(First published on April 20, 2008 RK believes our look at the hajji baba "Timbuktu to Tibet" fete, exhibition and publication deserves attention today almost five years later.
Alot has happened in rugDUMB since, frankly hardly anything we could characterize as good, as there have been a number former features which now have become disappearing acts. For instance the end of the icoc and acor organizations. In the same category is jon thompson's disappearance from the scene.
His work on the hajji baba "Timbuktu to Tibet" remains his last major effort.
RK has been relentless in pointing out thompson's ridiculously inflated "reputation". One that continues regardless of the facts and truth which demonstrate what a carpet-bagging self-propelled 'business man' hiding in the clothes of a "scholar" the majority of thompson's rug world career proves him to have been.
The public's memory is short, and rugDUMB's is even shorter.
Anyway, read these three posts and remember.
This is the first of several posts concerning the “Timbuktu to Tibet” publication RK will publish.
It will set the stage for some additional comments that we will be posting later next week.
But for the time being let's open the subject with some general observations about the book.
First, and on the good side, we can assuredly state it is good value, considering there are 300 pages and probably more than that number of pictures; that's a lot of pics for $49.95, the retail price of the book.
The paper used for the publication is high-quality, the layout is excellent, as is the printing by and large when compared to other books in its price range.
As far as the text goes, we have to say the most interesting chapter is the one written by Thomas J. Farnham, titled “Rugs in the City”.
Now for the bad side, we will first say a few words about the technical aspects of the volume.
Most obvious to someone who has written and published 3 books (we do not count the Tent Band-Tent Bag book, or one we ghost wrote on Kashmir Shawls, as we only wrote them and did not work to produce them) is the poor quality of the binding.
Just as an aside, when we say we published 3 books we should explain not only did we pay for them; but we also directly oversaw and hands-on produced them, and in doing so became quite knowledgeable about the technical aspects of book layout, printing and binding.
Binding is, like super quality printing, something that is not easy to achieve and, like printing superb quality pictures, the cost is high.
But, unlike high quality printing, which is easy for any prospective buyer to spot, few if any understand or appreciate the difference excellent binding makes – that is until the book starts to fall apart in their hands sometime after purchase.
This is one aspect of book production most publishers skimp on -- and that is definitely the case with Timbuktu to Tibet.
Will it fall apart in your hands? We believe any well read copy of “Tibet To Timbuktu” will, that is unless great care is taken to prevent undo stress on this weakness.
The copy we have is already slanting to the right, a typical problem encountered when using a heavy coated stock and binding it with a machines better suited to a lighter weight paper.
But binding quality has never been one the hali organization has mastered and, besides a few of the most expensive projects they have had their hand in like Kirrcheim's "Orient Stars", we have seen poor binding quality more often than not.
We also question why the pictures are numbered utilizing a somewhat confusing, outdated and arcane decimal system (1.1, 1.2, etc) rather than consecutively (1, 2, 3, etc).
We also question why there are so many pictures portraits of native people, especially since the majority of them are very recent and do not do much to place the old rugs and textiles the volume deals with into their original context.
Far better would have been to have had 19th century photos of such people and scenes – they are available but naturally more difficult to procure.
But perhaps the greatest criticism a reviewer could lay on this book is it is neither fish nor fowl.
By that we mean the text is not really one aimed at a audience that knows little or nothing about old and important rugs, nor is does it advance any academic or scholarly treatment of them.
It's always a mistake to attempt to be all things to all people and that's the main drawback to the book's concept, as it truly fails at being an introductory tome -- it's supposed and stated purpose.
Another problem is the republishing some of the best pieces and the inclusion of many that are not really historic or great art by anyone's standards.
In fact for RK the most significant failure of the tome is the lack of more than a sole unpublished best of type example (we will discuss that in a following post), considering there undoubtedly should be some in the "august" collections of the hajji baba members.
We know quite a lot about jon thompson(we visited his home in London a number of times, as he did to ours in New York, and spent many hours talking with him about Turkmen rugs- all this prior to 1983), the principal author and the person directly responsible for choosing the examples, and can only surmise this lack of any other super-star quality rugs and textiles might be due to the following reasons.
