Date of this Version
Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
Spanning well beyond the parameters of the Middle East, Islam has always had a global reach. It has adapted to numerous cultures and ancient histories encountered over the past 1,400 years. But, due to the prevailing Eurocentric purview in American museums, little has been recorded about the artists and makers of Islamic textiles. Many of these objects were produced by collective, royal workshops with unnamed contributors, or were intended for devotional use inside domestic spaces. With colonial ventures, too, many passed through the hands of collectors and dealers solely interested in the object’s material or aesthetic value.
A group of previously unconnected Persian silk textiles located at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, The Textile Museum at George Washington University, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery share strikingly similar mihrab motifs, damask patterns, and colors—and perhaps a shared origin story. Catalogued names vary from Carol Bier’s mention of a “woven panel” at The Textile Museum, to Mustapha Avigdor’s brocaded satin at RISD, originally entitled “traveling prayer rug.” Each textile has a different donor and provenance record, but the presence of a unique mihrab clearly signals a connection. An amalgamation of diverse peoples and artistic traditions led to significant arts patronage in Persia between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, but Bier suggests that a specific place of production is difficult to pin down. This new research cluster of textiles provides scholars with the opportunity to better understand how knowledge passed between weavers and generations throughout Central Asia. This paper seeks to reconstitute the lost history of these pieces, through exploring the mihrab’s pattern and visualizing those who made and used these textiles. It will also consider the museum as an unexpected home for these objects, presenting new ways in which they can be re/contextualized and honored for their inherent narratives.