Every year since 2010, Queens College in New York has directed its collective attention towards a particular theme, a focus for academic and cultural events and inquiries that spans the academic year. Up until this year, the topic has been a single country: China, Turkey, India, Brazil and South Africa, places picked to reflect the borough, one of the most diverse places on earth, and the backgrounds of the school’s students. This year’s theme, however, is The Silk Roads, the ancient network of trade routes that connected East and West, conveying material goods and ideas, as well as religions and even diseases. Made famous in the West by Marco Polo, the Silk Roads linked the civilizations and cultures of China, Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe for much of pre-modern history, and were a precursor to today’s global world and economy.
“Along the Silk Roads,” an exhibition running until December 15 at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College, presents images by two photographers working along this route (along with a selection of ikat robes and textiles). Lynn Gilbert’s quiet, serene color photographs record the interiors of traditional private homes in Turkey, Syria and Uzbekistan. Mostly empty of people, the peaceful spaces are rich with patterned textiles, lace-covered windows and tile floors covered in carpets. “Unlike the voyeurism of tourist photography or the romanticism of travel photography, her thoughtful work offers us cultural anthropology as art,” says Amy Winter, museum director and curator of the exhibition, who was introduced to Gilbert’s work through Throckmorton Fine Art, where she has shown photos.
In contrast, Didier Vanderperre’s photos show Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China and a terminus of the Silk Roads that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet, making it an important crossroads throughout history. His photos are crowded and bustling, depicting Uyghurs and Han Chinese at open-air markets, in cafes and barber shops, and weaving carpets. In Vanderperre’s images, which Winter heard about through a textile collector she knew who liked his work, people are “active in their daily lives,” displaying “the photographer’s talent for direct, spontaneous imagery that captures the decisive moment,” Winter says. The pairing shows the cultural threads that connect these places, and perhaps act as a blueprint for understanding the roots of our own contemporary global culture.