Pulling the rug out
Nomadic textile mogul Saul Badodofsky
is unfazed by the world crisis
Text and photograph by Stephen Barling
C-VILLE Weekly, May 7-13, 2002
Saul Barodofsky has a passion for tribal art that takes him to some of the world's most forbidding places. Should you be fortunate enough to share a demitasse of freshly brewed tea with the globe-trotting, mustachioed owner of Sun Bow Trading Company in his retail digs on the Downtown Mall, he might explain what distinguishes commercial textile art from tribal textile art.
Tribal art is created for personal use. Commercial art, on the other hand, is created for sale. If the craftspeople were hired or (as is more often the case) forced to create it, then it's not tribal. Often times, it's slavery.
It's an important distinction to a man who has made nearly 100 trips to the East since the mid-1960s in his search for nomadic textiles. Finding and purchasing what are often kept as family heirlooms can be a challenge, but Barodofsky has been fortunate, as the colorful and intricately woven carpets, kilims, saddle-bags, runners and robes adorning the walls and piling up on the floor of his shop demonstrate.
"Over 80 percent we buy over there, the other 20 percent walks through the door," he says from beneath his trademark Panama hat.
In these times of widespread anti-Americanism, it's easy to imagine that Barodofsky would hesitate before heading back into hostile territories (the various Stans, for instance) in pursuit of his collectible, functional art. But he is undaunted. In fact, he was in Turkey in the weeks immediately following September 11, and says he feels safer over there—where he is known in many villages
as "Uncle Saul"—than in most U.S. cities. This, despite the occasional close call.
While on that trip to Turkey, Barodofsky narrowly averted being run down by an angry Turk. When the car passed, barely missing him, he yelled for the driver to come back and fight him like a man. The driver sped away and villagers rushed
over to apologize for their countryman's misconduct. He in turn apologized to them for losing his temper.
"I made so much face that day," he says.
Not content to watch history roll by, Barodofsky visited the Khyber Pass when American troops were still shelling, and will return to the Middle East later this month to continue his quest for the art he so loves.
Events in the region may have little effect on his activities, but business at Sun Bow has slumped slightly. Still, he remains philosophical. "It's not the events that affect business, he says. "It's public perception of events."
According to Barodofsky, American troops are buying up most of the textiles in the region—often at full retail. As a result, "There are better Afghan goods available here than there," he says. Unfortunately, inflated prices make them unsellable.
Still, Barodofsky says the only real obstacle to his work is the threat of tribal art disappearing altogether. That's not an immediate problem, however, since at present he's sitting on a mother lode at Sun Bow.
"There are better things to buy now than there has been in six years,' Uncle Saul says with a wink.