She died at her Istanbul home last week at the age of 87, knowing that her dreams of a permanent home for her exceptional kilims and photographs had been realized. In an article that appeared in Cornucopia magazine before Josephine Powell's passing, Andrew Finkel paid tribute to a remarkable friend.
It is a line from her life and not a poem by Edward Lear: Josephine Powell once rode a chestnut mare to the magnificent Minaret of Jam. I have never met anyone else who has made that same journey. But then few details of Josephine Powell's life have been anything less than extraordinary.
She was adopted as ?Mother of the Kalmuks? -- the Western Mongolian tribe -- for cutting red tape after World War II to ensure that a group of Kalmuk refugees were not returned to face Stalin's wrath but resettled in New Jersey instead. Her first real research was into the hormonal cycle of pigs. The godmother she never met, the diva Dame Nellie Melba, sent her a pearl every year on her birthday -- they got smaller and smaller, then stopped altogether. And she rode back from Jam, the famous Seljuk monument in western Afghanistan, in 1960 with Sila, her Belgian sheepdog, tucked in a saddlebag.
Her own monument is the extensive collection of photographs she took during the 1950s and '60s of the remains of Byzantium, of the art and peoples of Iran and Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. It is an archive sought after by the Fogg Library at Harvard and the British Museum.
Nearly 30 years ago Josephine Powell took a flat in Istanbul. Locked away there in her field notes, in tens of thousands of photographs and in her stunning collection of kilims, textiles and domestic artefacts is a unique record of the nomadic life of Turkey.
?I photographed everything, got lost frequently and saw a lot of things,? she tells me, with a sudden intake of breath and a rumbling, self-conscious laugh that serves as warning to any interviewer who thinks he can write her a pithier epitaph than she can come up with herself.
Josephine Powell is unlike other people -- and not simply because she's been places they never will, or because that laconic drawl and the hand-rolled cigarette forever dangling from her lips make her an unusual cross between Gertrude Bell and Clint Eastwood. Partly it has to do with where she came from and where she's ended up. Any bookmaker hovering over her crib in 1919 would have fixed the odds on her leading a life somewhere in Central Park West, supervising grand dinners for an Astor or two. Instead, her Istanbul kitchen, the first time I saw it, was full of boiling beakers of vegetables and bugs used in the manufacture of natural wool dyes. It had almost certainly never been used to boil an egg.
Josephine Powell set out to become a medical doctor at Cornell University, where she met that other Lear-esque character, Suzy the pig with the fluctuating hormones. She ended up as a social worker instead. In 1947 she left America on the SS Ernie Pile to take up a job with the International Refugee Organization. She did not return for another 40 years, and then never for more than the time it took to give a lecture and pack her bags again. She was a self-imposed exile working with displaced persons -- Poles in Tanganyika, Kalmuks in Germany.
When the work was done, she settled on Rome. A trip to Lecce, in the heel of Italy, led her to photograph a Byzantine mosaic -- a triptych of the Madonna and Child -- and curiosity led her to correspond with the leading Byzantine and Islamic art historian David Talbot Rice. He invited her to accompany him to the heart of Byzantium to photograph the mosaics in the Grand Palace of Constantinople.
That was 1955. The photos had to be developed outside Turkey and the question was what to do while she waited to see how they came out. At that time it was very difficult for foreigners to go to eastern Turkey, but that did not stop Josephine. She had applied for permission from the military in Ankara but heard nothing. She was in Gaziantep, and about to return home, when she discovered on her plate at breakfast an anonymous envelope. It contained a permit to travel east. Friends warned her of the perils of traveling on her own, but she found only courtesy: ?People treated me better than I had ever been treated. They invited me into their houses, fed me, found me somewhere to sleep. It was never dangerous to me. It never entered my head that it might be.?
She settled into a life more peripatetic than that of the nomads she was to study. She had one foot in Rome and the other in the Hotel de Kabul, where she took a dollar-a-night room by the decade. From Afghanistan she went on to photograph India and Pakistan, and was given a commission to collect implements of everyday life for the Land- en Volkenkunde ethnographic museum in Rotterdam.
Ironically, the photographic output of these years was snapped up by Thames & Hudson for reproduction in thick, folio-sized volumes designed to grace the newly fashionable coffee tables of the world on which she had turned her back. It was while researching one such book -- the complement to a large volume on kilims -- that Josephine Powell came to the conclusion that so much of what then passed for knowledge about the provenance and designs of flat-weave textiles was pseudo-science. She set out on her travels again, to consult the nomads themselves, or at least those who were still connected to a communal memory, and to find out what they knew about their own handicraft.
She would be the last to subscribe to weird and wonderful theories about the primordial origins of motifs and designs. She is even reluctant to attribute a date to much of her collection: ?Just because they've got holes doesn't mean they are old.? There's no point pressing her on her ambitions. ?I just did it. The opportunities arose. Life just sort of oozed.?
Josephine Powell clearly has an acquisitive streak. It's not so much materialism as ?material culturalism? that drives her on. There is nothing luxurious about her lifestyle, but she certainly has a lot of stuff.
For a start, she is surrounded by wool in all its woven variety, along with the things you need to make wool and weave wool and look after the blessed sheep who produce the wool in the first place. There are different things that drive collectors on. Some are after the thrill of the chase, or the outsmarting of fellow collectors. Josephine admits that there are things she sees that she just has to have. ?It's a want that doesn't allow you any peace. You go to bed and you still want it. And then when you've got it, and missed however many meals to pay for it, you feel terrible.?
Although she does not say so openly, she has a bone to pick with a modern Turkey that has converted nomads into settled people and bestowed on nomadic women a less purposeful, less dignified way of life. She understands the ritual of the caravan -- with the oldest unmarried daughter leading the way, the kilims which covered the cauldrons on the camel's back perceived from a distance as the colorful standards of a benign army on the march. She empathizes with a way of life in which the women had the time to produce woven works of art.
To put it less kindly, she is a relic of another century, the last of the great occidental travelers collecting the relics of a disappearing sort of life. Yet even as an orientalist she is unique. For a start, she was never interested in courtly art. Josephine saw a beauty in the by-products of an everyday life that was ignored or despised. And she asked questions. What were the objects for? How did they work? Why were they made? And she was not simply there to admire. Along with the chemist Harald Böhmer, she helped establish the Dobag Project -- the first Turkish women's co-operative -- which makes carpets using authentic designs and natural dyes.
Despite the curlicue trajectory of an extraordinary career, she won't actually admit to having intended to do anything. A respected scholar who belongs to no academy; a respected photographer who admits to no other talent than the ability to point and snap; a respected authority on nomadic textiles who is best at describing what is not yet known.
We live in an age of networking. But Josephine is a net-weaver, a nomad who has spun the threads of her very own world. This leaves her ill-equipped to undertake the fundraising activities that would ensure that her collection has its proper home and that her work is available to other scholars. And yet the center will be built. How? Don't ask Josephine Powell. It's a bit like her life. Things just happen.
First published in Cornucopia Magazine, No 30 and reprinted with kind permission www.cornucopia.net