(ed. This series of posts on soumak bag faces was written three or four years ago and has been in the Archive of past posts for some time. Since the topic is a timely one, we thought it pertinent to place it here so that many of our new readers could access it easily.)
There have been a number of posts about differentiating pre-1850 soumak bag-faces from later ones on RugKazbah.com and readers are by now aware how rare these early pieces are. Soumak bags are very popular and accordingly when they appear for sale, in publications or even for an online discussion, they are a very hot topic.
detail #1 detail#2
Like most weaving made outside the atelier/workshop/factory scheme these small but larger than life soumak khorjin-faces have come down to us without provenance or even the vaguest of attributions. There isn’t even one reliable recorded oral history available for early (pre-commercial period)references concerning them.
It is as if this tradition popped out of nowhere and then, during the later part of the 19th century, found its way back.
The inherent problems this situation has caused make understanding these weavings (in common with all other types of Near Eastern rug or flat-weave that were produced in early periods and made in similar production circumstances) extremely difficult to say the least. The exact ethnographic uses are still unknown and the historical significance, meaning and derivation of their complex patterns even further from our present comprehension.
It is for these reasons we must look to an art historical approach in trying to ascertain answers to these and the many other questions soumak bag raise.
Fortunately the weavers of these flat-woven saddle-bags used a very limited design vocabulary and this allows most of them to be grouped together and classified by design. Additionally the sometimes subtle, but always observable, changes (i.e. various deletions, additions and re-combinations) exhibited within each of these groups can be used as the basis to place each weaving on a comparative time-line continuum.
The place each example occupies within such a continuum can be supported by other criteria, not only a visual comparison of design nuance. Careful examination of the dyes (palette and coloration) and minute differences in weaving materials and technique proves these characteristics changed over time and with the compilation of sufficient data it becomes rather easy to separate the earlier, (archetype and prototype) examples from the various editions of later copies.
Of course these continuum are, in reality, a de facto dating system that has been discussed here on RugKazbah.com in several other threads. For that reason we suggest interested readers view the discussions in the “FLATWEAVES” Topic Area where several of these appear. Reading these threads will explain the validity of these continuum and the dating implications they provide.
This rather long introduction was necessary because the topic at hand: Birth of a Design : rests on the continuum approach and presupposes almost every later soumak bag design-form has a direct and demonstrable relationship with an original, i.e. earlier archetype/prototype version.
Yes, I know for some readers this may seem unbelievable or worse than that – total BS. But because complex patterned soumak weaving, like Turkmen weaving, was practiced exclusively within isolated/insulated and apparently highly disciplined family/clan cadres - unlike the village and even larger town setups the pile carpets in Turkey, much of the Caucasus and Iran were produced in - the proscribed nature of their archaic iconography was able to remain protected and almost inviolate.
During the middle 19th century this changed. The proliferation of new groups weaving soumak bags and mafrash for outside trade or sale (as was, coincidently, the case with all types of Turkmen main carpets and bags) and the increasingly large numbers of them produced were directly responsible for the changes in design, coloration, materials and technique that differentiate these later examples from their earlier predecessors.
While there might be some debate as to what these changes actually imply, there is none concerning their existence.
Let’s now show what might appear to a novice collector as an early/unusual/prototype design is actually nothing more than a watered-down simplification of a far more complex and archaic icon or assemblage of them.
Here is a photo of the complete bag-face detail #2 came from:
Some astute readers will recognize it as one of the two soumak bags that appeared in the kaffel’s performance at acor in Seattle.
Here is the complete photo of soumak bag the other detail, #1, came from:
Some of you should remember this bag as it has appeared here on RugKazbah.com before and is also online in the ‘Soumak Bag Exhibition’ on the Weaving Art Museum website - http://www.weavingartmuseum.org/ex2_main.htm).
There are some very obvious similarities here everyone will agree exist, particularly the use of the “same” main border and barber-pole ancillary borders. However, the most salient aspect is somewhat less overt. In fact, it is covert and hidden to all but those who have a high level of expertise and familiarity with soumak khorjin.
Examine the two details from these bags above, which we have now pictured again here for ease of discussion:
detail #1 detail#2
It should be clear to even the most novice observer these two designs are closely related - #2 being a watered down simplified version of #1. It should also now be clear #1 is definitely the archaic icon #2 has been modeled after.
This might be considered a stretch of imagination by some but the fact the weaver of kaffel’s bag used the same main border, albeit also in a simpler form, helps to confirm this relationship. However, more significantly it highlights the connection and proscribed use certain field and border stripes maintained and proves this proscription continued even as other aspects of these soumak were in decline or completely forgotten.
These photos and details make it clear the weaver of kaffel’s bag was unable to capture the essence of the complex and mysterious iconography in the field of #1 and, if we had both bags available for a hands-on comparison, there would be other tell-tale indications as well proving #1 was the archetype.
Soon a Part II to this discussion will examine this relationship a bit further and point out some of the finer points about the kaffel’s bag they missed in the short write-up they worked up when the photos appeared online.
Stay tuned more to come on the Birth of A Design.