was nomadic.

Rick said that fact that the main border system is not resolved (does not turn corners smoothly) is also an indicator that this is at least a traditional village rug.  He said that the “butted” character of the main border is best seen in the upper corners of this rug.


You can see in the detail above that at one point the weaver simply stopped weaving the version of the  main border that goes up the right side of this rug and began to weave a version of it oriented 90 degrees differently that moves the top.  One kara kecili device is ended when only half finished.  Butted borders are one sign that this rug was woven by traditional Anatolian village weavers.

Here are some additional detail images of RS2.




Rick produced a Bible


and read a passage from the book of Job, describing Job thusly: “His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousabnd camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.”  Today we might refer to Job as a khan. 

The passage also contains two sections that rehearse in almost the same words two conversations about Job between God and Satan. 

Rick said that this is a poetic, literary device, called “incremental repetition” that repeats with only a little variation, something the nomadic and village weaver did, too.  It is one kind of thing that made weaving “from the mind” more accessible.

Rick now moved to two Qashqa’i khorjins on the right side of the board. The first was a complete half opened up.



Rick said the devices used in these bags show how incremental repetition made weaving from memory somewhat easier.  The stepped usage is a kind of repeat with slight variation. 


The Memling gul is famously described as a two-dimensional device, easier to weave; again note that elements are repeated with slight variation. 


Here is the second of these two Qashqa’i khorjin pieces.



The version of the “endless knot” used as a center device is composed of the same “quarter element, in four different orientations, but does not include any “over-under,” depth-suggesting aspects, as some Holbein devices do.


Examined closely, almost every design device is composed of slightly varied repeats that would be more accessible to memory.

Rick picked up his banjo to demonstrate how the kind of repetition used in Job and in the design devices above, is also present in the playing of a musical instrument.


He said that there is a specific way the hand and fingers have to be held and used in a particular strumming of a banjo.  He said that it took he a couple of days to learn how to do it, but once he had mastered it, and had done it enough times, he no longer had to think about it: it was in his “muscle memory.”


Next, he played a short passage of music in five different banjo playing styles, after which Rick said that he doesn’t read music.  Everything he knows about banjo playing is, like a nomadic and village weaver, is “in his head,” and that incremental repetition is a large part of what makes it possible for him to play and for them to weave. 

This is also why weavers, sitting side-by-side, can weave, fingers flying, and talk constantly at the same time.  They don’t have to think about their weaving at all: it’s in their “muscle memory.”

Rick picked up a felt okbash,



saying that all nomads have felt.  Felt is the first thing that goes on the ground. 

There are some fairly recent, dramatic examples of how useful and critical the use of felt can be.  Rick said that during the WWII campaigns between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Russians were equipped with felt liners for their boots.  The Germans did not have such liners and suffered tens of thousands of amputations from frostbite.

Most nomad/village felt designs were applique, but one can also create designs in felt pieces as they are being made. 

He called particular attention to the curvilinear character of the “ram’s horn” devices on this okbash.  Curvilinear designs are within the reach of felt makers.


He said that when nomads took this design to kilims, say, in slit weave tapestry, they were forced to translate it into a geometric version. 

He used another large Anatolian kilim to illustrate this point.




Rick also called attention to the smaller devices that move down the sides of the field of this kilim, inside its borders.


Notice, he said, that they are somewhat different, likely indicating two different things: first that it is likely that this kilim was woven by two women, and that this side area seems to be one in which the weavers, working within a tradition, felt freer to express themselves.


Rick’s next nomad/village piece was this grain bag.



I have followed grain bags for a while, and this one is one of the best I have seen.

Here are some details of RS7.






RS4fNotice there is a purple.



The next piece was a zili bag attributed to the Azerbaijan.



“Zili,” many will know, is a form of brocade that produces an distinctive “corduroy” effect.

Here is an additional detail of RS8.


Rick said that sheep were domesticated long before they produced the kind of wool useful in weaving.


He then moved to a piece from Siirt in eastern Anatolia that is a version of one of the earliest woven structures known.  This textile is of mohair wool rather than ordinary sheep’s wool.



Although slits are not prominent, this piece is woven is slit tapestry to produce its “diamond” design.

The colors in this piece are entirely from natural, un-dyed,  “off -the-sheep” wool.


These pieces are woven in traditional tapestry flat-weave, appearing the same on both sides.  The are then subject to a process whereby a teazle is used to draw up the otherwise flat wefts and thereby create a “faux” pile.  The result looks like this.

Such rugs are not old.  They can some times still appear inexpensively at flea markets, but they are of interest to some serious collectors because this is likely one of oldest woven structures known.

Rick next showed a complete, blue and white, Qashqa’i khojin set.



This piece is warp-faced, with white cotton wefts and blue wool warps.


One interesting feature of this piece is that the blue areas stand higher than do the white ones.

Here are two additional details of RS11.



This khorjin set is estimated to have been woven in the late 1920s.

Next Rick treated a very graphic, Armenian kilim.



He said that some design elements in this kilim are likely sourced in Central Asia.

Here are some additional details of RS12.




Next Rick brought out a jajim with wonderful color.



Here is the most comprehensive, unobstructed view I have of it.


The color palette is narrow, but demonstrates that fabulous color is not dependent on range.

Here are some details of RS13.



There are traces of seeming Russian trade cloth at one edge.


It was seen likely to have been woven by the Shahsavan.

The next piece you have seen at the beginning, but is worth considering in more detail.



Again, the color is glorious.  Rick said that this piece was done a weft substitution technique by Persian weavers between the southernmost point of the Caspian Sea and Tehran.


Woven with very fine wool, it five strips and then sewn together without matching color stripes from section to section.


Rick held up a book to show that this piece is of a recognized, published type.


