One aesthetic seems universal to humans, crossing time and cultures, and that's the desire for beauty. It's a simple truth, beautifully proved in a small but satisfying show at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, "Splendid Treasures of the Turkomen Tribes of Central Asia."
It's about as focused as an exhibition gets, with only 40 objects created and worn by nomadic tribes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wall texts and a map provide background, telling us that the rugged area, mostly desert, has been a battleground for centuries, as invading armies used the land as a part of the route across the continent. This show incorporates the time period when Russia and then the newly formed Soviet Union controlled Turkmenistan.
That country's influence is absent here; the jewelry is crafted with references to Central Asian motifs, handed down for hundreds of years, and to their Islamic faith.
Because they were constantly on the move, the Turkomen people had to travel light. Their wealth was mostly in their animal herds and in the silver and — less commonly — gold they could amass.
Women seemed to be the primary caretakers for the precious metals. The most efficient way to transport the wealth and keep it under watchful eye was to keep the silver and gold on their persons. There was a practicality to that practice as well. Hang a large piece of it around one's neck and it became a protective shield during frequent skirmishes with hostile combatants.
For either of those purposes, the metals could have been plain bars and nuggets affixed to clothing. But even in that hardscrabble way of life, the thirst for something lovely was important. So the silver and gold became more than currency and armor; they were crafted into objects of beauty.
As ornamentation, they're worth more than their weight. Most of them could hold their own against, or even best, a contemporary couture gown. Yet they also look so right on their original owners who are shown wearing the breastplates, pins, clasps and bracelets in rare and marvelous archival photographs. The notion of style would have been incomprehensible to these people but they nevertheless possess it.
I would willingly do battle over a pair of carnelian-studded cuffs that clasp most of the forearm in chic bondage. Hair ornaments like the chased silver, gold-washed one shown here were hung from a woman's long braids, which were switched from front to back when she married. We Westerners would turn it around and make a necklace of it. And can't you see that heavy breastplate dangling little silver balls repurposed as the front of a fabulous evening clutch?
That's all wishful thinking.
And better than an imagined life in a fashionista's closet is their real home in the permanent collection of a good museum which, if it does its job, expands our world view and, in this case, connects us to remote pasts and places.
Beauty, we come to understand, is a common denominator.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.