The people of Saudi Arabia, in an understandable rush to raise their standard of living, are giving up the camel for the pickup truck. They have largely replaced their traditional artifacts with electronic gadgets and mass-produced imports. Even prayer rugs are machine-made imports.
Busy installing telephones and building airports, Saudis no longer have much time for weaving droplets of silver into their coffee-bean bags or hand-stitching coins into women's face coverings.
As a result, the unique and intricate rugs, jewelry, weapons, camel bags and household utensils that were in daily use a generation ago are disappearing from the bazaars--and from the country, since Saudi Arabia has few export restrictions.
"Traditional Crafts of Saudi Arabia," a fascinating exhibition at the Textile Museum, captures and preserves some of the most beautiful achievements of this vanishing culture.
Many Saudis recognize the need to preserve their own artistic heritage and have begun to set up museums where implements that were in common use a generation ago are now preserved. But these collections will be hard pressed to match the variety and elegance of the pieces on display at the Textile Museum.
The exhibition includes unusual deep-pile carpets, extravagant necklaces of heavy silver and turquoise, antique long-barreled rifles, baskets, trays, coffee pots and tent-divider curtains of goat hair. Among the most striking pieces are a heavy wool cloak like those worn by the al-Ghamid tribe in Saudi Arabia's mountainous southwest, and a decorative fringe from a camel litter used to carry women--a handicraft that the air-conditioned automobile is making obsolete.
The collection reflects vividly the artistic tradition of Moslem Arabia, in which artwork and artifact are one. Outside of Persia (Iran), Moslem tradition has frowned upon the creation of statuary or paintings, and the people of the Arabian peninsula worked out their artistic impulses on the things of daily life. Hence the care and the imagination that went into the creation of such utilitarian items as long-spouted coffee pots, camel saddles, and the carpets that lined the floor of every tent.
The works on display at the Textile Museum confirm that the Saudis, though poor and isolated until the middle of this century, were hardly primitive. Their techniques of weaving and dyeing such materials as goat hair, camel hair, wool and cotton produced fabrics rich in color and intricate patterns. The jewelry, much of which resembles the work of American Indians in the Southwest, is superior to anything found in the bazaars of Cairo or Damascus.
Most of the more than 100 items are from the personal collection of John Topham, a construction engineer from Rochester, N.Y., who lived in Saudi Arabia for several years in the 1970s and traveled to remote towns in search of quality and authenticity.
"I got very few bargains," he said. "If I had been there 10 years earlier, these things wouldn't have cost 10 percent of what I paid." The rising costs, he said, are a result of the dwindling quantity and of years of exports by non-Saudis.
Except for the weapons, most of the items are not antiques. Rugs, blankets, garments, camel tack and coffee-bean bags were made to be used, not admired from a distance, and they were used hard by poor people. As a result, they didn't last long. Many of Topham's best pieces were new when he acquired them.
The collection will be on display through May 22.