A second book contained a 15th century illustration, that seemed to include a very similar textile.


Rich opened another book to show an image of Vermeer’s “Woman with a Lute..


Here is a more “see-able” image of this painting.


Rick said that it is important to note that the young woman is not playing the lute, she is tuning it.

He said that “tuning” a banjo is more difficult than playing it at a beginner level.


And there are analogues to “tuning” in the nomad and village rug weaving world.

Mark Traxler, who has woven several pile piece rugs with traditional designs, visited recently, and said, looking at a finely-woven, Tekke piece, “Can you imagine how difficult it was to get warps this fine onto a horizontal loom with the kind of uniform tension that would be required to produce this result?”

A similar point can made about Rick’s comment about tuning.  It is likely not accident that the task of warping a loom was, in many traditional weaving communities, reserved to older women, i.e., the most experienced weavers.  The warps of a good weaving need to be “tuned” properly at the start, and maintained in that state until the piece is finished.

Next was this flat-woven, Anatolian yastik.



This piece is complete and has a striped back.


The front has an unusual construction.  It is brocaded, working from the back, and has discontinuous, but not supplementary wefts.

Here are some details of RS15.





The next piece was large, beautiful and rare.



This is the most comprehensive, unobstructed image I have of it.


This, many will know, is a Caucasian camel cover, called a “shaddah.”  Their designs are usually brocaded.

Robert Nooter makes one his cover jacket piece in his “Flat Woven Rug and Textiles from the Caucasus,” so he thinks it important, but Nooter’s very nice piece is smaller and less complex than Rick’s example.  Rick said, smiling, that he bought his at an auction where “no one else was interested in it.”

Rick called attention to the detail in his piece.  First, the camels have saddle covers and each is slightly different.



And there are human figures in it, all together representing a camel caravan.



Rick pointed out that such covers were not only intended to decorate the camel, but to protect it.  The “S” devices are particularly aimed at distracting the “evil eye.”

Rick next treated another large flat-woven piece.



This is another brocaded Caucasian cover, but done in a traditional hooked diamond pattern.

Here are some additional images of RS17.


The main border is very unusual.


Both that border and some of the other white elements are in a form of brocading called chii, a technique often associated with the Caucasian Kurds.


Chii is even more fragile than other brocading.  It is remarkable that this cover has survived in such excellent condition.



The next piece is another example of brocading, but this is from Northwest Turkey.



Rick said that it might also be Kurdish.


The hanging tassels are characteristic of Turkish weaving.


He noted that the design elements are raised above the surface of the brown ground and would not stand up to much wear.


The next piece was a dramatic Caucasian pile rug with a familiar design.


(it was hung over the display board so that its top is not visible)


Most readers will know that this is an “eagle” Kazak, likely woven in Karabagh.

This version of this design with a single central “burst” device is seen as the older one.


The “armature” devices at the top and bottom echo the lattice usages in the so-called “Caucasian dragon” carpets.


Rick said he sees this piece as an instance of 19th century village weaving.


Another pile Caucasian rug followed, this time a colorful Shirvan with a niche design.



Rick noted that each horizontal row of botehs has its own design but that the colors vary. 


He called attention to the “sherbert orange” in this piece.


Here some additional detail images of RS20.


It has a remarkably wide range of colors.



Next, was a small pile bag face.



This pile khorjin face is one of a pair that originally were in Chicago.

Notice the nice, graphic reciprocal main border with effective red outlining. 


Also the goats with colored feet.


The next piece was a sumak khorjin face.



Rick said this nice piece is Shahsavan and called attention to the “gul-like” devices that have central rosettes.


Notice that the internal instrumentation of these gul forms is an instance of incremental variation, with constituent forms repeated in various orientations.


The “leg” devices at the corners of most of the “guls,” are not included in those in the bottom row.

Here are some additional detail images of RS22.




The next piece was a larger “torba-shaped,” pile bag from Central Asia.



Until recently, this piece would have been called “Ersari,” is now perhaps among those currently described as “Middle Amu Dyra.”


This is a familiar design that is usually said to take its gul-forms from Central Asian ikats.  A few years ago, Hans Konig, attended an RTAM here in which such a piece was shown and said that he doubted the ikat connection.  I have not seen anything further from him on this notion, but I once owned a fragment of Central Asian ikat,

CentralAsiaIkatFragment 002

the designs on which seems very similar.  Perhaps, Mr. Konig will yet make his suspicions concrete.

The next piece moved sharply in a different direction.



This is an urban Bijar.  Its intense design is full of curvilinear usages.


And it has a cotton foundation.


Its main border and its field are versions of the herati design.



Despite unresolved borders, this piece is too sophisticated to be a tribal weaving.


Rick said the next two rugs were Kurdish, both estimated to have been woven around 1900.



He said the the main border on this rug might look fairly regular, but that closer examination shows that it changes constantly in instrumental details and color usage.


The narrow, striped guard borders change colors.


Here are some additional detail images of RS25.



The second of these two Kurdish rug was more graphically dramatic.



Rick said that the question of whether the plain areas of the field are done in camel hair, is open. 



He said that Wendel Swan, who believes that he can identify camel hair without resort to microscope, examined it and said that he couldn’t tell.

Here are some additional detail images of RS26.




With the next piece, Rick returned to Central Asia.



This is a familiar Turkmen weaving: it is the face of a large, mostly, flatwoven chuval, with bands of fine pile weaving.  It is called a “kizil” chuval, a reference to its ground color.  There are versions of this mixed technique format that have a white ground and are termed “ak” chuvals.

The pile sections of these pieces have very fine knotting, so these pieces, in general have fine warps.


A second Turkmen piece was this one: likely Yomud.



