Not many art lovers who arrive in Paris with the intention of visiting its legendary museums, such as the Louvre or d’Orsay, are familiar with the Arab World Institute (AWI). It is situated by the river Seine, right next to the intellectually renowned Latin Quarter neighborhood on the left bank. Nevertheless, the AWI is currently attracting a large number of crowds eager to view a collection of unique objects on display for the exhibition titled ‘On the Roads to Samarkand’. These objects are being shown for the first time outside of the museums of Uzbekistan.
As one learns about the origins of their creation, these works turn out to be more than normal art pieces, since they recount, in their own aesthetic language, the history of oriental culture as it had flourished two centuries ago.
The artworks include, apart from some two dozen paintings, a large number of gold-embroidered accessories from the royal court, such as sculptured horse saddles, harnesses, carpets, silk curtains, jewelry and costumes. ‘On the Roads to Samarkand’, initiated for a short period at the Louvre but now prolonged at the AWI, magnifies the renaissance of artisanal splendours in the 19th and early 20th centuries, representing the identity, culture and history of the Orient.
Textiles also play a key role in this unusual exhibition, alongside objects like the suzanis [silk drapery used to decorate the interiors of urban homes and nomadic dwellings] and the artistically crafted woollen carpets. It is surprising to note that embroidered artworks occupy such an eminent position among the many other art forms of Uzbekistan. It is a rare wonder looking at many of these objects related to the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920), when gold embroidery had reached its peak in terms of technique, quality and, above all, artistic fantasies.
An exhibition at the Arab World Institute showcases many unique Uzbek artworks produced between the 19th and 20th centuries
Many other splendid and monumental productions, such as royal robes, dresses and a number of aesthetic creations reserved as gifts for visiting members of neighbouring royal families and diplomats — exclusively made in the workshops situated in the Khorezm, Ferghana and Karakalpak regions — bear witness to this opulent and popular art form from a bygone era.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Turkestan, the future republic of Uzbekistan, had turned into a destination of choice for many painters and sculptors from Central Asia, Russia and northern European countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden. They were attracted by the artistic techniques this region boasted, most of which were unknown in their own homelands.
Igor Savitsky, a Moscow-based painter, moved to Uzbekistan in 1941 and spent the rest of his life there, not only painting but also acquiring a huge collection of the above-mentioned artworks, many of which are also part of the show.
It would be pertinent here to cite a few words from the speech delivered by Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to France, His Excellency Sardor Rustambaev, at the inauguration ceremony of the exhibit: “Everyone has, of course, heard about the great, legendary Silk Route and most people are aware of the existence of Samarkand and Bokhara as important, geographical landmarks in the Eastern part of the planet. But not everyone knows that these cities are also home to a civilisation that is nearly 3,000-years-old — in other words, as ancient as the Roman civilisation and situated at the crossroads to a number of other cultures, serving for a long time in the history of the world as a bridge between east and west, north and south.”
‘On the Roads to Samarkand’ is on display at the Arab World Institute, Paris from November 23, 2022-June 4, 2023
The writer is an art critic based in Paris. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2023