Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures

Book review:  Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection · Lisa Hjalt

Earlier this summer I received a book for reviewing, Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection. It is truly a beautiful book that I enjoyed reading; I recommend it to anyone interested in exotic textiles and Islamic culture. Jennifer Wearden is the author of the text; Jennifer Scarce writes the introduction. The collection is a tribute to the grandmother of Altaf S. Al Sabah. In a short note before her preface, she explains that al lulwa means a pearl, which was her late grandmother's name. The book is produced by Paul Holberton publishing. In a press release they state: 'The Al Lulwa Collection has a heritage that reaches back well over a thousand years, and is significant both for its quality and as an illustration of the survival and adaptation of a major industry.'

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures is a paperback with flaps, 200 pages with 140 illustrations in colour. It's divided into four chapters: 1) Floral Decoration, 2) Geometric Patterns, 3) The Written Word, and 4) Applied Decoration. The textiles come from the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, India, and North Africa. Wearden has written a flowing, entertaining description about each item featured. The text is educating without being too scholarly, enriched with historic and cultural details.

Each piece of textile featured in the book is described with an illustration next to it, and the details of many have a close-up view on a separate page. For me, a non-scholar in textile design, this was very interesting; to be able to explore the motifs and patterns in more detail with Wearden's text as a guide. Sometimes she compares the textiles and points out their differences and similarities, which I find invaluable. Occasionally she points out the mistakes of patterns, which make them even more fascinating to look at. The book also includes a glossary with drawings of various stitches.

Detail: Part of a cenotaph, a tomb cover, Iran, early 18th century, pp. 140-3

Altaf S. Al Sabah, 'a researcher and writer in material culture and traditional arts', says she started collecting textiles in the early 1980s and she supports the preservation of the craft. In her preface, written in Kuwait in 2015, she writes how she loved wearing her 'traditional thoubs, Kashmiri shawls, Palestinian, Egyptian and Ottoman dresses' and that 'weavings and embroideries hang blissfully' on her walls (p. 7). Given some of the stunning wall hangings featured in the book I can only imagine the style of her home. She gives the reason for presenting her collection:
In the light of the rapid vanishing of many craft traditions in the Arab and Islamic world in general, and the slow extinction of many of the fine hand skills related to traditional textiles and embroideries in particular, I thought it relevant to showcase some notable pieces of late Islamic decorative textile arts to be enjoyed and appreciated today as they were in the past. (p. 7)

Left: Woman's dress, Saudi Arabia, Ta'if region, Bani Sa'ad tribe, 2nd half 20th century, p. 186.
Right: Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, p. 51

Mi'zar al-hammam, a wrap, Syria, mid 20th century, pp. 126-7

As someone fascinated with the geometric designs and motifs in Islamic art, I have to say that I particularly enjoyed reading the 'Geometric Patterns' chapter. However, for me, 'The Written Word' chapter with its beautiful calligraphy was probably the most pleasing visually. Before moving on to the textiles featured in the former, Wearden observes:
Geometric designs are the most characteristic feature of Islamic art and are found in their most perfect form decorating both the interior and exterior of buildings, symbolizing the principles of tawhid (the unity of all things) and mizan (balance), which are the laws of creation. (p. 85)

Shawl border, Kashmir, 19th/20th century, pp. 44-5

The text is rich with Arabic words and their meaning and I found myself writing some down in my notebook, such as the word khamsa, or the Hand of Fatima, a common decorative motif. Another common motif, that reoccurs in the 'Floral Decoration' chapter, is the boteh (see image above). In the Western world we refer to the motif as paisley, named after the Scottish town (Glasgow area) that became famous for its patterned shawls. Wearden explains how the motif evolved:
It began life in the late [17th] century as a naturalistic floral sprig, a stem with a few leaves and three or four flowers. By the early [18th] century the uppermost flower was drooping to one side; by the middle of the [18th] century the leaves and flowers were less well-defined and the sprig was fast becoming an outline containing flower heads and foliage; by the beginning of the [19th] century it had taken the form we are familiar with today. (p. 23)

Man's abba, Syria or Iran, late 19th/early 20th century, pp. 98-9

The pattern featured on the cover of the book in detail can be traced to its former owner. It's the gold and purple man's abba in the image above that belonged to Major-General Sir Percy Zachariah Cox (1864-1937). He was a British Indian Army officer and diplomat, a key figure in the creation of Iraq. Wearden observes that this robe would unlikely fade into the background. 'Royal purple and bright gold thread send out a clear message of wealth and power, they attract attention, they say "look at me"' (p. 98). Oh, we see you indeed!

