Warp-faced pack and tent bands woven by Iranian nomads are a little studied and hardly collected corner in the diverse universe of southwest Asian ethnographic textiles. But that may be about to change.
Organized as a single owner exhibition by Fred Mushkat, "Warp-faced Bands From Nomadic Iran", at at the sixth American Conference on Oriental Rugs (ACOR 6) in Indianapolis, IN from April 25th through April 28th, was the first specialized show of such bands. The exhibition took place in a long narrow conference room on paper-covered display walls, well-lighted by ACOR-provided halogen lighting. Twenty seven pieces in the show were Iranian, with another five from Turkman, Caucasian and pre-Columbian cultures.
The bands, ranging up to about thirty five feet in length, were attached with entomology pins in zig zag folded patterns to the display boards by Fred and a group of volunteers. These pins are thin enough so that they don¹t damage the bands, and were always hidden behind folds.
Pack bands - preferable to ropes, which would have more easily caused skin burns to the transport animal, and much more decorative - were (and are) essential for nomads to tie loads onto camels and donkeys during migration; narrow tent bands (as opposed to wide Turkman tent bands) stabilize struts in felt-covered yurts. The Iranian bands in the show, almost all from an area described by the arc of the Zagros Mountains in western and south central Iran, are warp-faced, woven with dark blue and ivory or yellow patterns, and often with narrow red and green borders. They look enough alike so that it is hard to avoid the impression that they have common ancestry. And that ancestry may trace back almost 8000 years, the time period during which nomadism has been practiced along the Zagros. Given that these bands have had little commercial or art value until recently, and therefore have come under no commercial pressure, it is possible that the individual motives on them date from very early times.
The most common type of Iranian pack or tent band is woven with a technique called warp twining (See Mallett, Marla , Woven Structures, 1998, pp. 108-113), but a large percentage of the survivors in Western collections are in "one warp double cloth". These double-faced bands are complex weavings, with two color designs mirroring each other on opposite sides in color reversal; most are thought to date to the end of the 19th century or earlier, and are generally not smoked, stained or worn. It is probable that such pristine bands were hardly ever used.
The exhibition concentrated on the bands of the major tribal groups Shahsavan, Bakhtiyari, and Qashqa'i. Among the most interesting were a very finely woven (warps per inch) northern Shahsavan double-faced band with cochineal dye used for red; a blue and yellow Saveh Shahsavan double-faced band with "ashik" forms as decoration, and a finely woven Qashqa'i band with mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and snakes attacking chickens. In other bands, there are cattle nipping at each other, human forms that may be meant to emphasize fertility, men in balloon trousers leading camels, and everywhere, horned animals looking like they stepped right off 3,000 year-old unglazed Iranian pots.
Buckles used to secure pack bands are almost a separate art form, and are sometimes collected separately. Some are forged iron, some are brass, but the most interesting are wood. These are carved from heavy light-colored fine grained hardwood, probably pear or quince, and have some of the color and texture of Neolithic ivory and bone fetishes. Wooden buckles in the exhibition came in several configurations, from complex Qashqa'i forms to simple "Y"-shaped slingshot-like securing devices.
There is much for a collector to love here - from the archaic woven motives on warp-faced grounds, to the lack of commercial influence, the window on the technology of nomadism, and finally, the wonderful shape, color and texture of the buckles. Fred Mushkat is to be congratulated for curating a show that both broke new ground and was extremely artful.