Review by Leopold Kowolik

HE TEXTILE MUSEUM OF CANADA (TMC), in Toronto, comprises more than 12,000 objects that embody a broad range of processes and global expressions of human culture. But perhaps no one object type is as representative of TMC as Oriental rugs. One of the earliest acquisitions by the museum was a 19th-century rug from the Caucasus Region; the architect of the museum building, Thomas Kalman, was himself a prominent rug collector and donated more than 600 objects at his death.

It was fitting, therefore, that the TMC should begin their fortieth-anniversary year with an exhibition of rugs.

From Ashgabat to Istanbul: Oriental Rugs from Canadian Collections presented 75 rugs and rug-derived objects such as salt bags and camel headdresses. The items were drawn from 27 private collections as well as from the Nickle Galleries in Calgary, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Textile Museum itself. It is important to state the obvious: many of the objects in institutions like the TMC were at one time in private collections that were subsequently donated to the public trust. This emphasis on collecting was the main curatorial point of the exhibition. Putting this theme in the foreground could have resulted in the objects themselves being pushed into the background. But the objects were so vibrant and alive with cultural intrigue and romance that each item vigorously held its own. For example, a 500-year-old Egyptian Cairene Rug from the AGO still had enough strength in its crimson and emerald-green wool to be subtle and elegant; a 300-year-old Turkish prayer rug, well-used and frequently patched, had been made as part of a much larger rug to furnish a mosque, the worn patches revealing hidden stories of use and devotion.

The exhibition extended these early pieces with Iranian rugs from 2010 and 2011. It was rewarding to see current examples which served to underline the traditional quality of all the objects. The catalogue text describes the design of the modern rugs as showing “variations on traditional urban and tribal designs creatively stylized and rearranged.” Nevertheless, the collector of these two objects, Emad Keshmiri from Calgary, was quoted as saying that “rug communities everywhere seem to be focused on the past, as though no great works are being produced today. My goal is to shift the spotlight onto more contemporary works and to continue supporting current workshops and artists.”

The emphasis on collectors and their interests was not at the expense of detailed discussion of the different regions, processes, and stylistic variations. However, this was not a representative survey of Oriental rugs; the exhibition was about the choice of rugs and the reasons for those choices. The collecting tastes presented here were as broad, nuanced, and creative as the cultural origins, designs, and techniques embodied in the rugs themselves. Many objects were accompanied by text that explained how the collectors began or developed their passions. Some collections were enormous, assembled with an inclusive eye towards exemplary representation. Other collectors discovered rugs almost accidentally and found the same sort of appeal in these textiles as in abstract painting or sculpture. Especially important here was the role of individual collectors and rug merchants. Immigrants to Canada, especially from Turkey and Armenia in the early 20th century, introduced communities in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to Oriental rugs. Of course, the history of Western collecting of Eastern rugs goes back to the mid-19th century. Especially for Persian rugs, Western interest had played a significant role in shaping later Persian/Iranian innovations to service that developing market. By the beginning of the 20th century, Canadian dealers were able to take advantage of these established trade relations, importing rugs from all over the region represented by this exhibition. What had been a tiny and virtually inaccessible art form in the 19th century became available to those with the dedication to acquire these rare objects.

This passion for rugs is a defining element of the Textile Museum of Canada and is at the very heart of this celebration of collecting. What begins for a collector as personal pleasure turns into a second homecoming when the collection joins a museum—what Executive Director Shauna McCabe calls “a lineage of gifts.” But more importantly there is a third stage in which these works come to embody a social and communal statement of culture—an honourable sharing of a belief in ourselves. Canada’s global identity, just like that of the Textile Museum of Canada, embraces passion, devotion, and cultural exchange. The first 40 years of the TMC have drawn together strands of individual interest, and the museum exists today thanks to the intention and wisdom of collectors and curators. This unified vision represents much about who we are globally and what we can create as individuals.

From Spring/Summer 2015 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Leopold Kowolik is the Editor in Chief of Studio Magazine and an instructor in the Craft and Design Program at Sheridan College in Oakville.

Installation of From Ashgabat to Istanbul, Textile Museum of Canada
Courtesy of Textile Museum of Canada