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Tibetan Rugs at Adraskand

Exhibition Review by Murray Eiland

This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 11, #6

Over the years, I have reviewed a number of special exhibits at Adraskand, the Marin County gallery operated by Anne Halley and Michael Craycraft. From an early focus on Turkoman pieces, the emphasis later became directed more toward Baluch and Afshar rugs, with periodic world-class exhibitions in these specialized areas. The shows have been more than just visual treats, however, as the selection of rugs and the attributions have always managed to throw some new light on the subject or raise new questions. Clearly the owners were doing more than simply operating a business. Their love for the rugs has always been apparent, and there are always pieces on display from local collections, included for the interest of the gallery-goer rather than as objects for sale. This has provided a real service to the rug community, and nowhere do I find this more apparent than with their current showing of Tibetan rugs.

When I first became aware of the Tibetan carpet in the early 1970s, the pieces coming to market usually arrived via Nepal, where they had been bought by refugees following the Chinese suppression of a Tibetan uprising in 1959. While the rugs sold to westerners in Kathmandu no doubt reflected the tastes of contemporary affluent Tibetans, they appear, in retrospect, to have been primarily urban products of the preceding 50 years, often with overly bright colors and designs highly derivative from Chinese or other sources. During the last decade, however, particularly the last five years, the market has dramatically improved. Westerners now travel to Lhasa, and a more sophisticated breed of dealer is ferreting out the older and more unusual pieces. As serious collectors have taken up the Tibetan rug, a greater understanding of the Tibetan aesthetic has arisen. There are better Tibetan rugs on the market now then there have ever been, and important collections are being assembled, such as the excellent Rutherford Collection.

Tibetan warp faced back "meditation mat", Collection of David Slusher 3'3" x 3'5"

Focus of these new collections takes many directions. Rugs with human skulls, skeletons, flayed skins, and ritual objects were apparently woven for religious ceremonies and often attract the most immediate attention. Whether many of these pieces are objects of great beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the best of them have the appeal of reflecting an intact, indigenous, non-Western culture, rich in exotic imagery and associations. The myriad of tiger rugs has also appealed greatly to many collectors, as they are not so much frightening in intent, but appealing as vigorous or even whimsical folk art. Reflecting the powerful natural force represented by the tiger, these pieces should remind us that until the recent availability of firearms, the small Asian village lived in fear of this great beast.
Both the ritual pieces and tiger rugs have their adherents. Along with the great bulk of Tibetan pieces, they seem to have been woven in such urban centers as Shigatse, Gyantse, and Lhasa, where we also find designs that often involve adaptations of Chinese dragons, at times with the phoenix, and the small medallions characteristic of 19th century Chinese rugs. Many of these urban rugs are based on Chinese textile patterns, and some even show a vaguely Chinese color scheme. At best these rugs, presumably urban products, show designs of great balance and sensitivity, usually with a palette somewhat freer than that of China.

Illustration 1. A small runner, possibly intended for use in a monastery, 2'8"x6'8"

The Adraskand exhibit, however, has taken an entirely different approach, and it raises a major question as to whether we are now justified in hypothesizing a division of Tibetan rugs into urban and rural types, in which there are village rugs bearing a similar relationship to their urban cousins as the rural rugs of Persia do to city products. It has usually been assumed that most older Tibetan rugs reaching the market came from urban centers.

Now there may be reason to draw some fresh distinctions. The type of rug in question is one that has appeared rarely on the western market, and it is characterized by an extremely coarse weave in which the pile yarns are looped under only the upper shed of warps, leaving the back showing no design at all. I published one of these rugs, from the H. McCoy Jones Collection, in my 1979 Chinese and Exotic Rugs, and it was some years before I saw another. At that time I had no clue as to
why these were different from other Tibetan rugs. There are 12 rugs of this type in the Adraskand exhibit (two plates), and, taken as a collection, they establish a new type that, on its surface, could make a good case for being Tibetan village or nomad rugs. Not only do they show their own color schemes, but the designs seem entirely unrelated to the Chinese-inspired pieces, and the shaggy pile gives a startlingly different impression from the Tibetan urban rug. There is one saddle piece in the group (with the shape of a two-piece type but woven in one piece), several long narrow rugs, and some large squares. Most have a thick, luxuriant added fringe on all sides, but none appear in the typical Tibetan "sleeping carpet" format. In some respects, in wool, color, and design, they are suggestive of the Uzbek pieces woven only on the top shed of warps, only here the pile is formed by a different method. It is difficult to look at both types together without hypothesizing a relationship.

Illustration 2. An early and elegant saddle piece. Collection of T. Cole 2'1"x3'

As an added bonus, the rugs are beautiful. The combination of simple geometric forms with the rich colors brings about an aesthetically pleasing effect. I know of no other type that can make a more plausible claim to being the indigenous Tibetan rug. While Tom Cole, who located and purchased these rugs, believes they are from western Tibet, there have also been suggestions that they are of nomadic origin. Other rugs in the exhibit also seem to avoid the urban style, as we see a number of extremely well colored checkerboard rugs, as well as a piecewith staggered polygons that form an intricate series of swastikas (Illustration 1). There are also a number of small mats of real distinctions, including one recently exhibited as #263b in "Oriental Rugs from Pacific Collections," along with the tiger stripe pillar rugs (#265) and several others in that exhibit.

.The exhibit is also notable for what it does not include. There are none of the brightly colored dragon and phoenix pieces so esteemed by the Tibetan rug dealers of 15 years ago. There are no cuddly fo-dogs or playful tigers, although several pieces show highly stylized tiger stripes. Few pieces show a strong Chinese influence. In short, the exhibit is quite atypical, and those who have become accustomed to the more standard Tibetan types are in for a surprise.

So how does it all add up? In my opinion it is thought-provoking and immensely satisfying. Everyone should learn something from these rugs that are among the most truly beautiful Tibetan pieces I have yet seen, and they include among them the remains of an elegant saddle piece that, in my subjective judgment, must substantially predate the standard fare (Illustration 2). An 18th century date is not at all implausible. Altogether the exhibit is a grand success, probably the most appealing ever of Tibetan rugs, and I cannot imagine it being surpassed in the near future.

Congratulations to Adraskand for a spectacular job!


At the time that this exhibition was being planned, I recall Michael Craycraft telling me that this would be a 'once in a lifetime' event, a truly monumental and definitive exhibition of old Tibetan rugs. Having little experience with mounting exhibitions or gathering rugs for such shows, the full weight of his words was not fully absorbed. It seemed unlikely that no one would be able to do this again. But his prediction held true; only the Denver ACOR exhibit come close but fell short of the depth and breadth that characterised this show. In retrospect, it is gratifying to read Murray Eiland's words at this late date. Other collections existed at the time other than the Rutherford Collection of which Murray was not aware. Earnest buyers in Hong Kong and Singapore had started to pursue these rugs with a purpose, and I trust some of those collections are still intact and may one day be shown. But no single private collection could possibly come close to what was presented at Adraskand in 1991. With the contribution of a few rugs from Tony Anninos, the Adraskand exhibition was dramatic and of great signficance. Unfortunately, we did not have the resources to photograph every piece that was present, but I still remember. And there were some truly great examples!

Copyright 1991 by Murray Eiland. Original text and photographs appeared in Oriental Rug Review, August, 1991.
With thanks to
Oriental Rug Review, Ron O'Callaghan and Murray Eiland for permission to reproduce this review here.