Identifying ikat is easy: It won't sit still. Your eyes wait for its vibrantly colored patterns to come into focus. Their shapes flicker at the edges, the dyed silk threads seemingly racing each other, like EKG readings. They are as close as fabric gets to electric, but they long predate electricity, having adorned men, women, and children along the Silk Road for thousands of years.
During Soviet control of Central Asia, ikat ("EEK-hot") was pushed aside in favor of mass cultivation of cotton. But the age-old home industry has come roaring back, also spreading into global retail since Oscar de la Renta's 2005 runway show of eye-popping ikat. Gucci and Dries van Noten followed suit, and soon, ikat duvet covers and blouses were being serenaded by retail catalog writers as "raucous, folkloric." You'll find ikat at Anthropologie, at Pottery Barn, all over the place.
But what's available in stores and populating streets is mostly imitation ikat: Real ikat is not a print, it is a weave. It's created using a resist process that involves the elaborate binding of segments on the loom, then dunking the weave into a series of dye baths. It takes 30 hands to make a single coat, the saying goes. Some of those hands raise and tend silkworms, some sketch complex designs. The form hit its peak in the 19th century in what is now Uzbekistan, and its resurgence there is a form of pride.
The 65 ikat textiles visiting the Seattle Asian Art Museum represent the peak of the art form. (They are here from the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, where they were donated in 2005 by Murad Megalli, a J.P. Morgan executive who died last year in a plane crash.) Each robe is splayed open, revealing strikingly borderless worlds.
Central Asia—at the heart of historic trade routes between India, China, Iran, and Russia, and an ecumenical host to Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism—has been exposed to more cultural input than almost any region anywhere. Ikats have been influenced by it all. Motifs make reference to trees and bushes, flower buds, horns, evil-eye amulets, bird's feathers, hanging pomegranates, Islamic architecture, scorpions, mustaches. But don't be surprised if you also see Pac-Man, Dr. Seuss, tie-dye, Navajo design. Ikats feel ancient and futuristic, high and low. They were worn universally by the wealthy and the average person; the wealthy would just own more of them, and layer them, up to 10 at a time, until their bodies were engulfed in flame-edged bands of throbbing color.
The movement of an ikat—that almost musical throbbing—is not limited to the shapes' deliberately imprecise edges. The overall compositions are also multidirectional, shapes pulling and pointing away from each other restlessly, energetically. The silk surfaces are treated so that they're glossy in parts, and thankfully, the robes (and a handful of pants) at SAAM are displayed out in the open rather than under glass. Up close, the shapes glow and melt even more than at a distance. Lining the robes are riots of color, too; some of these fabrics are products of Soviet-era manufacturing—another easy cultural absorption by the ready-for-anything ikat.
In addition to the textiles themselves, SAAM also has photographs, videos, and a display on natural dyeing. The videos are a mix of documentary and fiction—dream sequences featuring the fabrics and architecture—by contemporary Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva. The photographs were taken in Central Asia in the 19th century by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky. Prokudin-Gorsky is known for his early experiments in color photography—he created the only color portrait of Leo Tolstoy, sitting in a chair in the forest, wearing a Tolstoyan expression of grim seriousness. To make his images, Prokudin-Gorsky used a camera that took three pictures in a row, each a monochrome, through a red, a green, and a blue filter, then layered them. The pictures glow and vibrate, too.