Who is Hajji Baba?
That’s the first question that arises from an exhibition of Oriental rugs celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Hajji Baba Club. The loan exhibition, "Woven Splendor from Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rugs and Textiles from New York Collectors," is now at the New-York Historical Society at 170 Central Park West, Apr. 11-Aug. 17, 2008.
For the record, Hajji Baba was a Persian picaresque hero in the novels of the Englishman James Justinian Mortier (1870-1849), who was also a representative of the government at the court or Persia (now Iran). This country’s oldest group of rug collectors adopted his name when they formed in 1932, becoming the Hajji Baba Club.
Once I actually peeked at the spectacular rugs and textiles on display, I forgot names and was lost in rich colors, vibrant patterns, and complex abstract designs that would leave any Neo Geo or Op artist gasping. This array of more than 100 carpets, coverings, decorative items and pieces of clothing dates from the 15th to the 20th century. And it is spectacular.
Most come from the Islamic Near East and Central Asia. One prayer rug is composed of tiny abstract elements but also has a "mihrab," or niche representing the direction of Mecca in a mosque, a combination of the abstract and the naturalistic common to many of these rugs. Yet the deep, shimmering colors of this one, produced in the 19th century, probably by a sub-tribe of the Baluch, who skirt eastern Iran and Afghanistan, make it anything but common.
A small Baluch bag for containing personal items, woven in one piece then folded in half and sewn, may be simply made, but its zigzag design produces an Op Art buzz as if it were a miniature Bridget Riley.
For elegance it’s hard to beat a velvet ikat (tie-dye) robe from Uzbekistan. Made for a woman, this 19th-century garment of silk velvet has a sumptuous texture. While current Uzbek pieces may not be as wonderful as this example, at least the same techniques are being used to make textiles today. This can’t be said of many of the pieces here.
Felt boots, from Turkey in the 20th century, for example, are no longer being made, having been replaced by rubber ones. Felt is a fabric but not woven, and so not really a textile; it is made of pounded fibers of wool, a long, physically taxing process. Formerly, shepherds and others would have worn felt boots and capes, but not any more.
Felt also appears in a Kyrgyzstan decorative panel that was probably created to help form the inner walls of a tent. The striking lights and darks were cut out of felt pieces and stitched together. Usually this was done with two colors, not five as here, with the pieces swapped and the two panels put together.
Notable examples of textiles in the show also come from China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Africa and Moorish Spain. A silk curtain fragment from Nasrid Spain (1232-1492), the last Islamic dynasty in southern Spain, substitutes golden thread for the precious metal threads that were popular earlier. This "Alhambra silk," so called because it was made at roughly the time the Alhambra Palace in Granada was being constructed, around the 14th or 15th century, has Arabic script amid registers of stars, flowers and interlaced bands that glow in gold against red, green and black.
A Tibetan rug with a vivid orange tiger skin from the 20th century brings to mind the show of Tantric rugs that Rossi & Rossi assembled for the last International Asian Art Fair. Like those, this image of a flayed tiger skin may have been used as a meditation rug.
Embroidery adds another dimension to pieces like a rare 18th- or 19th-century Tajikistan bridal veil with a rooster border that may point to Zoroastrian origins and a 19th-century silk-embroidered saddle cover for what must have been a very prized horse from Azerbaijan.
To dive into the unknown, just stare into the central, dark blue field of a "talesh" rug from the Caucasus. It’s like being transported into the outer reaches of the solar system. But a glance at a colorful woven, fringed and tasseled camel knee pad (for weddings in Central Asia) brings you right back to earth.
I predict visitors will give thanks to the Hajji Baba Club for their generosity in sharing this remarkable and varied group of textiles. Dr. Jon Thompson, director of the Beattie Carpet Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, has curated the show and written the informative catalogue. It contains an essay by Thomas J. Farnham on the history of the Hajji Baba Club for those who want to know more about the group and its namesake.
Next door is the show "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York: 1850-1930," which explores how the Middle East captured the imagination of New Yorkers. It offers historical context for the Hajji Baba rug exhibition with such items as a painting of Cairo by Gérôme, a Moorish chandelier by Tiffany, books, souvenirs and photos of high society’s smoking dens and fancy dress Oriental-style clothing. In 1907, the writer O. Henry memorably called New York "Baghdad-on-the-Subway." Enjoy.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.