Sacred Scraps: Quilt and Patchwork Traditions of Central Asia

by Pat Hickman and Gail Hovey; Pat is a studio artist in the Lower Hudson Valley, emeritus professor of Art, head of the Fiber program at the University of Hawai’i, and past president of the Textile Society of America. Gail is a writer who, among other things, goes on road trips and looks at textiles with Pat Hickman.

A road trip in August brought us to Lincoln, Nebraska for a spectacular coincidence: the solar eclipse and the exhibition Sacred Scraps: Quilt and Patchwork Traditions of Central Asia. Watching the moon slowly cover the sun, we could appreciate anew the power of natural forces. That humans, throughout the ages, have needed to act in the face of the unknown and have attempted to placate potencies not understood seems nothing but sensible.

 Foreground: Inlaid felt carpet, by Begimbaeva Zamirgul, Naryn, Kyrgystan, 2015; patchwork mattresses, by Kyimat   Abdulkadyrova, Karabulak village (top) and maker unknown (below), Batken, Kyrgyzstan; and padded patchwork pad for baking, maker unknown, Tajikistan; Background: patchwork tent hanging, Osh, Krygystan, c. 1960; assorted patchwork pillows, Kyrgystan.

Walking into Sacred Scraps at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum (IQSCM), it was easy to imagine the entire exhibit as a whole cloth in a domestic architectural environment, with the vibrantly colorful textiles functioning as patches themselves on the brightly colored walls. Guest curator Christine Martens explains the role of these textiles in the excellent exhibition catalog: “In times of difficulty and uncertainty, whether from illness, war, or the inexplicable, people sought answers,” and the amulets and talismans imbedded in the cloth are evidence of this searching.

Christine Martens at speaking June 2, 2017 at the exhibition reception.

Christine Martens is an intrepid traveler and, beginning in 2001, she has made multiple trips to Central Asia. Beginning in  2009, the IQSCM intermittently sponsored research and acquisition trips. The result of these eight years of collaboration – unusual in that IQSCM served as an institutional art patron – is evident in this extraordinary exhibition and companion catalog.

                         Foreground: Child’s talismanic bib (kirlik); background: children’s talismanic garments (kurte), all Turkmenistan, mid-20th century.

Sacred Scraps, both the exhibition and the catalog, is clearly organized around the role these quilts and patchwork textiles play in people’s daily lives. The catalog begins with a brief history of the region and a map of the five Central Asian Republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – connecting geography and people. In a defining page titled “Amulet and Talisman,” Martens presents the distinguishing role of patchwork in Central Asia “to guard against sorcery, sickness, and malevolent spirits.”

With striking photos of textiles accompanied by text and archival photographs that show the textiles in use, the catalog moves through the life of the family and community. Subjects illuminated include the wedding, dowry, tent hangings, tablecloths and utensils, cradles, circumcision and clothing, illness and death.

Camel knee trappings (düýe dizlyk), Yomut people, Turkmenistan, c. 1950. Amulet (tumar), Yomut people, Turkmenistan, c. 1930-1950.

Design elements of Sacred Scraps are addressed in the section that follows, with attention to tools and equipment, pattern, color, and fabric. Photographs in this section are stunningly brilliant and varied. Finally, Sacred Scraps concludes with “The Tradition Continues.” Contemporary artists, some of them organized into groups and associations, are using bold, fully saturated color in geometric shapes, making their own distinct works but clearly drawing on recognizable meaning and familiar tradition. Sacred Scraps remains alive in the culture.

Martens’s Sacred Scraps will enrich the study of textiles even beyond Central Asia, as Turkic peoples came into Anatolia from Central Asia, bringing with them similar folk beliefs and uses of patchwork to ward off the evil eye or evil spirits. These deep beliefs survive despite profound political changes and altered geographic boundaries. Surrounded by these quilts and patchwork cloth, the enduring spiritual power of these splendid textiles is palpably evident. What we do and do not understand is made visible yet again.

The exhibition Sacred Scraps: Quilt and Patchwork Traditions of Central Asia continues at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, NE through December 16, 2017. Christine Martens is a member of TSA and worked in partnership with IQSCM curator, Marin Hanson.