How are two distinct Asian cultural identities expressed through ornament?
To honor the fortieth anniversary of the San Antonio Museum of Art in 2021, longtime supporters Elizabeth and Robert Lende have promised the Museum their outstanding collection of silver jewelry. The Lende collection is comprised of two parts: Turkmen jewelry from Central Asia and jewelry of the Miao people from southwestern China. Exquisite Adornment: Turkmen and Miao Jewelry from the Elizabeth and Robert Lende Collection is organized to recognize the Lende’s generous support and showcase the dazzling artistic traditions and diverse cultures represented by the collection.
The term “Turkmen” refers to several ethnic groups living in the vast steppe land stretching from the Caspian Sea to the west and the Chinese border to the east. On the other hand, Miao is one of over fifteen ethnic groups living in the remote and mountainous southwest region of China. This exhibition features a broad range of exquisitely crafted silver jewelry. Some categories such as headdresses, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, are shared both by Turkmen and Miao people, whereas other types are unique to each group: amulet bags, braid adornments, and temple pendants for Turkmen people; neck rings, combs, and back hooks for the Miao.
Exquisite Adornment brings together approximately 120 pieces to present the unique aesthetic tastes preferred by the Turkmen and Miao peoples. The Turkmen jewelry is adorned with abstract and geometric forms and perforations. The contrast of silver and parcel gilding is enhanced by studded carnelians. Miao silver jewelry, however, usually displays an array of flora and fauna motifs derived from local beliefs. Miao jewelry also embraces geometric forms and shapes, but in a much more minimalistic style, such as the necklace designed to include a series of concentric silver rings and devoid of any surface decoration.
Beyond the apparent visual differences between Turkmen and Miao jewelry, this exhibition explores their functions, materials, techniques, and rich symbolism. Similarities in these areas frequently outweigh differences. This suggests a social and cultural dimension shared by the jewelry from these two distinct cultures. Turkmen and Miao jewelry is mostly for women and projects a great amount information about the wearer: family wealth, age, and marital status. Silver was valued in both cultures as an auspicious material capable of protecting the wearer. Silversmiths in Central Asia and southwestern China shared surprisingly common craftsmanship vocabularies: repousse, filigree, and granulation, etc. Most important of all, Turkmen and Miao jewelry bears layers of hidden meanings, symbolizing happiness, progeny, and feminine virtues.
Turkmen and Miao peoples were migratory. For centuries, they were subjugated by other dominating ethnic groups and were pushed to the most inaccessible and marginal areas. Exquisite Adornment provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the beautiful jewelry created by these ethnic groups. The extremely fine craftsmanship may belie the hardship endured by Turkmen and Miao people. Today, they face the challenges of maintaining their cultural identities under the spread of urbanization and commercialization of their living environment.