McClung Exhibit Celebrates the Grandeur of Turkomen Decorative Art

Mention art and antiquities, and the typical Western mind might picture a Greek statue, stained glass, Egyptian sarcophagi, or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—things that are often large or heavy and can break, crack, fade, or lose heads throughout time. But what's featured in the McClung Museum's exhibition Splendid Treasures of the Turkomen Tribes From Central Asia, on display through May 12, is entirely portable.

Unlike decorative arts made for specific places, the current show's wide-ranging assortment of items is made to be transported: carnelian-studded amulets with pendants and tinkling bells hung from chains, embroidered robes, ornate headdresses, carpets with patterns evoking infinity, cloak and collar clasps, ornaments for braids, hinged neck bands unique to Turkomen tribes, textiles including a pillow cover and child's tunic, and more.

The 50-plus pieces in Splendid Treasures—on loan from the collection of Knoxville resident Judy Stewart, the Persian Galleries, and Florida's Ringling Museum of Art—date from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. However, age-old motifs and creative techniques reflect an artistic tradition reaching into past centuries, even millennia. Among the objects on view are a pouch for holding the Qu'ran, an especially embellished amulet suspending objects like charms from paradise, and bracelets detailed with gilded wire reminiscent of filigree.

The kind of thinking that attempts to fit various peoples into well-defined nations on a map would assume that Turkmens live in Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic. And they do live there—approximately 5 million of them. But millions of Turkomen-speaking Muslims inhabit portions of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and southern Russia, as well as areas in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria.

Originating in Mongolia and historically nomadic, the Turkmen peoples have developed sophisticated methods of creating jewelry, clothing, and textiles for enlivening tent-like yurts. In time, male jewelry makers have even established a system of apprenticeship and guilds; along with other craftsmen, they've produced remarkable objects from basic materials like wool, leather, colored glass, and cotton, in addition to utilizing silver and precious stones such as lapiz lazuli. Gold dust fused to metal and beads, buttons, and shells are other materials of note.

The Turkmen have appropriated decorative symbols from other cultures—from Islamic art in particular—as a result of their long-term proximity to the famed Silk Road, a modern designation for linked trade routes connecting areas in Asia with Europe and the Mediterranean, and with parts of North and East Africa. Forged in the third century B.C., the 4,000-mile-long road saw the proffering of considerably more than just Chinese silk.

Common Turkomen design elements include heart shapes or "double birds" symbolizing the womb and spears for combat; the tree of life; ram's horns; the Islamic-derived arabesque; the "evil eye"; triangles; roundels representing the sun or floral forms; and versions of everything from beetles and butterflies to wolves. Turkomen weaving is still prized for its stunning color, patterns, and the quality of its materials and construction.

Splendid Treasures is thoughtfully presented and strikingly illuminated, as is always the case with shows at the McClung. Photographs both old and contemporary illustrate different creative processes and the intended use of some pieces displayed. These objects, many of which feature motifs drawn from ancient animistic beliefs, function as status symbols and also played important roles in special Turkomen occasions such as weddings and the birth of children. They also served as fertility aids and protective talismans.

Something that is oddly missing from the show is any reference to horses, a failure to acknowledge Turkomen expertise in breeding magnificent examples of that beast. Nevertheless, Splendid Treasures presents objects gracing European palaces as well as remote villages, and has much to offer the eye and the imagination.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the donors for the McClung Museum's 'Splendid Treasures' exhibit. It is Persian Galleries.