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Artistic Accomplishments of West & Central Asia

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Did you know that many centuries ago, artists in Iran and Turkey made pioneering advancements in ceramics and metalwork? They also made brilliantly colored textiles. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the artistic accomplishments of West and Central Asia.

Peoples of West and Central Asia

The artists of West and Central Asia created stunning work in different media. To understand where these artists lived, let's define geography before we explore their art. West Asia is the area that today includes Iraq and countries like Syria and Lebanon bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Central Asia includes Iran (once called Persia), Turkey, and countries like Afghanistan. Diverse peoples have lived in these parts of the world for thousands of years, and artists in many cultures created spectacular works of art. Throughout history, they excelled in many different media and contributed technological advances in fields such as metalwork and ceramics.

The arts of these cultures share certain elements, like a tendency to cover surfaces with decoration -- when you look at the art of these regions, you'll rarely see blank space. Whether the design is of calligraphy, foliage, or other decorative flourishes, every available area is enhanced with decoration. Because West and Central Asia were on the Silk Road (where traders carried their goods from East Asia to Europe), the arts the people created in these regions are a complex mix of influences. It's also important to remember that when Islam developed in West Asia in the 7th century AD, it brought new ideas and prohibitions on figurative art (rules that did not exist with other religions at the time). As Islam spread through Central Asia, the same bans on figures in religious art followed. Images of people continued to appear in secular, or non-religious, art.

In this lesson I will introduce some of the media and technological advances made in West and Central Asia. But I want to emphasize that each topic could be a whole lesson unto itself!

Ceramics

Ceramics, one of the oldest art forms, began as hand-formed clay pots that were fired, or heated to specific high temperatures to make each vessel more durable. In Asia, the invention of the potter's wheel in the 4th millennium BC allowed artists to create a wider variety of shapes and designs.

In West Asia, Arab and Muslim cultures near the Mediterranean were hotbeds of artistic innovation from the 9th through the 14th century. Over time, kilns with better temperature control meant that artists could have more precision over their craft, and clays made with smaller-grained binders meant smoother surfaces. By the 10th century AD, early Persian ceramic artists experimented with pigments and began adding them in the slip (a watery clay coating used to decorate the surface) before the pots were fired. This allowed them to paint intricate designs and resulted in advances like cobalt blue-on-white ware.

Another example of innovation was the invention of lusterware between the 12th and 13th centuries. Potters mixed silver sulfides and copper oxides (both substances known as metal salts) and applied them to a vessel after it had been fired once. The pots were then fired again at a lower temperature, and the process resulted in a metallic sheen on the surface.

Example of lusterware from Syria
Example of lusterware

Iznik ceramics from Turkey were an advancement from Central Asia. In the second half of the 16th century, these artists created earthenware vessels with underglazes (done before firing) and polychrome painting (done after firing), which resulted in colorful designs that wove through several layers of the fired vessel.

Metalwork

West and Central Asian artists also excelled at metalwork. Archaeologists have excavated examples dating back to Persia from 1500 to 500 BC. Persian metal artists made objects like drinking vessels, armor, sculptures, and decorative objects. They used many techniques in metalworking, including casting (pouring molten metal into a mold), chasing (an embossing technique that creates a recessed image on the vessel surface), repoussé (an embossing technique that creates a raised image of the vessel surface), and inlaying surfaces with gemstones and precious metals like gold and silver. One example is a gold cup with fanciful creatures from the 1st millennium BC, found in what is now Northern Iran. The drinking vessel includes repoussé creatures and decorative foliate designs.

Gold drinking vessel from Northern Iran
Gold drinking vessel

Gold and silver weren't the only metals used by artists. In parts of Turkey, expert metal artists created decorative works from copper that included intricate embossed designs.

Example of copperwork from Turkey
Copper Tray from Turkey

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