I mentioned from the audience that I own a very similar bag, bought from a dealer in Selcuk, Turkey, who claimed that it was a specific function format: used to sew grain, something that seems doubtful.

What is more noteworthy about such pieces is that the design strips are done in sumak, a relatively rare Turkman usage.


The next piece was also Central Asian, this time a Yomut main carpet with “tauk naska” guls.



This rug has some unusual features for this type.  The “heads” of the tauk naska devices instrumenting the guls face in opposite directions (usually the heads face in the same direction).


The secondary gul is also unusual.

Its meander white-ground, main border exhibits a nice green, also present in some of the guls.



It has pile elems that are fully and colorfully decorated.

Rick called attention to some tiny “combs” in its corners.



This rug is estimated to have been woven about 1875.

Next, Rick brought out a complete khorjin set, the front panels of which have a Jaf design in pile.



He said that it is the back of this piece that is unusual.  It is done in five different flat weave techniques.


Here are some additional detail images of the back of RS30.




The next bag was a larger, striking Veramin piece, which is probably one side panel from a mafrash.



Here are some detail images of RS31.





Next, Rick held up a flat-woven Baluch bag.



He said that it is very fine,


and done in a weft substitution weave.


Rick’s last rug of his own was a stately one that most would call East Turkestan.


(Note: This is a three-medallion design too big for the board and so extends considerably over its top.)


Hans Bidder shows several similar field designs and attributes them to Khotan.  He indicates that the medallion field design is older than is the overall “pomegranate” pattern.

The medallions were described as of the “lotus pad” variety.


Rick called attention to the borders, which feature “Greek key” usages, but also a wider one that he described as representing mountains and clouds.


The corner brackets on this piece,


which appear in nearly all of the Bidder rugs, were described as very Chinese.


There are also some smaller “gul” forms used outside the large medallions in the field (the yellow and blue ones in the image below).


This device appears frequently in East Turkestan pile rugs.  There are two versions.  First, a “coffered” one in which the gul is surrounded by (nested in) a rectilinear fretwork frame.  The second version, the “uncoffered” one is used here.  Some Khotan rugs have their entire fields filled with such uncoffered guls.

Two pieces had been brought in by members of the audience and they are treated now.

The first was this Uzbek bag.



Its field is an endless repeat design feature star forms.

Here are some additional detail images of BI1.




The last piece of the day was this small, colorful kilim.   Its owner said that this fragment is attributed to Central Anatolia and estimated to have been woven before 1850.



This piece is nicely stabilized on a backing.

Its colors are strong and beautiful.  Here are some additional detail images of BI2.





Rick answered questions,


and adjourned his session.

The audience began to move.









Thanks to Rick Seyford for this imaginatively conceived, fluently performed, program.  Thanks to him, too, for permitting this virtual version of it, and for his very real help in editing my draft.

Amy Rispin, again, took a very useful set of notes.

This was an unusual, informative and enjoyable session and I hope this virtual version makes it possible to experience some of it.


R. John Howe

A Curator’s Perspective on the TM’s “Sultan’s Gardens” Exhibition

Posted in Uncategorized on July 9, 2013 by rjohn

We go to exhibitions and enjoy and criticize, usually having little knowledge of how a given exhibit came to be.

The producers of the Textile Museum’s Rug and Textile Appreciation Mornings (RTAMs) felt that it would be useful to give those who attend, a look behind-the-scenes and talked to Sumru Belger Krody, the Senior Curator for Eastern Hemisphere Collections.


Sumru agreed to give an RTAM that provided a look  into the process through which the recent TM exhibition, The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art was produced.

What follows here is a virtual version of Sumru’s program, (originally given on May 11, 2013) fashioned with her permission, active cooperation, and editorial assistance.

Sumru began by saying that The Textile Museum exhibition, “The Sultan’s Garden,”

CatalogCover(Catalog Cover)

presented a phenomenon almost unique in the history of Islamic art:  the sudden emergence in the mid-16th century of a new floral style, that formed a part of the classical Turkish style and bequeathed a long and beautiful heritage to myriad art forms, including textiles.

Sumru said that she would approach the fashioning of this  exhibition from the curator’s perspective.


She said that she would chronicle the various ways in which the exhibition was developed and implemented, focusing on curatorial concerns, such as research, development of the concept, and storyline; how themes and sub-themes were defined; how objects were chosen; and how the concepts were visualized in an exhibition format.

An exhibition, Sumru said, is the very public forum where all museum activities from research and conservation to education and outreach converge.


The purpose of a museum exhibition is to transform some aspect of the visitor’s interests, attitudes or values. This could be due to the visitor’s discovery of some level of meaning in the objects on display.

Related to this, and a very important fact that a curator always has to keep in mind, is that this discovery is stimulated and sustained by the visitor’s confidence in the perceived authenticity of those objects and the accuracy of information provided with the object.

Aesthetic, individual perception of specific works


Contextual or thematic, relational perception of objects in context or in relation to a theme

Exploration: For example, trying your hand at creating a structure or action (like we provide in our Learning Center).

Live demonstrations; multimedia, kinaesthetic response to stimulus

At The Textile Museum, we aim to integrate these features and objectives into each of our exhibitions.

Exhibitions are powerful means of communication with the museum’s public, and are its major public face.

They are planned to appeal to a varied audience, and represent a major task within the Museum’s mission.

Exhibitions, and their related publications and programs, have the most significant effect on the Museum’s reputation in the long term, so we take them very seriously.


The aim of each exhibition is to reflect the excellence, breadth, and depth of the Museum’s collections.  In our case, it is coupled with the desire to present the broad diversity and richness of all of the textile arts.



There are two usual varieties:

  • Major exhibitions, with extensive curatorial research and a published catalogue.
  • Medium size exhibitions, without catalogue


Exhibitions organized by The Textile Museum consisting mainly of loan materials

Loan exhibitions are organized elsewhere



An exhibition has three phases:

  • Research/Concept Development
  • Planning/Design
  • Implementation

In the concept development phase, the exhibition idea or concept is created and justified, for a deeper institutional understanding of what the exhibition is about, and why the museum is doing it.

This phase begins with an idea, often, generated by a curator, from a topic or area she or he is interested to do further research in, or from an analysis or documentation of the museum collections.

Or it could be market-driven. There might be events or individuals who may suggest the need for a certain theme of exhibitions.

Green: the Color and the Cause exhibition


Maggy Rozycki Hiltner, Hothouse Flowers (detail), 2005.

Cotton and found textiles; embroidered.

Lent by the artist. Photo by Virginia Spragg.

Regardless of the origin, the research/concept development period is the longest period in the exhibition process, and the least team-oriented, and the least public part of it. You may even call it a solitary act with the only person required or involved, for this, is the curator as researcher.

By the time Museum friends and supporters hear about the exhibition, we are already in planning and implementation phase of the process.

The planning and implementation parts move faster, and involve a large team, both internally and externally.
 A curator is a person who is knowledgeable about, and trained in a field, related to the collection in his or her care, and is responsible for maintaining the overall well-being and scope of that collection.


Curators are the staff advocates for the collection and have the intellectual control of the collection.
Intellectual control of the collection means I know better than anyone in the Museum what is in the collection and can interpret it for varied audiences.
 In this museum, we interpret the collections through exhibitions, exhibition catalogues, public programs, and scholarly forums.


Initially, the exhibition that became “The Sultan’s Garden,” was one scheduled for 2014.

In early thinking,  the focus of this 2014 exhibition was not yet chosen.  The chief topics of interest being considered were:

  • Doing a Persian carpet fragment exhibition
  • A general carpet exhibition showcasing some of our recent carpets
  • A mixed carpet and textile exhibition, possibly on Turkish theme.  It could be motifs (tulip), or functions (bags and covers) or a format (wavy vine, ogival, medallion) or whatever.

Important TM events required that we advance our initial 2014 scheduling considerably.

So I began to think about the Turkish theme alternative more seriously.  Ottoman art has long fascinated me because of its enduring presence and resilience, and multifaceted aspects, even though the Empire that created it has been gone more than a century now.   But, more importantly, is that there are still so many questions begging for answers.

Yet, it took few exhibitions organized by my colleagues and/or by me to plant the actual seed that become “The Sultan’ Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art.”

You may remember two other exhibitions of Ottoman material that passed through DC in recent years.  These were the “Palace of Gold and Light” and “Status and Style.”  Both of these were encyclopedic exhibitions on Ottoman art or textile art. You may also remember the “Age of Suleyman the Magnificent” exhibition organized by National Gallery of Art, and curated by Esin Atil in 1980s, then the TM’s exhibitions “Flowers of Silk and Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Empire,” in 2000, and “The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets,” in 2002. These exhibitions are all had direct and/or indirect influence on the current exhibition.

Another advantage of choosing the Turkish alternative was that it made it possible for me to work, again, with Walter Denny,


from whom I continuously learn, not only in terms of gaining knowledge about Ottoman art and history, but of research methods, and in disseminating, effectively and efficiently, the knowledge you gain.

We decided to focus on Turkish material and to incorporate all types of textiles.

We did not want this to be an encyclopedic exhibition chronicling the Turkish textile history. 

For one thing, a Turkish textile history exhibition would require space that we do not have in hand.

Second, as I noted above, it has been done before.

And, third, encyclopedic exhibitions do not always provide the best opportunity to share exciting new findings.

So, we decided that this exhibition was going to be about the language of design, expressed visually by the objects on display, rather than serving as a catalogue of design types seen on Ottoman textiles.  The emphasis would be on the visual articulation of the artistry found in the use of visual vocabulary, and the way in which artists communicate in various dialects of a common artistic language using the various textile media.

A focused exhibition also made it possible to truncate the research schedule to meet the publication and exhibition deadlines.  It would also meet TM need that it be held in 2012, as well as the TM desire to have it appeal to our core audience, who are enthusiasts of Islamic textiles 

A focused exhibition that would draw, importantly, on the TM collection, would also meet an ancillary objective.  A large contingency of textile scholars would be in town for the Textile Society of America symposium, when our planned exhibition was to open, in September 2012.  No particular no exhibition idea was best suited to that.

And so the conception of what was to become “The Sultan’s Garden” exhibition, came into being.



While the earlier exhibition in 2002 (Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets) concentrated on the Anatolian visual language,

in this exhibition, we decided to concentrate, specifically, on the impact of a few fundamental artistic themes from the Ottoman court tradition and their impact across the region and time.  Choosing a narrowly focused topic allowed us to rely heavily on TM collections, supplemented with only a few borrowed works of textile art.
We quickly realized that the subject—one I christened the “Ottoman Impact”—begged for deeper inquiry and required the inclusion of works in other media.

The exhibition would be the first ever to directly address the historical phenomenon of the Ottoman classical floral style, and would examine the rise and evolution of the floral motifs and stylistic conventions that have defined Ottoman art since the 16th century.
 We began the investigation with questions such as how a distinct Ottoman style called floral style was developed in mid 16th century, in the court circles, and how it impacted the later Ottoman and Turkish arts.

We also questioned the legacy it left behind in the other parts of what was then Ottoman Empire and beyond.

 The ‘classical’ Ottoman court style is characterized, above all, by a vocabulary of highly distinctive stylized, yet easily recognizable, garden flowers.

In particular,








that are frequently depicted

We considered what remained to be discussed.

We wanted something substantial, and more, intellectually rigorous, considering that we, the curators, live with the exhibition longer than anyone else.