Tegeia, Tunisia, Mahdia, probably 1920 to mid 20th century, pp. 182-3

The fourth chapter, 'Applied Decoration', is short and contains a few beautiful pieces for women. The Tunisian tegeia is one of them, a headpiece worn by 'a bride on the day henna was applied to her hands and feet' (p. 183). As seen in the image above, the fringe has a star-shaped medallion and its filigree work a small English gold sovereign with the head of King George V.

Top: Shawl, Syria, Damascus, dated 1855, p. 146.
Left (detail): Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, pp. 50-1 (see in full in image No. 5 above).
Right: Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 172

If you happen to be into calligraphy you will likely take in more slowly the textiles featured in 'The Written Word' chapter, which is decorated with Arabic calligraphy by Jasser AlShammari. It has gorgeous cloths and e.g. Egyptian hangings called khayamiya in blue and red that I couldn't stop admiring (see below and above right). Wearden explains the importance of calligraphy in the Muslim world:
The art of calligraphy, Khatt ul-Yad, is the practice of hand-writing based on the Arabic script and for many Muslims is the most admired and esteemed form of Islamic art, because it links the people with the language of the Qur'an and through that with the spiritual world. (p. 135)
She points out embroidering mistakes, or broken strokes, which were probably the result of either the embroiderer's carelessness or illiteracy (an example is the textile to the right in my bottom image: the vertical strokes are incorrect).

Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 174

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection is a wonderful addition to my slowly growing collection of textile books. I was especially satisfied with its layout, how each selected piece of textile was given its proper place with an informative, flowing text. The close-up illustrations were a welcome for a reader interested in details. I believe Altaf S. Al Sabah has paid an astounding tribute to her late grandmother and that anyone who reads this beautiful book will want to view the entire Al Lulwa Collection in person.

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures:
Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection
By Jennifer Wearden
Paul Holberton publishing
Paperback, 200 pages, illustrated

Three panels, possibly Syria, 1928, 1933, and one reduced in size, no longer showing the date, pp. 154-5

images by me | except for No. 4-7, courtesy of Paul Holberton publishing | credit: all images in the book are by Stephanie McGehee

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Store Street Espresso, Bloomsbury, London

Last week we went to London, where I got to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern - not a chance I was going to miss it! I needed a city trip before tuning into autumn. We dined at the Wild Food Cafe in Neal's Yard, walked in Covent Garden, Westminster and St. James's Park, and went to the Whole Foods Market on Kensington High Street, which always feels like our London food-home. The kids even asked, We are going to WFM, aren't we? And there was coffee. In the heart of Bloomsbury I had the best latte. I had promised a coffee-geeky friend to go to Store Street Espresso at 40 Store St (to be exact, it's part of the Fitzrovia district). It was a promise I happily fulfilled during our Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia stroll and the coffee shop lived up to my expectations.

I was under the influence of the Bloomsbury group upon entering Store St Espresso. We had walked from Bloomsbury St into Gower St and at No. 10 I spotted the blue plaque of Lady Ottoline Morrell. I knew it was there, yet my heart skipped a beat. She wasn't exactly a member of the group but she was a patron of the arts and if you have read the diaries and letters of e.g. Virginia Woolf you will know Ottoline. This was my state of mind when I ordered my latte.

It was a very warm and sunny day in the city and we had done a lot of walking when I sat down and had my first sip; it was superb. Store St Espresso is my idea of a good café. It has that minimalist, rustic look with industrial touches. The atmosphere is ideal; it's an unpretentious café. The guests seem to mind their own business, on their laptops, phones or reading. I guess some would call this a place for hipsters but while I sat there I noticed all kinds of people with one thing in common, there to enjoy their coffee.

The location of Store St Espresso is great. The street is quiet, close to parks and The British Museum. I urge you to grab a coffee if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. Well, I urge you to eat in. There is a great window nook if you like people-watching and in fine weather you can sit outdoors.

I am not done with my trip on the blog but during our stay I certainly got my London fix. My mind is still wandering the streets of Bloomsbury, thinking of Virginia Woolf and her circle of friends. It's also lingering at the Tate, admiring O'Keeffe's paintings. Fortunately, the Scottish summer turned on its charm when we got home, enabling me to start writing this on the patio with a cup of coffee, and finishing on a chair in the front of the house, next to the hydrangeas, while admiring the sunset.

How I love August days like these!