Metropolitan Museum’s Persian Carpets Exhibition: An Interview with Dr. Sheila Canby

“Carpets for Kings: Six Masterpieces of Iranian Weaving” is the title of a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Six small Iranian carpets dating from the 16th and 17th centuries – most of them of royal provenance – are on view at the Met through August 27. They entered the Met collections between 1910 and 1951.

The exhibition’s oldest objects are two animal carpets and a prayer rug from the 16th century. Alongside them are three 17th-century “Polonaise” carpets from the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629). Woven with silk and precious metal threads, these luxury textiles previously paved the palaces of Isfahan.

Thanks to the efforts of the Met’s textile conservators Janina Poskrobko, Yael Rosenfield, and Julia Carlson, the structures of the carpets were stabilized, losses were addressed, and old repairs were removed. The exhibition was made possible by the Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

Kayhan London reached out to Dr. Sheila Canby, chief curator of the Met’s Department of Islamic Art, for more insights on the carpet exhibition.

Q: Why did the Met decide to put on this exhibition of six recently conserved Persian carpets?

A: In 2013, the Noruz at the Met Committee agreed to put the proceeds of that year’s Noruz gala toward the conservation of six classical Persian carpets in the Met’s collection. Because the work was completed recently, we decided to show the carpets and open the exhibition before this year’s Noruz at The Met gala.

Q: Can you describe the 16th-century animal combat carpet featuring merrymakers sitting around a duck pond?

A: The field of this carpet contains a lobed medallion in the center of which is a duck pond, surrounded by merry-makers, musicians and figures holding a lamb. Outside the medallion, on the red ground, pairs of animals are engaged in combat while others dart to and fro. They include tigers, cheetahs and deer. Lions attack fantastic four-footed animals called ch’i-lins. The main border consists of large blossoms and vines inhabited by birds, on a dark blue ground.

Q: Why is this particular carpet exceptional?

A: The liveliness of the human and animal figures in this carpet almost invites one to sit and have a convivial gathering. While animal combats suggest themes of domination, the drinkers and musicians, as well as the ducks in their pond, represent a thoroughly pleasurable pursuit.

Q: The exhibition also has three 17th-century “Polonaise” carpets from the period of Shah Abbas the Great. Where did they get that name?

A: The name, a misnomer, comes from the fact that Polish kings and nobility ordered carpets of this type to be made with their coats of arms and other symbols, so people assumed they were Polish, although many luxury carpets in this technique and more traditional Persian styles were produced for the Safavid court.

Q: How have viewers reacted to the exhibition?

A: Members of the public and Iranian-Americans I have talked to seem quite pleased with the show. People who are very knowledgeable are happy to see these carpets on view, since in many cases they would never have seen them before. Some of the carpets are part of a pair, in some cases with the other part of the pair owned by another institution, so people are interested to see them for that reason as well.

We will be having an event in April with the local group of carpet and textile collectors and dealers, the Hajji Baba Club, and I will be fascinated to see what they say.

Q: Carpets have been woven for millennia in many countries and cultures. What makes Persian carpets stand out?

A: Aside from the beauty of their design, Persian carpets have very rich, resonant colors. Also, whereas some other regions’ carpets are highly geometrical, Persian carpets feature winding vine scrolls, a variety of flowers, animals, and humans arranged to suggest different layers of decoration and thus depth.

Q: Does the Metropolitan Museum plan to acquire other carpets in the coming years?

A: We have nearly 500 carpets in our collection, but even in recent years have been given important examples, and are certainly open to adding in a judicious way to our existing collection.

Q: Can you talk about some of the other Iran-related projects that you are currently working on at the Metropolitan Museum?

A: Having had a major exhibition devoted to the Seljuqs in 2016, we are concentrating more on research and writing at the moment. We are hoping to initiate an excavation in Central Asia where the material is comparable to the medieval finds from Nishapur in our collection. We are working on a catalogue of the coins from Nishapur and a small exhibition of a gift of tribal weavings that will open in late September 2017.


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