In villages and towns from the Balkans to Central Asia, and especially in Turkey, the kilim (pronounced kih-lihm) was literally the fabric of daily life, the carpet that made a house into a home, or embellished the stony floor of many a mosque.
Many women still weave in Turkey's rural communities today, producing not pile rugs but flat-woven cushion covers, sacks, kilims and other floor coverings that are intended for use in their homes as well as for sale in the plentiful variety that gives Turkish bazaars and shops part of their character.
Large or small, Turkish kilims have always been distinguished by their flat weave and their often bold colors patterned into localized, even ritualized designs. Recent archeological finds have led some experts to believe that kilim-weaving techniques first developed in Anatolia—Asia Minor—perhaps as early as 7000 BC.
Lately, kilims have become popular as decorative items in the West as well, and Turkey's urban upper and middle classes too have taken notice of kilims as a distinct—and distinctively Anatolian—form of cultural expression.
For scholar, writer and artist Belkis Balpinar, Turkish carpets—and especially kilims—are a lifelong passion. They are both the subject of her study and the medium of her artistic expression, her link from past to present, and her path to the future.
Balpinar calls her original pieces "mural kilims," because—unlike traditional kilims, which employ flat, geometrical motifs—they use design and color to create a three-dimensional pictorial space, and thus can be viewed as a form of woven painting. Her pieces are exhibited at galleries in Istanbul, Europe and the US, and her scholarship is manifested on her bookshelves: She has six books including, with archeologist James Mellaart and ethologist Udo Hirsch, The Goddess from Anatolia, published in 1989 by Eskenazi, which proposes the idea that many kilim motifs may derive from symbols used in Neolithic wall paintings and on other prehistoric artifacts.
For Balpinar, the road from tradition to innovation has spanned more than three decades of work. She was born in Eskisehir in northwest Anatolia; her father, an ethnic Turk,, was a teacher who had immigrated from Bulgaria, and her mother was Turkish. In 1963, after graduating from the textile department of Istanbul's Academy of Fine Arts, Balpinar was hired as a carpet designer and researcher by state-owned Sumerbank, where she worked until 1968.
"This marked the start of my interest in carpets," she says. With Sumerbank, she traveled extensively "looking for surviving indigenous carpet weaving, and back in the office I designed imitations of traditional carpets."
But at home, inspired by the multitude of contemporary influences she had encountered in art school, Balpinar was turning out very different work. By modifying the vocabulary of traditional patterns that she was learning so intimately, she created a collection of modern carpets, and held her first exhibit in 1964.
"I was not brought up living the traditional lifestyle of a kilim weaver," says Balpinar, "rural, and innocent of any design possibilities that were not traditional ones. Instead, I had been exposed to influences that gave me the freedom to express my thoughts and feelings. I started with a desire to paint."
As a result of her research, she earned an appointment as curator of carpets and kilims at Istanbul's Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. In 1973 she went to work for the Vakiflar General Directorate—the government office that administers the property of pious foundations (See Aramco World, November-December 1973). There her assignment was to visit mosques throughout Turkey, where generations of Muslims had donated rugs that, in some cases, had accumulated for centuries. She was to evaluate and collect the important carpets for safekeeping and possible display. Later, she used these carpets to found the Vakiflar Carpet and Kilim Museums in Istanbul.
In 1983 she left the Vakiflar to carry on independent research and to establish her own workshop for restoring antique carpets and kilims.
"To reproduce the structure of the missing part of a rug," Balpmar recalls, "I learned all about thread, varieties of spun woolen yarn, colors, and structure."
But restoration did not satisfy her creative yearnings. Three years later, in 1986, she gathered a small group of weavers in Istanbul's gecekondu, the unplatted working-class sections of the city, and gave them dyed, hand-spun wool with which to execute her own full-size designs.
Quickly she realized that her work would not only be aimed at the study and preservation of a great legacy, but also at the development of an entirely new style of kilim.
One day, she says, she visited one of the weavers to check on her progress and noticed the woman weaving a fully traditional kilim—a design the weaver had learned from her own mother—on the warp left at the top of one of Balpmar's recently completed abstract designs.
"She was embarrassed about using my warp, but I was glad she had," laughs Balpmar. "To me, it demonstrated the continuing strength of the tradition."
Some of her early works enlarged, distorted, split, or shattered traditional kilim design elements in her attempt to express the energy and tension she saw in them. She employs spirals and swastikas to symbolize regeneration and infinity, and enhances the kinetic forms by adding a layer of continuous, whirling parallel lines to create another plane in the woven surface.
"The traditional motifs found in kilims have been handed down through generations of weavers in rural Anatolia," says Balpmar. "The original meanings of these symbols have been obscured by time. As a scholar, I try to decipher these designs. The marvel of the ancient symbols eventually led me to reinterpret them in my own way.
"Sometimes I look at a seed or a fingerprint in minute detail," says Balpmar. "The idea of chaos coexisting with harmony, or, as the scientists say, 'the ordered disorderliness of the universe,' interests me immensely."
Although she stretches and tests the limits of traditional Anatolian kilim technique, Balpmar avoids methods used in western tapestry, such as dovetailing or shading. She does, however, make use of the variations in color tone that uneven dye absorption produces in the handspun wool thread. Sometimes she uses roughly combed and spun wool, or leaves parts of a design unwoven to expose the warp beneath. To give depth, she sometimes incorporates patches of knotted pile; to add age, she occasionally stone-washes new kilims.
"I try to give a mysterious, primeval effect to my modern designs," admits Balpmar. "My work combines past and present in a peculiar way that might startle or shock some purists.
"My latest work is like a gigantic prayer rug, with a large niche-gate at its heart," Balpmar says, noting that its inspiration came from combining the Islamic motif with ideas derived from the facade of a building by Swiss architect Mario Botta.
Balpinar lives alone in a hundred-year-old apartment building near the Galata Tower in Istanbul, where the high ceilings display her mural kilims to impressive advantage. Her home serves also as a permanent gallery.
"I have many friends in Turkey and other parts of the world who believe in what I do and encourage me to continue," she says gratefully.
One of these is Dr. John Sommer, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Rug Society. "Belkis Balpmar's knowledge and background, especially as a woman in a field dominated by extremely traditional individuals, make her the world's foremost expert on Turkish kilims," says Sommer. "She is not as self-promoting as she might be and her unprepossessing manner has endeared her to collectors and students world-wide."
Balpmar's commissioned work is chosen exclusively from her sketches, specifying a size or color range, and her creations are usually woven for an exhibit collection or when she has a workable new design.
"No two of my kilims are ever identical," Balpmar says. "Although I have had to repeat a few of my most popular designs, I have always varied the colors and proportions to ensure the uniqueness of each piece. Usually I like to be creative and try to make every piece represent a new idea or an original design. Realizing my creations through the skills of my weavers is a great challenge. I enjoy weaving all the diverse strands of my life into my kilims."
Judy Erkanat is a free-lance writer living in California.