Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan - Part #1

Kyrgyz shyrdak carpet detail. Image: Berry King
This article, written by Lilya Kas'yanova and Penelope Price, was first published in the September 2014 edition of Embellish - the Australian magazine for textile arts. 


Kyrgyzstan is a small, Central Asian republic, almost entirely mountainous, lying within the Tian Shan mountain range.

The Kyrgyz were traditionally nomads, travelling each year with their herds of cattle, sheep and horses from high mountain pastures to the lowland winter pastures. Although collectivised in Soviet times, traditions remain strong in this remote and beautiful country, often called the Switzerland of Central Asia. 

The yurt, made from an expanding wooden circular frame covered in felt, was the traditional Kyrgyz dwelling and even today many rural families assemble yurts in their backyards or in the mountains, and pass the summer there.

Kyrgyz yurts are highly decorated: the tent bands, furnishings and felt carpets, made by women, were key indicators of the position and status of the owner. Felted items have always been symbols of family, handed down from mother to daughter.

In the wake of the Soviet disintegration in 1991, Kyrgyzstan was hit hard: the economy went into free fall, unemployment climbed exponentially and families struggled to meet ends.  Enterprising rural women, with the assistance of development agencies such as Switzerland’s Helvetas, learned how to sell their felted carpets, to produce different felted items for international markets (often incorporating contemporary designs) and to value the glorious heritage of their craft.

Kyrgyz yurts - in the high pastures for summer. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova

Felting Techniques

Today Kyrgyz women use three felting methods to produce their items:
1.    wet felting, which requires soapy water for wool dampening, and kneading to meld the wool together. This type of felting is traditional and used for creating flat items;
2.    dry felting, in which the wool is pierced by needle with notches to join wool fibres together. This technique is suitable for making felt jewellery, decorations, and interior pieces;
3.    nano felting, a type of wet felting, which makes it possible to fuse felt with other fabrics such as silk.


Patterns and dyes

Originally, felted items were produced in natural combinations of white, black, brown and grey. Plant extracts were also used for colours; however, this has gradually given way to synthetic dyes. Kyrgyz like strong, bold combinations, though there has recently been a resurgence in natural colours to meet tourists’ preferences.

The designs are as symbolic as they are decorative. The application of ornaments is based on vegetative, geometric and animal motives. Some examples:
    Rhombus pattern shyrdak carpet detail
  • tulip patterns represent the arrival of spring
  • rhombus patterns mirror a yurt's diagonal lattice work 
  • dog tails symbolise friendship and
  • birds in flight design convey the wish that your dreams come true.

The Altyn Kol Women's Cooperative in Kochkor have assembled an informative sheet of the meanings of Kyrgyz carpet symbols.

The next installment of this post will focus on the steps in creating a Kyrgyz carpet.

Related posts: 
Kyrgyzstan - the Felted Dolls of Erkebu Djumagulova
Yurts of Central Asia Part #1
Yurts of Central Asia Part #2
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Homage to Savitsky

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Cover of the new publication Homage to Savitsky
In the far away city of Nukus, in the desert of northwestern Uzbekistan, is the Karakalpak State Museum of Art. This extraordinary museum, which houses the second largest collection of Russian avant garde art in the world, is the life's work of Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky.

To celebrate the centenary of Savitsky's birth this month, the Friends of the Nukus Museum funded the English-language publication Homage to Savitsky.

Originally published in Russian to accompany the exhibit at the Galayev Gallery in Moscow, this marvellous book presents selected works from the museum's holdings and private collections in Moscow. It sheds new light not only on the achievements of this remarkable man, but also on some of the artists whose legacy he preserved.

Correspondence between Savitsky and artists (or their heirs) is included. So too are notes and articles by Igor Savitsky in which he outlines his views on assembling an art collection and developing an art museum.

Savitsky first visited the region in 1950 as a member of the famous Khorezm Archeological and Ethnographic Expedition led by Sergei Tolstov.

Subsequently, having moved from Moscow to Nukus, Savitsky began collecting Karakalpak nomads' carpets, jewellery and textiles.  At the same time, he began collecting the drawings and paintings of artists linked to Central Asia, including those of the Uzbek school, and, during the late-1950s/early-1960s, those of the Russian avant garde. These works were banished or destroyed by Soviet authorities because avant garde art did not conform to the officially prescribed Soviet "socialist realism".

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Igor Savitsky - early days in Karakalpakstan
Savitsky was able to persuade the local (communist) authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and, in 1966, he was appointed founding director of the Nukus Museum of Arts.

He was able to make his dream of a unique and unusual museum - not just a copy of the Tretyakov in Moscow - come true. Given its distance from Moscow and its remoteness in Uzbekistan’s Kyzl Kum desert, Nukus was an ideal location for Savitsky’s purpose.

New buildings are underway to display more of the 90,000+ objects in the museum's collection. The first building is set to open in September 2015.

A new film - Passion - about the life of Savitsky from renowned film maker Ali Khamraev - will be premiered at the museum on 4 September. An earlier film, Desert of Forbidden Art, introduced many foreigners to the Savitsky collection.

Australian broadcaster SBS also made a fascinating 15-minute program about Nukus and the Savitsky collection in 2002. You can watch Keepers of the Lost Art below on YouTube [If this does not appear on your device, please go directly to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxu357CRKk8].

Homage to Savitsky is available for purchase at the museum and online  through major booksellers. If you have visited Nukus, you will be delighted by the publication. It is a high-quality edition published by Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt. A one-day visit to the Savitsky collection in Nukus is a highlight of an Uzbek Journeys tour.