In publishing true best of type masterpieces thompson would have had to have worked-up a scholar's sweat to properly and adequately describe them, something he clearly avoids in his rather long-winded effort to fill the required number of text pages.
Or it just might be the hajji's who own such pieces did not wish to publicly expose them at this time and in this book.
We might agree with them if that was the case, however, the complete lack of even one other major super-star rug or textile is a drawback, and somewhat embarrassing, no matter how you slice it.
There is also another reason we have heard rumor about: To get a piece in the catalog and exhibition it was just like “Carpet Magic”, another thompson effort, where every illustration was included not for its merits but only because the owner paid 300 English pounds for its inclusion.
Supposedly, as the rumor we recently heard goes, this book too required any hajji to pay for having his/her piece(s) included.
We will try to find out if this rumor is factual and report back when and if we do.
That said there are a few examples that almost are super-stars and, in the next installment, we will picture them for our reader's pleasure.
We will also then delve into some selected portions of thompson’s text, but for now we would like to close with some comments about his introduction.
After his acknowledging what an “honor” it was to participate in the project thompson states the following:
“In the study of material culture it has always struck me how the removal of an object from the society in which it served some definite purpose causes it to undergo a kind of death. In a new cultural setting it is re-endowed with significance, but of a totally different kind. For example, a bride-to-be embroiders the veil for her wedding. She does it with a degree of care, attention and respect appropriate to the significance of the occasion; it is worn with solemnity and treasured thereafter as a reminder of an event that marked a major transition in her life. Take the same object and mount it on a board in a museum and it is transformed into a object of beauty and interest, employing certain materials and techniques, having certain significant designs, a known function and date of production. But the change of human emotion, the hope and expectation associated with the event, the living feelings and memory of the person who made it – all that has been irretrievably lost. In the same with a sacred object in a glass case – never will it excite the same feelings in the observer as it did in someone for whom it was an object of reverence. Yet it has always seemed to me that it is possible to get a little closer to the objects we enjoy if we remember that every one of them was made by someone for some purpose. So this is the story I have chosen: the people, the way they lived and worked, and the function of the things they made.”
When we read this glib, salubrious declaration we were not surprised as almost everything thompson has done in the sphere of oriental rugs, since his Bogolubyov annotation, could be so described – glib and salubrious.
It is surely painfully obvious any rug or textile was made by “someone” for “some purpose” – but it is answering the questions of who made them and why that the leading author in RugDumb should be preoccupied.
But those answers would have required that scholar’s sweat we just mentioned, and it is also painfully obvious not a bead of that sweat must have appeared on thompson’s brow while working on this project.
We also take umbrage to his rather back-handed description of that bride who made that bridal veil, especially his stating that once the same object is mounted “…on a board in a museum…it is transformed into a object of beauty and interest…”
Well, good golly gosh, jonny-boy, wasn’t it an object of beauty and interest when she was wearing it or even when it was stored in a trunk and no one saw it?
Our pointing this out might seem to many to be immaterial, however, thompson’s intent isn’t.
His read-between-the-lines and implied sense of superiority over that bride, and her culture, needs no further explanation once his statement is examined in the light of that reality – and that, perhaps more than any of his unspoken reasons for feeling sensing the “death” he describes belies what one might otherwise hope caused him to write it.
We also note his purpose, “ So this is the story I have chosen: the people, the way they lived and worked, and the function of the things they made.” is even more questionable and unfulfilled.
How about for starters the fact we know next to nothing about who made any pre-late 19th century rug or textile besides those few signed examples made in court ateliers or the even more rarely encountered town, village or clan examples.
We really know nothing of how these people actually lived or, believe it or not, how they originally used such objects.
In saying so Thompson is guilty once more slipping down the slope of glib prose rather than genuinely answering the major questions that plague rug studies, especially rug studies concerned with non-urban weavings made far from the confines of court, town or village organized production.
To close we ask: Are we the only reader who will pick-up on these salient points, or will everyone else be so enthralled and hypnotized by thompson’s salubrious pen and overblown reputation that they will dare not question his underlying intent and inability to admit it?