 This led to a series of questions related both to the history of the Ottoman court that generated the floral style and the means and meaning of its diffusion.

  • Why does it appear at or after 1550?
  • Where does this style come from?
  • How did it diffuse into both village and nomadic artistic traditions of Anatolia, and why?
  • To what extent does the visual vocabulary of the Ottoman floral style retain the symbolic and cultural connotations of its original ‘high’ court culture?
  • And what is the process by which the court artistic traditions and styles of the Ottomans rapidly entered the arena of international commerce?
  • Why did a style or artistic vocabulary that was known as being so distinctively Ottoman enter the material cultures of Hungary, Russia, Poland, Italy, Egypt, Syria, and then even England and France?

To answer these questions one has to, first, look back into the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a period predating the emergence of the floral style.

The late fifteenth-century court style–under Sultan Mehmed and his successors Sultan Bayezid and Selim I, with its close ties to Timurid Herat, Türkmen Tabriz, and to a lesser extent to Mamluk Cairo–forms part of a widespread ‘international style’ of the period, in which chinoiserie elements such as stylized lotus palmettes on spiraling vines, together with the extensive use of split-leaf rumi arabesques and geometric patterns, were employed from Khurasan and Central Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Careful research, utilizing dated or date-able book-bindings, ceramic tile decorations, and workshop albums,


has established the parameters of this style and even given us the name of one of its chief practitioners, the Istanbul artist, called Baba Nakkaş – ‘Father Designer.’

He was the lead designer at the Nakkashane, between 1480 and 1520, until about the time the reign of Suleyman I began.

During the decade, after the accession of Süleyman I (r.1520-1566), the court design workshops experienced a tremendous growth, and were the scene of rapid stylistic change and new experiments in design.

 At the beginning of the Suleyman’s reign,  Shah Kulu was the master of the Nakkashane.

He created what is called Saz style.


It is a bolder, bigger, and powerful representation of the design elements from the International Style.

The Saz style was, basically, Ottoman interpretation, with some additions of the International Style, which used vegetal forms, combined with more eastern (Chinese) elements.


The International Style was practiced by wide range of Islamic empires up until the Ottomans.

This brings us to the questions of when and where? What was the environment that nurtured the germination of the floral style?
The same Nakkashane,that developed the Saz style, also developed the floral style.


The accomplishments of the Nakkaşhane under Süleyman I, between 1540 and 1566, established the basis of the Ottoman floral style, that was to flourish under his successors, throughout the seventeenth century, and have impact beyond.


The floral style was the result of the fortunate conjunction of two elements:

1. an atmosphere of experimentation in the  court atelier which was composed of artists from many different cultures and artistic traditions,

2. a cultural and economic policy that shifted in the direction of a distinctive Ottoman ‘brand.’

Can we chronicle the emergence of the floral style and who was credited for it?

The two elements, listed above, gave rise to the emergence of the new floral style. 

One artist, in particular, known to posterity as Kara Memi, took a leading role. 

Below is the Divan-I Muhibbi, a compilation of poems written by Suleyman the Magnificent under the penname “Muhibbi” (lover). Illuminated and bound in the Nakkashane.

This illuminated manuscript bears a colophon dated 1566 and is in the collection of the Istanbul University Library.

The true importance of this book lies in its illuminations of stylized tulips are an early date-able appearance of the Ottoman floral style, but it also bears the signature of the artist who created them, Kara Memi.
Did the new style replace the previous style?

The designs on this book indicate that, at least for a while, the new floral style was used side-by-side with previous ones.

This book has Floral style in the center,
Rumi on the left page and
Hatayi ornaments/motifs, which are the building blocks of older Saz style, on the right.

Kara Memi’s career as illuminator reached its full maturity in decorations of a monumental tuğra, created around 1566.


In the interstices of the calligraphic elements we see a masterful and botanically accurate flower garden of tulips, carnations, hyacinths and rosebuds.

How do we explain this sudden appearance in the Nakkashane (design workshop) of a new style of decoration consisting of easily recognizable garden flowers?  Was there a precedence for this?

Long before the emergence of the Ottoman floral style in the mid-sixteenth century, flowers and flower gardens were a deeply embedded feature of high Ottoman culture.

A famous portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, probably by the Ottoman court artist Sinan Bey in the later fifteenth century, shows the Sultan smelling a rose.


Sultan Mehmed II Fatih, ca. 1460, attributed to Sinan Bey

Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, album Hazine 2153, folio 10A

If you have seen Nurhan Atasoy’s monumental work on Ottoman garden’s, you know that gardens were pretty much part of the urban Turkish culture, probably picked up on their way from farther northeast Asia through Central Asia and Iran.

The ruler is seated and holding, not a weapon, or other symbol of sovereign might, but a single rose.

The sixteenth-century European ambassador Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq,


one of the most appealingly modern and objective writers of his time, observed an abundance of flowers in eastern Thrace:

“As we passed through these districts we were presented with large nosegays of flowers, the narcissus, the hyacinth, and the tulipan (as the Turks call this last).”

Later, he observes:
“The Turks are passionately fond of flowers, and though somewhat parsimonious in other matters, they do not hesitate to give several aspres for a choice blossom.”

Visiting Turkey between 1709 and 1717 with her husband, the British Ambassador, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,

Mary Wortley Montagu with her son Edward by Jean-Baptiste van Mour.
Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq from a 17th century engraving

one of the greatest English writers of her generation, and a perceptive, balanced, and intelligent observer of Ottoman life, wrote that in Ottoman society, flowers sent as gifts conveyed an entire lover’s language of meaning.

For example, the gift of a ‘caremfil’ (karanfil, that is a carnation, which in Lady Mary’s time was called a clove in English), meant: “you are as slender as this clove.”

