Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreams: The textiles of the Silk Road
Until 25 March 2017

Punjabi Textiles - embroidered tales

Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreams, as its lovely name suggests, aims to tell the stories of the people of the Silk Road through their textile traditions. The exhibition is a beautiful display of tapestries, carpets, shawls, and garments – all hand-made and naturally dyed – as well as paintings and tribal jewellery.

The fabled Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes which spanned a huge geographical area, encompassing what are now  Western Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India. It enabled the exchange of thoughts, ideas and in the case of textiles, the transportation of raw materials as well as dissemination of motifs, design and techniques. As curator Marian Bukhari explained at the opening reception of the exhibition, it was a time when: “embroideries flourished, and became a record of (communities’) history, social customs, folk tales and myths, as hereditary wisdom and skills were passed down from mother to daughter in an attempt to guard their techniques and traditions in textiles.

Afghanistan prayer mat - Embroidered Dreams

Embroidered prayer mat from Afghanistan

The exhibition – made up mostly from items loaned from private collections, including the curator’s own – is set over over three floors of the Brunei Gallery. Its breadth and scale is unexpected and remarkable. In vignettes reminiscent of Bollywood’s epic Afghan love saga Khuda Gawah, there are mannequins dressed in tribal costumes set against backdrops of everyday life. There are pillowcases from Swat that would have made up part of a bride’s dowry, gold and silver silk brocades, and sumptuous saris in jewelled tones. The Sindhi section features fabrics embellished with mirror work, as well as phulkari – the non-figurative geometric flower work patterns which reflects the ancient influences of Islam in Sindh. There are also fabrics and furniture from Baluchistan, Swat, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and upstairs, in the Central Asian section, handwoven pink ikat curtains, jainamaaz (prayer mats), and floral suzanis from Uzbekistan.

Kashmiri shawl - Embroidered Dreams

Jamavar, woven Kashmiri shawl. 1830-1850

The Kashmiri shawls – made in both India and 18th century Europe – are particularly striking, not least because they hint at the impact of the British Empire on textile production. The popularity of imported Kashmiri shawls – which often bore the ‘buta’ motif – led to the British producing them locally. The town of Paisley, Scotland – which gives its name to the Europeanised ‘buta’ – was one of the first production centres. Unfortunately this most significant story of India’s textile industry – about the shift in manufacturing from India to highly industrialised European countries that resulted in complete devastation of India’s traditional craft and textile industry – is not one that’s told here.

Further, while there are informative narratives provided of the regions represented, there is problematically little told about the particular exhibits, or the textile traditions they represent. This is likely a result of the ambitiousness of the undertaking – the exhibition seeks to cover too large a geographical area, and too complex a historical timeline to provide an informative and cohesive enough visitor experience.

Bridal Quran cover - Embroidered Dreams

Bridal Quran cover from Tharparkar in Sindh, Pakistan. 1915

A key aim underlying the exhibition – according to Bukhari – was to reflect the stories of the often women craftspeople behind them, and particularly to highlight the contrast between the poverty of the artisans and the luxury of the fabrics they made, and the wealthy elites they were ultimately destined for. While the exhibition certainly conveys the richness of the textile traditions, again not enough information is provided about the craftspeople and their lives to realise what would have been a very compelling and powerful dimension to the exhibition.

Still , the textiles and embroideries, their splendour and intricacy, are beautiful to behold and a highly compelling window into a most fabled and romanticised place and time – the ancient Silk Road. See it before it ends!


When: 20 January 2016 – 25 March 2016

Where: Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London 

Admission: FREE

More info: SOAS


By Farida Mohamedali

Farida holds an MA in History of Islamic Art from the School of African and Oriental Studies. She is an independent researcher and consultant in the artistic traditions of the Indo-Persian Islamic world.


Posted on 14 March 2017

Photos courtesy of Marian Ray


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