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Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection

An example of a Kyrgyz textile, with red ground and geometric patterns in yellow, green, and black.
Kyrgyz Wall Screen, mid 20th century. John L. Sommer Collection, Nickle Galleries. Photo: Don Tuttle.

by Michele Hardy

In 2009 Nickle Galleries (then The Nickle Arts Museum) hosted Reeds and Wool: Patterned Screens of Central Asia, a travelling exhibition organized by the Kaufman Museum at Bethel College in Kansas, USA. The exhibition featured rare examples of Kyrgyz textiles collected by Dr. John Sommer and donated to the Kaufman for the purposes of an international tour. With the tour completed, the collection—together with Sommer’s notes and photographs—was recently donated to the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries. The John L. Sommer Collection includes important examples of felt and carpets as well as a series of chiy, or reed screens. The donation significantly expands Nickle Galleries’ holdings of Central Asian textiles, making it one of the very few museums outside of Russia or Kyrgyzstan with similar collections, and the only museum in Canada with chiy. An exhibition of selections from the collection with additional textiles from Nickle’s permanent collection is currently on view to March 28, 2024.

A person, seen in silhouette, in standing in front of a Kyrgyz textile. The textile has a geometric pattern with red, black and orange designs.
Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection, (installation view). Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices.

Chiy are remarkable, typically ephemeral textiles, that are used for a variety of purposes—from small covers, containers, door covers and suspended shelves, to walls and screens. They were virtually unknown in the West until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Dr. Sommer, a medical doctor, was a passionate collector of textiles, especially those of Kyrgyzstan. He visited the country eight times from 1992, and wrote two books about his experiences and encounters: The Kyrgyz and their Reed Screens (1996) and Klavdiya Antipina, Ethnographer of the Kyrgyz (with Bibira Akmoldoeva, 2002). Today, there are few chiy makers, and traditional chiy seldom appear in markets. 

Nickle curator Michele Hardy notes that

Kyrgyz chiy are spectacular textiles and unlike anything else in Nickle Galleries’ collections.  Intimately tied to Kyrgyz culture and nomadic traditions, they support research into the cultures of the Silk Road, into the lives of nomadic herders as well as the relationships between gender, cloth, and culture. 

Kyrgyzstan was an important part of the Silk Road—that vast East-West connector of ideas, goods, and traders that operated between the second century BCE to the mid-15th century. Though its population is mainly ethnic Kyrgyz, there are also many Uzbeks, Russians, and Ukrainians who live in the country. Kyrgyz textiles betray the influence of interactions with different cultures, materials, and processes; they are also uniquely and wonderfully Kyrgyz. Women used wool to create a large number of different types of textiles drawing on a shared repertoire of patterns that emphasize balance, reciprocity, and the natural world. 

A person dressed in dark clothes, with back to the camera, stands in front of a textile with red ground and geometric patterns in yellow and black.
Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection, (installation view). Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices.

Nickle Galleries would like to thank the late Drs John and Donna Sommer, the Sommer Family, David Kreider and Chuck Regier of the Kaufman Museum, for their foresight, generosity, and support in bringing the Sommer Collection to Nickle Galleries; they are deeply grateful and excited at the research potential they offer. Nickle Galleries would also like to thank Museum and Heritage Studies 533 student, Emma Dahl, for her assistance in researching and preparing the collection for exhibition.

Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection is currently on view at Nickle Galleries to March 28, 2024.

Exhibition Tour: Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection | March 15, 2024 12:00 pm


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