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Tucson Weekly Loom With A View

The TMA Pulls Strings To Present A New Exhibit On The Art Of Asian Rug-Making.

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  NEVRIYE COSKUNER PLAYS her loom like a harp. She plucks the cotton strings of her warp so nimbly, and knots the wool around them so swiftly, you can barely see what she's doing. You'd swear she was making music, the invisible art; but no, rugs are her trade, and last week she plied it at the Tucson Museum of Art.

The museum's big new Asian rug exhibition, Arizona Collects: Tribal and Village Rugs from Arizona Collections, will continue 100 rugs strong all through the holidays. Coskuner's smaller-scale live show--a demonstration of the centuries' old technique of knotting pile rugs--lasted just through the exhibit's first week. Brought from her home in Turkey to Tucson by the UA Center for Middle Eastern Studies (which is a co-sponsor of the museum show), Coskuner added a human dimension to the dizzying display of colors and patterns on the walls all around her.

The rugs, saddle blankets and bags are resplendent in abstract patterns of dyed red, orange and blue, or elegantly muted in the natural colors of sheep's wool: white, brown, black. Most of the rugs in the show were made in the 19th or early 20th century by women not unlike Coskuner, working out of their homes; the show's curator, George W. O'Bannon, consciously excluded rugs made in commercial workshops or in royal courts. All the rugs in the museum wended their way at some point in history into the hands of Arizona collectors, but the women who made them lived in what's called the Rug Belt, an arc that goes from Morocco through Turkey and Iran, through the Caucasus of Central Asia, east to Mongolia and China, and south to India.

Traditionally, women in these cultures hand-loomed rugs and blankets for their own family's use, in between tending the baby and cooking and washing. In nomadic cultures, such as the Baluch, a tribe that roamed a region now divided by the Iraqi/Afghan border, they wove when they weren't packing up the household and following the herds.

"The loom was in the corner," said Amy Newhall, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and author of an essay in the exhibition catalog. "You'd have 15 minutes to sit down and weave, and you'd prepare your own household goods, rugs or a saddle blanket for your husband. Then you'd work in a couple extra rugs to sell for cash."

Europeans had a taste for Asian rugs as early as the 14th century, and images of Turkish rugs appear in Renaissance paintings, as the exhibition notes point out. But only nobles and bishops could afford them, so the rugs were a luxury item adorning cathedrals and castles. That changed late in the 19th century, when mass transportation made trade easier, and rugs cheaper. The Victorian middle classes developed a taste for richly colored Oriental carpets, set against hardwood floors. Village women had new markets for their wares.

"For a very long time, big city merchants have been going out to the villages to buy rugs made by tribal women," Newhall notes.

Women like Coskuner continue producing at home for sales to middlemen, even as capitalism has transformed the world outside their villages. Large--and notorious--commercial enterprises that use child labor have blossomed in places like Pakistan and China. Children have probably always helped their mothers at home with the weaving of rugs, but knotting the wool was just one of many household chores. Nowadays, in the factories, the kids are miniature employees doing repetitive tasks for hours on end. The big factories have had an impact on design as well: They pick and choose among the old patterns, making whatever will sell, so that the regional identity of the old designs has been diluted. And traditional nomadic life has been disrupted by political change. Modern nation-states take a dim view of unaffiliated tribes moving across the new national borders.

Coskuner still practices the craft in a fairly traditional way, but her life has hardly been unaffected by the modern world. Her own daughter is unlikely to continue her mother's work. Speaking through an interpreter, Coskuner said that she's now 55 years old. She's been making rugs since she was 13, having learned at her mother's knee. Most of her life, she lived in a village. Her husband is a teacher, a profession she said is poorly paid in Turkey, and her income from rug-making has helped sustain the family.

She doesn't choose her own designs. The supplier she works for assigns the rug patterns that are currently popular--at the museum, she was working on a "little flower" design in white, black and brown--and provides her with materials. Usually she weaves at home, alone, but if a big rug is called for she collaborates with other women. A 3-by-5-foot rug like the one she was knotting in the museum takes her about a month to make, she said. Asked if the pay is good, she smiled and shook her head.

The hours are long. Coskuner typically begins work at 5 a.m., and continues on until 5 or 6 in the evening, with intermittent breaks throughout the day. Weaving is taxing on the body, and aching backs and sore fingers are routine. At the museum, she sat on a pillow positioned on the floor in front of the loom, her back unsupported. She described using herbal remedies to strengthen split fingernails and she held up her index fingers to display their cuts.

Like women from generation to generation, Coskuner wove rugs "at the same time she was taking care of her family, raising three children," said interpreter Fuseen Ercetin. She taught her only daughter to weave, but she also took care to give the girl an education. Seven years ago, the family picked up and moved to the big city, Ankara, so the children could go to the university. And her mother expects her daughter to make a living in a profession.

"My daughter has an education," she said proudly.

"(Coskuner) is on the classic frontier between the old world and the new in modern Turkey," Newhall said. "She's a perfect example of (people undergoing) urban migration to make a change for their children.

"But she loves weaving. That's the tension of modernity. Weaving's not an easy thing on the body or the health, but there's an aesthetic to it and a continuity with the past."

Coskuner concurs. A veteran of 42 years at the loom, she has no plans to stop weaving.

"She believes it will keep going because people like the rugs," said the interpreter. "Demand is high." Some Turks have switched to factory-made rugs, but Coskuner won't. Needless to say, the interpreter added, "She likes the hand-made."

And, as Newhall says, Coskuner relishes the way her weaving connects the generations of her family. She's made a rug as a gift for her modern daughter. Asked about this custom, she said, "We are always making rugs for our daughters."

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