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Textile art in San Francisco

On entering the Tribal & Textile Show at Fort Mason this February, it seemed that everything had changed but stayed the same. Although the show has been sold by Liz Lees to Kim Martindale and John Morris (Objects of Art LLC), producers of five other US art shows, I was still met at the door by Liz and the same friendly faces associated with the fair for many years. The special exhibition, this year of Indonesian textiles, was hanging in the foyer, and the stand design and floor layout seemed to be the same.

With so much material to see, I tend to find it takes me a bit of time to look past the things that are on display and really look, to realise what is of interest and exceptional and unusual. A case in point was perhaps the most remarkable textile in the show: the Lake Sentani barkcloth offered by Vicki Shiba (1). Michel Thieme wrote a definitive article about this esoteric group of barkcloths in HALI 175 (2013, pp.82-89), which began with a quote that describes well my sighting across the hall: ‘There is nothing that can be said about these tapa… save that they exceed all normal bounds. They present the signs of a writing so subtle, so spiritual, so abstract that the mind suffers a shock.’

Lake Sentani tapa cloth maro, northwest New Guinea, early 20th century. Barkcloth, natural dyes, pigment, 1.16 x 0.70 m (3' 9"x 2' 3"). Vicki Shiba, Mill Valley, California

Lake Sentani tapa cloth maro, northwest New Guinea, early 20th century. Barkcloth, natural dyes, pigment, 1.16 x 0.70 m (3′ 9″x 2′ 3″). Vicki Shiba, Mill Valley, California

The best textile art has an aesthetic impact that is greater than its physical dimensions. While the New Guinea maro may be one case in point, this may be best illustrated by the Fez belt displayed by Gebhart Blazek (4). Small and long, on a wall this textile does not draw one in across a room, but the dynamism and modernity of the design and the confident transition between bold patterns and colours are undeniable. This is one of the best of these fascinating lampas-woven silks that has been on the market for some years—a brilliant and surprising illustration of the sophistication of Muslim women’s fashion from the early 18th century. It deserves to be in a museum.

Fez belt, Morocco, 17th century. Silk and metal thread, lampas weave. Gebhart Blazek, Graz, Austria

Fez belt, Morocco, 17th century. Silk and metal thread, lampas weave. Gebhart Blazek, Graz, Austria

With well over one hundred pieces, Peter Pap and Ben Benayan created a show within a show, of great value to the fair and to the rug community locally. This was not an act of pure generosity as there were several significant sales made throughout the fair, mostly of the best of the bag faces, and mostly benefitting Wendel Swan, whose two iconic Shahsavan sumakh bags sold for a total of more than $80,000—a figure that should draw serious attention to the successful ‘deaccessioning’ service that Pap has established. I had not seen the cruciform bag (2) in the flesh before but was shocked by its crisp condition: it seems as if it has never been used as the colours are bright and the wool has the silky quality you only see with wool that has age but that has not been subject to any significant friction or use. That the same buyer bought both bags is not a surprise as they have been much published and jealously feted when unavailable.

Shahsavan sumakh bag, northwest Persia, Moghan-Savalan region, 19th century. 0.51 m (1' 8") square. Wendel R. Swan Collection, Peter Pap, San Francisco

Shahsavan sumakh bag, northwest Persia, Moghan-Savalan region, 19th century. 0.51 m (1′ 8″) square. Wendel R. Swan Collection, Peter Pap, San Francisco

One of the central themes of the fair this year was Indonesia and its textile traditions, centered around the foyer exhibition ‘Indonesian Textile Treasures, A Living Legacy’ organised by Curtis and Margaret Keith Clemson of Dancing Threads in New Mexico. It included pieces such as a batik breast wrapper on loan from the Textile Museum of Jakarta (5), as well as pieces for sale to show the depth and diversity of the archipelago’s textile culture. This exhibition of course was a theme that played into the hands of the world’s leading dealer and expert in Javanese batik, Rudolf Smend, who had an outstanding display of batiks and even had a piece  (a donation) in the Jakarta Textile Museum display.

 

Batik kemben, central Java, Indonesia, 20th century. 0.51 x 2.81 m (1' 8" x 9' 3"). Textile Museum, Jakarta, Gift of Rudolf Smend

Batik kemben, central Java, Indonesia, 20th century. 0.51 x 2.81 m (1′ 8″ x 9′ 3″). Textile Museum, Jakarta, Gift of Rudolf Smend

 

Zeikhur rug, northeast Caucasus, circa 1870. 0.99 x 1.65 m (3' 3" x 5' 5"). Hagop Manoyan, New York

Zeikhur rug, northeast Caucasus, circa 1870. 0.99 x 1.65 m (3′ 3″ x 5′ 5″). Hagop Manoyan, New York

Attendance is reported to be about the same as a few years ago and the lecture programme was a great addition to the show and drew good numbers of people. However, even with a greatly increased promotional spend, the profile of most visitors and buyers was much the same as in past years, while the dealers want access to new buyers and to attract a new, younger audience. This is a persistent refrain or problem in the antiques and non-western art field, and it cannot be the job of just this one fair to crack this hard nut. It is clear that the show provides solid foundations for building a wider awareness and appreciation of non-western art, and it is up to all of those involved in the business to find ways to do this—together.

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