A rosebud conveyed the meaning: “I have long lov’d you and you have not known it.”

And the inclusion of a pul or jonquil in a bouquet carried the message: “have pity on my passion.”  

She describes the interior of an Ottoman konak (mansion) in which the ceilings are decorated with paintings showing baskets of flowers.

In fact, some of the emblematic garden flowers long associated with the Ottomans appear to have been brought west, during early migrations of Turkic peoples.

The tulip, for instance,

Slide29is native to Central Asia and was extensively hybridized in Ottoman times, as well as constituting an important commercial item traded to western European countries such as the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Under these historical circumstances, it is certainly no surprise that flowers emerged as major elements of Ottoman Turkish artistic style; in fact, one might even go so far as to wonder why the Ottoman floral style appeared in the visual arts as late as it did.

The time of emergence of this new floral style was documented through the medium of ceramic tiles that adorn so many of the great, firmly dated Ottoman architectural monuments built or redecorated after 1550.


Ceramic artisans by the late 1550s had perfected a palette of brilliant colors, among them red and green, ideally suited to the depiction of flowers.


How do we able to explain the emergence of this style in the mid 16th century?


Why this style became popular in court circles?


Who was behind its popularity?

Sultan Suleyman’s Sadrazam or Grand Vezir Rüstem Paşa was a pivotal person in the promotion of the style.

rustem-pasa3(We don't know what Rustem looked like.) 
(This representation of him may be the person on the right)
Insertion by John Howe from the Internet

Rüstem’s own marked preference for the new floral style and its chief artistic proponent, Kara Memi, is abundantly clear by the decorations of his own mosque in Istanbul.





The most successful designs in new floral style were placed in the most prominent parts of the mosque, large blue-ground visions of paradise designed by Kara Memi.


These panels showcase a large and dramatic scale, what was then the newly emergent floral vocabulary.

Rüstem Paşa had an significant role to play in the area of Ottoman artistic output, especially of textiles and ceramics, through acts of patronage and regulation that served two functions:

1.  by restricting and regulating the import of Italian silks, and thus the outflow from the Ottoman realm of precious metals to pay for imported luxury fabrics, he improved the Ottoman balance of payments while at the same time giving new life to a native textile industry that had long been established in Bursa but which now increasingly began to flourish in Istanbul.
2.  by curtailing the artistic influence of Italy in the realm of textiles, as well as by encouraging the development of the Iznik ceramic industry through massive commissions for the tile decoration of state-sponsored mosques and palaces.

Rüstem Paşa helped to establish what in effect became the new Ottoman brand: the floral vocabulary pioneered and developed by his favorite artist, Kara Memi.


Was this style a conscious choice by the court or developed unconsciously and associated later with Ottomanness?


The new style rapidly came to dominate many different spheres of Ottoman artistic production.

 In textile arts we begin with type of fabric called kemha.

This image, given close, above is repeated here to illustrate this further point.


The development of the kemha (lampas) production in Istanbul saw the creation of an industry whose products were ideally suited to the new floral style.

Unlike Bursa velvet production, kemha weavers could program a very wide range of colors into highly detailed textile designs.


Especially, serenks, the ones without metallic thread, achieve a drawing-like qualities that can only come close in book illuminations,


Like ceramics, these textiles were not only available in the marketplace, but created a sensation among consumers both in the Ottoman Empire and in eastern Mediterranean markets, from Italy to Russia, and from Iran to Egypt.  (Note: The exhibition included examples from Italy, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Poland, documenting the “horizontal diffusion.”)

The finest court embroideries of this period, surviving in only a very tiny handful of examples, are covered with tulips and carnations.

Carpets designed by court designers in Istanbul, at first woven in Egypt and later in or near Istanbul, immediately adopted the new floral vocabulary, which had by 1600 gradually become the dominant feature of their designs.

How can we chronicle the diffusion or spread of the style?


For the first century and a half after the emergence of the floral style, the identification of forms both with specific flowers, and with the culture of garden flowers, remained strong among the higher levels of Ottoman society.

Eventually, through the process of artistic diffusion and artistic stylization,  some floral forms have lost their original meanings,


both in the eyes of the artists who used them in their creative work, and for those who purchased and used the finished artistic products.

This is a common occurrence in the history of art. Often in the past, this progress is called a “degenerative” process.

But today, it is considered an expression of the originality and creativity of the artistic process itself as art moves to new social or cultural milieu, media, or geographical areas, it will inevitably change.  And it is not a bad thing, although, it may not be  what I or you like.

 Sumru said: “In the Flowers of Silk and Gold, my Ottoman embroidery, exhibition in 2000, we made the same argument, when discussing change in embroidery tradition, and connecting it with the political, social and cultural changes taking place in Ottoman empire and the world around it.”

The artistic vocabulary from these 17th- and 18th-century commercial goods permeated deep into the traditional arts of Anatolia especially in 18th and 19th century, especially in the realm of textiles, where the floral style had a profound impact on the pile rugs.


and flat-woven textiles


of Anatolian nomads and villagers and the local domestic embroidery traditions of towns and cities throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Sumru said that this completed her treatment, in broad brush-strokes, the themes and sub-themes of the “Sultan’s Garden” exhibition.

The next challenge was:


How to convert the intellectual and theoretical constructs of the research, first into linear layouts,


then, into a 3-D exhibition format,

Slide43ThreeDthat would guide the creation and hanging of the actual exhibition.


Research/conceptualization is the longest time-consuming task, but making the conception a reality, seconds to that in the exhibition production process.

Although the exhibition theme and sub-themes have been articulated in the Research/Conceptualization stage, curators also have to develop an “overarching theme” for the exhibition. 


