Oil paintings, sculptures and installations of fine art tend to dominate the world of visual expression, with textiles often dismissed as mere women's work, a simple pastime for long winter nights. It's a sad omission: the embroideries and weaves of a place can act as a key to its history, its culture, its obsessions and the character of its people. The applied arts are valuable as a source of information, a medium for tradition and a means of expression, and for a portion of the population with few other creative outlets, they are as valid as the more feted fine arts.
Acknowledgement of this comes with the new exhibition at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace, presented by the Tourism Development and Investment Authority. The show is called A Story of Islamic Embroidery in Nomadic and Urban Traditions - not catchy, but it does tell you what is at the heart of the study of textiles: the story. This is an exhibition full of stories. While the embroideries are almost all abstract in design - patterns and geometries, devoid of narrative - the tales behind them are evocative of the vibrant, exotic worlds of the Steppes of central Asia, the harems of Morocco and the warriors of Persia. Exquisite decoration snakes across the most domestic of bedspreads and the most princely of horse cloths alike.
And these are not only the work of women: on certain pieces, such as those involving gold thread, men alone were allowed to undertake the embroidery. When the curator, Isabelle Denamur, sweeps through the gallery to the tap of staple guns, as the technicians begin to assemble the exhibition, it is clear that she lives and breathes textiles. Over her crisp, white salwar kameez-style ensemble she wears a beautiful long jacket from central Asia in a vibrant ikat weave, which floats out behind her as she strides from one exhibit to the next.
"Now, we're looking at an urban embroidery," she says, falling easily into professorial mode, "and this is a central Asian embroidery from Uzbekistan, called Nurata, named after the city - the embroideries are named after cities and places. This is a typical urban embroidery from central Asia. It could be used as a prayer sheet or it could be also a bed cover. It has the Mihrab embroidered on it, which is very interesting."
What that academic description omits is the freshness of the colours, in silks that have been protected for many years: vibrant reds, pinks and greens are mouthwateringly crisp, as if the tiny, seamless stitches were executed last week rather than a century ago. As we move through the rooms, more stories of the lives behind the pieces emerge. "Here is a very interesting embroidery from Rasht, Iran," she says, pointing to a luxuriant purple velvet saddle-shaped piece with raised silver swirls embroidered on to it. "No embroidery from this region has been shown outside Iran. These embroideries are extremely interesting because they're only made by men. All the rest are always women embroiderers."
One can instantly picture an emir or lord cantering through the streets of Rasht, on the Caspian coast, all velvets and silks and polished leather. An intriguing window into the lives of Moroccan women comes from two tall, arch-shaped pieces: veils to go over the mirrors of the house. "This is typical from Tetouan, in Morocco," she explains. "This is very interesting because during the wedding and engagement ceremonies, you don't want the evil eye to look at you with jealousy in the mirror, so you cover all the mirrors of the house. You make the embroideries according to the mirror height. There are going to be about six of them here."
Morocco plays a big part in the exhibition; the pieces originating there are full of the influence of Europe - the Italian Renaissance via Spain and the Arab refugees who found a home in North Africa after their expulsion by the Catholic kings; of the Ottoman Empire through trade links with the Turks; and, most intriguingly, of the Circassians of the northern Caucasus, whose women were for many years captured by Barbary pirates and sold for Moroccan harems. It is hard to imagine the lives that these women must have experienced, closeted in the intimate quarters of the harem. No wonder, then, that embroidery and stitch work acted as a social bond as well as a useful skill.
Pointing to a series of dark panels in a geometric monochrome cross stitch, Denamur says, "These are typical pieces from Fez. It's a very difficult embroidery, very interesting because it's the same stitch that you find in the Caucasus because these women came from there, sold by the merchants to the harems of Fez." The great difficulty of this stitch - and indeed of many of the pieces to be seen in the exhibition - comes from the fact that it is reversible: it looks identical on both sides, unlike the scrawl of stitches that one would expect to find on the back of an embroidered cloth.
"This is what's fascinating because you think, 'Where did they put the knot in all that?' The embroidery from Fez is extremely difficult to do. You have some ateliers today - very rare - that do good pieces outside Marrakesh, but domestically, today, no family would ask their daughters to do this - thank goodness." One of the most striking aspects of the work within the exhibition is how very functional it all is. There are none of the tastefully framed samplers of European gentility; these pieces were used, used and used again, which perhaps explains the months or even years of work that the creators were willing to invest in their execution. From the side panel for a mattress to a ceremonial camel blanket, complete with swatches of hair from the family's children, there was a purpose for everything and a reason for using specific embroideries on specific pieces.
Take the curtain that hung between the harem salon and the courtyard in a Moroccan riad, of which the exhibition contains more than one example. On one piece, from Rabat, the lower third of the silken curtains are heavily embroidered on both sides with dense, glossy stitches. The reason? To add weight, preventing the curtain from billowing out and revealing the interior of the harem. As far from the harem as you could get, an obsession with horseflesh also found its expression in textiles, with horse blankets nomadic and urban, and the exhibition contains a number of rare examples. It's the first time, says Denamur, that they have been shown as a collection.
"Very interestingly, central Asian culture is based on the passion for horses, so what is very interesting is to compare the saddle cloths from the nomadic world and from the urban. The urban is silk, velvet embroidery; the nomadic has embroidery on felt or wool. The Lakai tribe were famous horse thieves, and their world is really based around the horse." The more animalistic embroideries of the Lakai and other central Asian tribes are best seen in the huge collection of yurt hangings that take up two rooms of the exhibition - another world first in terms of the number of pieces exhibited together, says Denamur.
"The yurts are a bit like a cupboard," she explains. "They would hang them on the yurt walls like a little package, and this is where you would put your coat, your tea... It's decorative and useful. It's felt, wool and silk embroidery, but you can see here the poetry of the Steppes. This here is a scorpion" - she points at a stylised round motif with a tail shape - "and these are insects. Nature influenced them a lot. These reds would be the colours of the poppies, so it's an influence that is not so architectural and geometric as the urban would be."
And, of course, the designs are what make these embroideries so very immediate: it is a way of seeing the world through the eyes of those who embroidered them. Here's a scorpion: we must be in a desert. Here is poppy red: we're in a field. The embroideries were often collaborations among several women, and sometimes an individual's character will shine through. "It's very structured, but in it, sometimes you see an embroidery with a bit of crazy in it," Denamur says. "In Morocco, the part of the house that is very important is the terrace because this is where women meet; this is their world. So the designs go from one terrace to another terrace. We have a whole case of fragments from the 16th century to the 19th century where you see the very structured Fez monochromatic embroidery on both sides, but on one of them there are birds because they see the cranes when they go from Siberia to Africa and stop in Morocco and, very sweetly, a lady suddenly thought, 'I'm going to put the birds on it', which is very charming because it's a way of expressing herself.
"Never forget the embroidery is a way of expressing yourself," Denamur says. "It's the window on the family. It's a very strong social bond." A Story of Islamic Embroidery in Nomadic and Urban Traditions is on display from tomorrow until July 28 at Gallery One at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi.