On 29th October 2020, The British-Uzbek Society, with the support of the Embassy of Uzbekistan in London, organised an online talk by Elmira Gul – an art critic, Chief Researcher of the Institute of Art Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, on the topic “Ikat: between religion and politics, fashion and contemporary art’. The talk was warmly received by the international audience comprised members and friends of British-Uzbek Society.

In her talk, Elmira spoke about ikat (abr fabrics) not only as a unique piece of art, but also as a social phenomenon, the role of which changed throughout the history. It was highlighted that ikat and the technique of its production were known in Central and Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, West Africa and Latin America, but only in Uzbekistan ikat became the brightest symbol of culture and local identity.

Until the 7th-8th centuries, the inhabitants of the Central Asian region mainly used the famous silk samits, which were the main commodity on the Great Silk Road. Their robes were decorated with images of birds and animals. With the advent of Islam in the region, cotton replaced silk. The patterns in cotton fabrics became abstract reflecting important religious symbols and values.

Over time, silk was reborn in the textile industry in Central Asia. The samits are being replaced by fabrics – known as abr – semi-silk adras and silk atlases. The nineteenth century became their golden age.

In the twentieth century, these fabrics began to be produced in weaving factories, where manual labour was replaced by machine labour. At the same time, the production of silk abr fabrics by individual craftsmen was outlawed in view of the prohibition of private property. Thus, the political transformations of the last century, new economic conditions and ideological restrictions ultimately had a negative impact not only on the Uzbek weaving of ikat, but also on all types of traditional crafts.

The ancient art of hand silk weaving revived after 1991, when Uzbekistan gained independence. Changes in the country’s economic structure and the emergence of private entrepreneurship allowed artisans to start producing silk fabrics again.

However, the real triumph for Uzbek abr fabrics started thanks to Western fashion designers who brought ikat into the world of haute couture. Sophia Loren appeared in an ikat dress on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1966. In the late 1990s, John Galliano used Central Asian ikat patterns for both his own label and Dior.

One of the pillars of the American fashion world, Oscar de la Renta, in his spring collection of 2005, presented a number of designs with patterns created by the famous Uzbek weaver Rasul Mirzaakhmedov. Among those who have used ikat fabrics in their creations are Balenciaga (in 2007), Gucci (in 2010), Roberto Cavalli and many others. Undoubtedly, they popularised the culture of Central Asia abroad.

The ikat transformation doesn’t end there. Appearing in various forms, including as a symbol of religious piety, power, a piece of haute couture and casual wear, ikat is already breaking into the realm of art, opening its new unexplored facets.

As the Uzbek expert noted in the conclusion, today it can be said without exaggeration that abr fabrics (ikat) have become a real visiting card of Uzbek culture, recognisable all over the world.

To view the recording of Elmira’s online talk, please follow this link.