The function of this overarching theme is to facilitate communication about the exhibition by making it possible characterize the exhibition in a very concise way for the wider/diverse audiences the TM serves.  These include the TM staff, Board of Trustees, advisory council, prospective contributors, friends, media, visitors, children, etc.

The Sultan’s Garden is about:

  • the emergence of a floral style that developed in the royal court of Ottoman Empire in mid 16th century,
  • this style’s impact across artistic traditions and time, and
  • the legacy it left which, even today, we can observe.

Key words: Floral style, Ottoman, 16th century, impact, legacy.

The Curator’s work on the exhibition planning phase begins with:

  • Developing the storyline
  • Defining themes of the exhibition and
  • Identifying organizing principles of these themes
  • Selecting objects that go with each theme (development of storyline goes hand in hand with selecting objects for the exhibition).


We decided to have 4 parts to this exhibition:

  • Emergence of the Ottoman Floral style in the mid 16th century
  • Maturation of the style in the late 16th to 18th century
  • Diffusion (both geographically and socially) of the Ottoman Floral style in the Empire
  • Diffusion of the Ottoman floral style outside the Empire

Not every part corresponded with a specific gallery in the exhibition.

In a good exhibition, every object strongly speaks to the main theme of the exhibition, without spelling it out for the visitors. 

After viewing the first gallery or grouping, a visitor should be able to walk into the next gallery and sense the connection, not necessarily, knowing how.

Perhaps, surprisingly, the exhibition and the catalog do not exactly replicate each other in terms of organization. The reason is that their two different media with different set of possibilities and constraints.

If a book is part of an exhibition project, it needs to be recognized that these are two distinct media.


The visual plans for an exhibition, and a related book, must address the distinctive characteristics and requirements of their respective media.

  • In a book, all the objects can be the same size, but in an exhibition you have to deal with real objects, not just their images.
  • In a book it is often hard to juxtapose two objects, let alone 3 or 4, without losing the details
  • There is no peripheral vision when you are looking at a book, but that is an important component of exhibition design.

Among other things, my job for this exhibition was one of establishing a few rules helped alleviate practical issues of funding and space:

Rule number one: choose objects that speak to the topic,  or convey exactly what we want to convey in that specific theme, no less and no more.
Rule number two: avoid costly loans of works from far-flung countries and institutions.
Rule number three: stay within the designated budget.

These restrictions notably shaped the exhibition.


It dramatically reduced its size and number of objects we can use, not a bad thing,  considering our space issues, and meant that our choices of works had to be extremely circumscribed and highly selective.

It also eliminated topics or themes that are supplemental to the core themes.  A good example is that, in the exhibition, we did not include any object that predates the floral style to create comparison.  Although we talked about it, in the book, and eluded to it, in the exhibition, we did not set aside a single gallery, or even an object, to talk about what predated the Ottoman floral style.

Rules, however, are made to be broken, and we included some institutional loans.

Two Ceramic plates, 



and the collar from the Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical cope.


This was an instance of aesthetic choice over the storyline.

We wanted to open the exhibition with a question: Why does this Russian collar have Ottoman tulips on it?

But Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted this piece flat in a climate controlled case. That mean we cannot put it on the wall or on a slant, instead had to build a floor case with climate control case over it and a flat mount.

So the two plates and the Russian collar became the exhibition’s anchors.

We felt that the Introduction to the exhibition should feature a textile that sets the tone for the exhibition for the visitors.

The object also has to have graphic quality that can draw people in from a distance.


We also wanted this exhibition presented in an artistic way.


This is a detail image of a section of an embroidered cover, 90.25 x 30.25 inches, that was selected (the two plates shown above were nearby).

Many available objects pertained to the topic of the exhibition and could have been justified for inclusion, but “The Sultan’s Garden”, first and foremost, was conceived to be an art exhibition, so selection had to be made to include objects with intrinsic beauty and presence, as well as strong association with the theme.


We did not use more than 1 or 2 objects, on average, to make a given point. No long elaborations of descriptions or comparisons we, art historians, love to make when we speak to our peers.
A major priority for this exhibition was bringing forefront a visual diversity, through the selection and representation of objects, without eschewing the storyline.

So we mounted one object in elliptical curve.


And we displayed sashes in an angled case (see at the left rear in the image above).

Without a few tweaks of this sort, the exhibition would not have been as visually interesting or compelling.

We used juxtaposition, in an exhibition that celebrated high and low.


  • Organization of 4 pieces to show the continuum and connections of social strata,
  • also the power of art and design that spans centuries.


Producing a Textile Museum exhibition, like any other museum exhibitions is a multi-disciplinary, multi-departmental process.


The Textile Museum departments and organizational components most directly involved in the work of the exhibition are:

  • Curator
  • Development
  • Conservation
  • Education
  • Exhibition Production
  • Finance
  • Marketing and Communications
  • Library
  • Shop

The Textile Museum Director and Board of Trustees are, of course, overarching, and receive reports on key exhibition decisions, expenditures and progress.

To facilitate the inter-departmental efforts, an Exhibition Coordinator is selected.


Here are some inter-departmental actions related to producing the exhibition:

  • Once the concept has been developed, and preliminary storyline is in place, the Curators began to work very closely with the Development Department.
  • The Development Department can draft and implement fundraising strategies and grant proposals.
  • Using the overarching theme and drawing on the Curators for accurate information, the Marketing and Communications department can begin to publicize the exhibition and produce literature and ads that draw visitors in.
  • With a preliminary object list in place, the Conservation Department can begin to examine objects and decide on conservation needs and mounting requirements.

We’ll see more examples below, but you get the idea.

One of the important tasks that can now be addressed is communication beyond the walls of the Museum.  Initially, with TM members and the media.

During this period, besides being involved with the other activities, the Curators also have to write for the exhibition.