Related posts
London Book Launch: Biography of Igor Savitsky
Alexander Volkov: Of Sand and Silk, an Exhibition at Christie's, London
Desert of Forbidden Art screens at Venice Biennale
Sotheby's London Exhibition: Contemporary Art from Central Asia & the Caucasus

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kyrgyzstan - the Felted Dolls of Erkebu Djumagulova

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Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. She regularly contributes articles to this website. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. 

Let me introduce you to a remarkably talented artisan Erkebu Djumagulova, who lives in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is the leader of a jewel-box workshop that produces felt dolls and felt accessories The workshop, which includes a team of eight handicraft workers, snuggles within a former Soviet industrial estate.

This is a story of a success-oriented, assiduous self-made woman, who has devoted her life to the research, revival, support and development of authentic Kyrgyz applied arts and handicrafts.

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"Happy Childhood" felted toy, winner of UNESCO award
A graduate of Frunze Arts College, Erkebu eje majored in textiles, fabric painting, weaving production practices and felt making technologies. In 1975, as the result of a postgraduate work assignment, Erkebu eje started work with Kiyal, the National Association of Folk Artistic Crafts.

During her three years with Kiyal, she focused on textile ornaments design, master pattern creation and textile printing. Then, the young specialist transferred to the scientific-research laboratory arm of Kiyal

There, she was involved in a new project aimed at researching traditional culture and folk crafts. This included a challenging two-month expedition to the Naryn and Osh provinces of the Kyrgyz Republic.  Accompanying the expedition were distinguished figures in art history such as E. K. Sorokin and A. Akmataliev. Careful surveys and systematic studies of saima (embroidery) shyrdaks (mosaic thick felt carpets), ala-kiyiz (motley felt carpets) resulted in the creation of one-of-a-kind art, drawing and sample book. It is a mine of information on handicraft processes and the interpretation of patterns and colours.

When her maternity leave was over, Erkebu eje left Kiyal, and embarked upon a career as a freelance artisan. That period was followed by bitter trials and hardships caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union; it was a time when Erkebu eje, like many others, was battling to survive.

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 Erkebu eje (centre), with two of her team members
She designed and produced a number of embroidered wall hangings of high artistic merit, some of which were purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek and exhibited there. Other pieces are now found in private collections.

These creative activities helped her to overcome many difficulties and challenges, keep her feet firmly on the ground, and motivated her to set up her own business.

In 2005, GIZ, the German development company, entered into an agreement with representatives of the “Ainur” electronic industry enterprise to lease a unit of its factory for five years as part of a business incubator project. Thus, Erkebu eje‘s workshop moved to new premises: ten years on, she and her close-knit team are still there.

Over the past eleven years, Erkebu eje has participated seven times in the International Folk Art Marketin Santa Fe, in the United States. Her first time there triggered a “second wind” and greatly enhanced the subsequent development of her small enterprise.

Erkebu eje’s work has garnered many awards. Among them, she was awarded the 2005 UNESCO Crafts Prize for an outstanding contribution to creativity in the making of felt dolls. In 2007 she was awarded the Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts, Central Asian Region for her “Summer” decorative felt cushions. In 2012 two further UNESCO awards were bestowed: Awards of Excellence for Handicrafts, Central Asian Region for “Happy Childhood” felt toy and “Heirs” felt toys composition.

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Kyrgyz mother wearing elechek headress
Now Erkebu eje is engaged in creating new styles, processing orders, quality control and the procurement of dyes, threads, glass beads, and felt in particular, as it is the basic material for doll making.

Felt is stocked up in advance for the upcoming winter season. (There are sayings in Kyrgyz culture such as “Repair your cart in December; in July your sledge remember” or “Make provision for a rainy day but in good time”).

Erkebu eje’s outstanding team consists of eight permanent staff at the workshop and a fluctuating number of “outworkers”, depending on the number of orders. Her younger sister is in charge of accountancy and executing customers’ orders in due time.

The family business also involves Erkebu eje’s niece, who manages the workflow of the staff who work at home, such as felt cutters.Her daughter, a music master, deals with foreign clients.

The staff classified as “outworkers” are craftswomen and mothers of large families; some of the outworkers are talented graduates of art colleges. They specialise in making clothes for felt dolls, accessories, and a variety of decorations, as well as assembling cute, little felt animals. A mother and her two sons supply round, elongated work pieces (blanks) to be used as heads, bodies, hands and legs of felt dolls.

All parts of the prospective dolls are assembled within the workshop as this intricate and delicate process has to be supervised by the chief artisan – Erkebu Djumagulova. One more significant and complicated stage of doll making has to be mentioned here: the creation of doll faces - distinctive, easily recognizable Kyrgyz features (cheerful, sweet, kindled with happiness). Two talented mistresses of needlework carry out this process. Erkebu notes: “The making of dolls’ faces is a prerogative of a very limited number of craftswomen; this skill is exceptional”.

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Erkebu eje has proudly represented her works at Santa Fe
This is one-of-a-kind enterprise, managed by a brilliant and creative artisan and businesswoman, which embraces her family members, friends, industry peers and individuals. It makes an indispensable contribution to the region’s economy, ensures cultural sustainability, and helps to revive and keep the rich and flamboyant practices of felt making alive.

I would like to wish Erkebu eje continued success and prosperity in her all future endeavors!

Note: A visit to Erkebueje’s workshop is included in an Uzbek Journeys tour.

If you wish to visit Erkebueje’s workshop independently, please contact her on email: workshop_erke(at) mail (dot) ru

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles

Related posts:
Kancha - Design for Urban Nomads
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress 
Yurts of Central Asia
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats  
Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan