Culture Dose: Colors of the Oasis

Ikat courtesy the Seattle Asian Art Museum

A vibrant textile exhibition dazzles at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Whether or not you’re aware, you probably already know a thing or two about ikats. Thanks to a 2005 Oscar de la Renta show that brought these exotic textiles back into the fashion spotlight, clever takes on the ikat technique now reign the racks at popular stores like J. Crew, Anthropologie, West Elm and Pottery Barn.

Courtesy the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Now the Seattle Asian Art Museum gets in on the craze too, thanks to a fascinating exhibit, Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats, here through August 5.

Organized by D.C.’s Textile Museum, the exhibit features 65 textiles primarily from Uzbekistan, where the art form emerged in the 19th century. After centuries of trade along the Silk Road, the technique reached new heights when Central Asian artists began experimenting with dynamic and daring designs that mix visions of floral arabesques, scorpions, tulips, flowing water, even pomegranates. The practice, which uses rich hues to dye silk, reached near-extinction during the Soviet era. Today ikat production is experiencing a major revival.

One day last week, I braved the dismal weather to attend a preview of the exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a lovely outpost of culture set in Volunteer Park (which looked especially lush in the midst of last week’s downpours). An afternoon surrounded by the brilliant textiles and their passionate curators immediately ridded me of my rainy day doldrums. This exhibit’s stunning visuals are not limited to textiles; visitors also find enticing photos (from the early 1900s and present day) that feature Central Asia’s exquisite architecture (tiled walls, domed mosque ceilings) plus street scenes of bustling bazaars filled with storied faces and carts of fresh fruit. The last gallery room loops (on a large screen) two contemporary films by Kazakhstan director Almagul Menlibayeva that explore her nomadic heritage.

The production of one ikat, a term derived from the Malay word meaning “bind” or “to tie,” uses an intricate technique that can take up to thirty pairs of hands. Visitors learn how the success of the ikat depends on the dyer’s mastery, and a video demonstrates the complicated process.

So whether fashion’s your thing or not, this exhibit promises to impress. (And whether the sun happens to be shining or hiding, Colors of the Oasis guarantees to brighten your day.)

Colors of the Oasis at Seattle Asian Art Museum | Through August 5 | (206) 654-3100