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Anatolian Kilims at the de Young Museum

Kilim, 18th century, Turkey, Anatolia - wool, cotton; slit tapestry weave. The Caroline & H. McCoy Jones Collection.
Image by de Young Museum.

The latest textile exhibit at the de Young Museum – The Art of the Anatolian Kilim – once again provides perspective on the source of a contemporary trend. If the patterns and colors of these kilims look familiar, it is because designers of every variety have been using them for inspiration in the past few years. Like their previous exhibit, To Dye For, which focused on resist dye techniques such as ikats and batiks, the de Young’s new exhibit is pitch-perfect for our time.

Looking around at some of the major home retailers, one can see new and antique kilims for sale, and even textiles inspired by the surface patterns on traditional kilims. There is definitely something relevant to appreciate and learn about this ancient textile art.

Commonly known as a “flat-weave” woolen rug, kilims have traditionally come from Turkey – the modern-day name of Anatolia. This exhibition shows pieces dating between the 15th and 19th centuries, showcasing the textile traditions of tribal life in their motifs, colors, and composition. Woven from the wools of sheep, goats, and camels, these textiles gain their eye-popping palettes from natural dyes derived from locally-harvested sources. Their bold abstract designs are both invigorating and modern, appealing to our current taste for geometrics and zig zags.

Detail of an Anatolian Kilim at the de Young Museum. Image by Poetic & Chic.

These surface designs have a two-fold purpose: they serve as symbolic renderings of architectural, human, animal, and floral motifs dating back to Neolithic times, while they also serve as a way to identify the different tribes of Anatolia. Like the stunning quilts of the Amish Abstractions exhibit of a few years ago, the kilims are produced within a certain set of parameters around pattern and structure. This makes them consistent, while still allowing enough room for individual interpretation and improvisation. Both the technique and design of kilims have been passed down from generation to generation of Anatolian women, resulting in a sort of historical document of the different tribes.

As each tribe wove kilims with signature elements, they put their kilims to work in their community. In a nomadic tent in Anatolia, kilims will serve as the walls, floors, and storage space – covering nearly everything to make the tent comfortable. Stacks of valuables are placed against the walls of a tent and then a large kilim is draped over them for protection and weight.  

Since the kilims served as an expression of identity, they also served as a commodity between the tribes, representing wealth and currency. While the kilims were crafted in a tribal environment, they were often given to mosques in tribute to serve as both floor coverings for prayer and as an asset for the community. Later in the 20th century, mosques sold their collections of kilims in order to fund improvements or other projects. Those on display at the de Young are from the famous McCoy Jones collection, whose kilims were originally gathered in Anatolia during the 1970s and 1980s, until it was finally gifted to the de Young in 1988-89. The collection was originally displayed in 1990.

Curator Jill d'Alessandro explains an Anatolian Kilim - and provides a sense of scale. Image by Poetic & Chic.

Some of the kilims in the McCoy Jones collection are massive. Curator Jill d’Alessandro went so far as to say that their scale prompted de Young architects Herzog & de Meuron to create the textile galleries with a generous height. The 18-foot ceilings are the perfect showcase for the kilims hung vertically; their colorful rhythms are shown to best advantage. In the next gallery (where the ceiling slopes gradually downward to a more intimate size), the kilims are hung horizontally, giving a reference to the Anatolian landscape.

Given the time and effort put into restoring and re-mounting the kilims, this current exhibition will be on display until June 2012. The McCoy Jones collection of Anatolian kilims is the most important group of these textiles outside of Turkey. We are all fortunate to have the de Young present it for a new generation of textile and graphic enthusiasts.

The Art of the Anatolian Kilim: Highlights from the McCoy Jones Collection is now open at the de Young museum. General museum admission ticket prices apply for this exhibition.

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