Written products include:

  • Members’ Magazine articles


  • Articles to other journals or the internet
  • Texts for the exhibition
  • A gallery brochure
  • Text panels
  • Labels
  • A bibliography for the Library, Exhibition, and Education departments.

And we haven’t listed the exhibition catalog, about which more in a moment.

This is also the period when the look/design of the exhibition becomes known.

With the type of display options set, we can finalize the exhibition layout, then move to decide the look (color of the wall, color of fabric behind the objects, any other special graphic or art work).

As curators, we often have aesthetic preferences and make recommendations  to the exhibition production team that will effect the outcome, although we as curators do not design or build the cases and mounts. Because of the type of objects I am working with, I feel they are better represented if the wall color matches the fabric used for the mounts. 


It gives a sense of objects without a frame to distract your eye from them. To me that makes the objects look like jewels.  I also like subtle graphic architectural elements (such as the treatment at the bottom of gallery walls) and/or music in the galleries to be able to evoke the atmosphere these historic objects were once used. 

Now the:

  • Conservation department prepares objects for the exhibition
  • Exhibition installation department orders materials for construction & installation
  • Collections Management Department start to receive and process the loans
  • Development Department begins planning opening and special events related to the exhibition
  • Education Department finalizes the types of educational programs they will organize related to the exhibition.
  • Communications and Marketing Department generates publicity for the exhibition and related educational and development events

Sumru said that the curators write the catalog.  She said that the text for the catalog to accompany The Sultan’s Garden exhibition  was written during fall of 2011, and delivered to the publisher on January, 2012. (The exhibition opened on September 21, 2012.)

She also handled the management of its publication.  “We have been publishing and managing publications for a long time, so after a while you have a set routine.”

“TM sets the publication requirements in consultation with the publisher.  I ask bids from 2-3 publishers,, with a publication proposal which includes specs of what we are looking for.  Depending on publishers’ bids, we make a decision with whom to publish the book.

“The Marketing and Communication Department gets involved, as an in-house consultant to the design of the catalog.  The publisher sends us design options for the catalog cover and the inside of the book.  The curators consult with the Marketing and Communication folks during our review of these design options.

“The Sultan’s Garden was my 11th publication management for The Textile Museum.  Some were books I authored or co-authored, or books authored by others.  Some were issues of The Textile Museum Journal.”

During this period the exhibition coordinator and curator solicit contracts from graphic designers for the design of the exhibition’s graphic material and begin working on them. 

An exhibition logo is established first.

We also identify what we call auxiliary images for the exhibition and get permissions to use them.

Size of the map and what it will include, and will not include.  In this case we decided on a heartlands of Ottoman empire map.



The curators write the gallery guide/brochure.



Work on the catalog continues.


And since the TM’s annual two-day Fall Symposium, which will be held shortly after the Sultan’s Garden exhibition opens, is to be organized around presentations related to it, the Education Department works with the curators to fashion that.

Although we have shown you images of the finished exhibition, in fact, this is the point at which the exhibition is installed. 


It is a time when all these activities often conducted separately converged to produce the final product: the exhibition itself. 
It is, often, a very stressful time for the staff.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a “chaos” like this,


can become the exhibition we want, in just three weeks of installation time.

The work is arduous, and the detail is meticulous and excruciating.

Here is a sequence of images without text that shows the installation of just one long rug.








This is how this rug looked in the completed exhibition.


Installation work like this was done on 59 objects in this exhibition.

Let’s look again at our “chaos” image.


Here is what this same area of the exhibition looked like at opening.


So we finished.  The exhibition opens and we celebrate.



There are some aspects we haven’t treated.  The Education Department has to train docents to guide visitors in the exhibition.


Docents are our key visitor/public connection. They are very important to the curators because they are the key transmitters of our voices to the public.  

We give 1 to 2 lectures to docents about the concept of the exhibition. For Sultan’s Garden I gave them 2. One was on the general concept of the exhibition, and the other was more specifically about Turkish textile history and structures they will encounter in the exhibition.

This usually happens 3-4 months before the exhibition opens, allowing them to read the bibliography I provide them, and to come back to me with more specific questions, if they have any.

I also gave them an exhibition tour before Sultan’s Garden opened to public; which lasted about 2 hours (always does).  We stop in front of each object and discuss why it is there, and what we want to convey with the object. We strategize about how to give tours, which objects to point out, and which points to make on that object, depending on the audience.  Which objects to stop by if one is giving a 15-minute tour, or 30-minute tour or an hour long tour.

The docents and the Education Department also produce exhibition-related educational materials (for schools and children to use) and events.


The curators work with them on these tasks, after an exhibition has opened.

The purpose of The Sultan’s Garden exhibition was two fold:


First, to show, in a series of important and beautiful works of textile art, the origins, development and the full range of impact of the Ottoman floral style on Ottoman textile arts from 1550 onward.

Slide 80
A second objective was: to explore the diffusion of the floral style through the different levels of artistic production in Ottoman society and throughout the far-flung Ottoman Empire and into the cultures of its neighbors.
“My impression is that we were successful doing that with what we have in hand.”

Sumru ended by saying  that, as she had noted at the beginning,


the curators live longest with an exhibition project.  “We are there from the inception to the death bed.  So an exhibition has to be exciting to sustain interest.”

The Sultan’s Garden exhibition was such a project. 


Sumru: “…I hope you enjoyed the exhibition as much as Walter and I did working on it.”

I want to thank Sumru for being willing to undertake both this RTAM and this virtual version of it.  Curators have a myriad of responsibilities and experience lots of demands from others (of which we are, in this instance, one).  So it is costly to undertake this kind of oblique task.

To echo what she has said above: Sumru and I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of her RTAM on The Sultan’s Garden exhibition from a curator’s perspective.

R. John Howe