Ambassador’s Introduction: Textiles of Life

Ambassador’s Introduction: Textiles of Life


“To understand the concept of the sacred in Ukrainian rushynyks, we needed to start several thousand years ago.” So began former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko after I asked him about the meaning of one small design in a textile in his home in 2017. Forty-five minutes later, he still hadn’t answered my question, but I had heard a fascinating cultural lecture grounded in weaving, faith, and textile design.

The moment reminded me of my first tour nearly a quarter-century earlier in Uzbekistan, where one of the twentieth-century stewards of carpet weaving in Afghanistan, Mohammed Baghdisi, used to spend hours over tea explaining the meaning behind evolved, stylized patterns in Turkmen tribal rugs.  He visited the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., to discover details in nineteenth-century rugs, then returned home to reintroduce the designs into contemporary weaving. When war displaced his workshops in Kabul, he reintroduced weaving with natural dyes and traditional designs in Samarkand and Bukhara.

Textiles embodying culture, belief, and life have formed the threads of my thirty-year-plus foreign service career and graced our walls on three continents. Certain images and themes repeat across cultures, from embroidered silk suzani, hand-dyed and woven silk ikat, and woven wool rugs in Central Asia to woven and dyed silks in Southeast Asia, to linen, hemp, and cotton woven and embroidered rushnyks and Crimean Tatars applied arts in Ukraine, to traditional American quilting. The circle pattern represents the sun, energy, and life. The Tree of Life motif with figurines of flora and fauna evokes fertility and prosperity, bounded by vines and flowers, with religious-infused variants featuring the Berehynia, a Trypillian fertility figure, the Buddha, or a wooden church spire.

Even before I was passed a fragile quilt sewn by my great-great-great-grandmother in Piedmont, South Carolina, before the Civil War, my wife Velida and I had chosen contemporary American textiles for our Art in Embassies exhibition. We aimed to weave our tours abroad with the American experiences of my far-flung family.

Georgia Williams’s We Are One exemplifies how textiles connect the entire world in its diversity, our overarching theme. Beth Stewart Ozark’s Primary Experiments features more traditional circular quilting patterns and borders similar to Central Asian designs. Susan Lenz’s three pieces are colorful modern vertical variants of the Tree of Life motif. William Daniels’s Fish/Antelope Sculpture evokes Indigenous Pacific totem designs (my Alaskan cousins are third-generation salmon fishers). Carol Larson’s two pieces suggest the forests of my Maine childhood and Estonia’s landscape. Finally, Julie Kornblum’s This Bag is Not a Jellyfish woven plastic bag warp reminds us how trash-generating human behavior endangers the natural world we inherited, with colored patterns similar to the ikats of Central and Southeast Asia.

I hope you enjoy the textiles on our walls. We look forward to your reactions. Ask questions! I may not answer with as much mastery of detail as Viktor Yushchenko or Mohammed Baghdisi, but I will happily share a story.

Ambassador George P. Kent

Tallinn, Estonia
May 2023