Textiles Along the Silk Route
From: Thursday, 25 May 2017 to Sunday, 12 November 2017
Curated by Deborah Whitford
The silk road is a series of routes, thought to date back to the sixth or seventh centuries BC which cross the area from East to West and North to South, following the rivers and water supplies, avoiding geographical obstacles to keep travellers and animals safe and avoid bandits. On most journeys the goods carried for trade changed hands five to six times, however sometimes far more.
When Marco Polo travelled, recorded and published his travels in the thirteenth century from the West to the East, he produced the greatest travel book ever written.
In 1877, the term “Seidenstraße” literally “Silk Road” was coined by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen. It struck a cord and is still in use today.
In the East, the destination of great interest was China as it held the secret to producing silk, then later paper and tea. It was amongst other things, the source of fine porcelain, very sophisticated and it was exotic and totally foreign to the West. Ideas and goods were traded along the routes.
Along the routes there were many other areas that had items of value, Afghanistan for example had a valuable underground supply of lapis lazuli which was and is a wonderful colour for painting.
From the East goods were traded to Turkey and then beyond to Venice and Europe. Istanbul was the city which was a gateway between East and West. Trade made many of the countries very rich and their cultures are still infused with this richness today.
Constant wars in some lands made the easiest routes unusable over much of these times.
Horses were well trained but had to give way to the dromedary camels, famously temperamental but they could traverse these routes where horses could not.
The availability of better ships and navigation made the journey easier as time went on but only part of the way.
For this exhibition, I have chosen a route from Istanbul to China travelling through the Stans, taking in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and into China. This route, often took in Pakistan, Kashmir and surrounding countries.
I have also chosen textiles as the basis of the exhibition as I wanted to show how an idea could travel, how a design like the Kashmir or boteh design could be taken up by so many cultures, sometimes renamed and its history changed as if it had manifested from another culture.
Also, I have some items which show how the silk trade and chinoiserie designs were still popular in Victorian England. These designs have never faded from popularity but been reinvented over and over again.
Tulips come from Turkey, on the steppes in the mountains and a Sultan lost his kingdom over his obsession with them long before the Dutch grew them and lost fortunes over them. Further, there are many plants in our gardens which come from the areas of the silk routes. Much was traded on those routes.
The Turkish people have an astounding love of textiles, some of them they make and some they trade from countries on the silk route. The value placed on textiles in Turkey is far greater than we place on them in our culture.
Rugs and good textiles have often been traded and are held to be as good as money when peoples of Europe or the East have had to move around. Textiles have a value which is good for trading even today. However, it is not a practise I have found in Australia.
The Chinese had various goods and commodities which the West was desperate to obtain and each one was guarded by the Chinese. During the era of tea, it was forbidden for any foreigner to be taught the local languages and therefore if any person should disobey the law, the offense was punishable by death. Foreigners lived at the ports where they were confined and not allowed to travel to the interior of China. The English were desperate for the secret of tea as they were selling their silver to pay for the tea – it was so popular.
I HAVE USED THE CURRENT NAMES OF COUNTRIES TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR IDENTIFICATION.
I have kept the information in the article brief but it is a fascinating and intensely complex history.
I recommend the following books where some of the information is from – other information is from my years of collecting textiles and travelling.
THE SILK ROADS – A ROUTE AND PLANNING GUIDE BY PAUL WILSON.
Trailblazer publications – third edition.
TEA – A history of the drink that changed the world by JOHN GRIFFITHS.
Published by Andre Deutsch.