Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bukhara's Contemporary Art Museum

Pavel Benkov's Tajik with Tea Bowl
Bukhara possesses a singular allure. Over 2,500 years old, it was one of the most important trading centres of the Silk Road. During the golden age of the Saminid rulers, Bukhara also became the intellectual centre of the Islamic world.

The entire old city is now a UNESCO World Heritage site: it is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an historic ambience and an urban fabric that has remained largely intact.

It is so easy to spend hours exploring the ancient caravanserais and madrassahs, now housing artisans workshops, antiquarians, fabric boutiques and knife makers. The old Jewish quarter, the residential neighbourhoods set along cobbled streets, all make for marvellous strolls.

And for those travellers interested in avant-garde and 20th century art, Bukhara's small Contemporary Art Museum is a *must-see*. Located between the first and second trade domes, it is housed in a corner, brick building constructed in 1912 as Central Asia's first central bank.

Despite a fine collection of Soviet artists, such as Pavel Benkov, Mikhail Kurzin, Alexander Volkov, Nadeja Kashina, the exhibition space dedicated to that period is not easy to find. Entrance to the museum is at street level and is about US$2. There is usually an exhibition of local painters' works on that level. Ask the staff at the ticket office where the avant garde art is and someone will lead you through several rooms, then up stairs at the back until you reach the modernist section.

M. Kurzin's Portrait of Embroiderer Niyazova Karomat
Pavel Benkov came to Bukhara in 1928 and it was a turning point in the artist's life. Benkov's portraits on display reflect his skill at capturing the essence of Bukharan life at the time. In Tajik with a Tea Bowl he has brilliantly captured a proud man, fully conscious of his own dignity. The museum's collection of Benkov's work is significant, ranging from portraits to cityscapes.

Mikhail Kurzin lived and worked in Bukhara in the late 1940s. (Kurzin was the founder of a Tashkent art group Masters of the New Orient). He was later repressed and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and 3 years exile.  On his release he moved to Bukhara until 1948 when he was exiled once again.

Kurzin painted a series of portraits of well-known Bukharan artisans - engravers, weavers, stone masons, metal chasers, embroiderers and jewellers - all painted in bold, broad strokes. There was a shortage of materials in the post-war years and Kurzin sometimes simply painted on cardboard.

The museum is open daily from 1000 - 1800 daily and closed on Mondays. Overlook the rather sad exhibition space and tilted hangings. If you speak Russian, try to arrange a guided tour with one of the art historians there. Call in advance: +998  65 224 5853.  Stopping by this collection is an excellent prelude to the Savitsky museum in Nukus, visited on an Uzbek Journeys tour.

Related posts:
London Book Launch: Biography of Igor Savitsky, Founder of the Karakalpakstan Museum, Nukus
Pablo Picasso and Nadejda Kashina Exhibition in Tashkent
Alexander Volkov: Of Sand and Silk, an Exhibition at Christie's, London

Pavel Benkov's Bukhara Caravanserai

Mikhail Kurzin's Mosque Magok Attor (now the Carpet Museum)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Samarkand's Magic Carpets

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Suzanna Fatyan
Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, has contributed several pieces on this website about Samarkand as well as about Uzbek cuisine. In this article she describes the story of the remarkable family that runs the Samarkand silk carpet workshop.

Visiting workshops is an exciting part of any journey. First, because it allows a traveller to observe the magical process of creation; second, because you start understanding the volume of human energy and expertise spent for things that sometimes seem rather simple. Finally, in the workshops, you have the chance to meet artisans whose hearts and minds are totally dedicated to their craft.

Samarkand is the perfect place for such meetings. Sometimes I feel that interesting people agreed to gather here at the same time, to charm a traveller with their incredible art, knowledge, and charisma.

And it is natural, because Samarkand is the heart of the Great Silk Road, a spacious caravanserai  where merchants and craftsmen met and had long, philosophical debates under the shadow of a plane tree, sipping green tea before they started discussing their business.

Detail of exquisite pure silk carpet. Image: Janet Richardson
The workshop that always impresses travellers is known as Samarkand Bukhara Ipak Gilami, which means Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpets. It is run by the family of Haji Mohammad Ewaz Badghisi, whose life history could inspire a novel.

For Haji Baba, of Turkmen background, the weaving of rugs is not a job, it is his life. Ancestors of Haji Baba dedicated three hundred years to this art. Moreover, this dedication accompanied him and his family during the most difficult periods of their life. And they experienced many.

In the early 20th century Central Asia was annexed to the Soviet Union and Haji Baba's family had to leave their Turkmen homeland and move to Afghanistan to avoid expropriation of their property and the banning of their art: weaving was considered private entrepreneurship.

In Afghanistan, Haji Baba worked hard to preserve authentic Central Asian designs and weaving secrets.  Moreover, he did everything to tell the world about the art of Central Asia. Haji Baba even lectured at university in the United States, where he shared his knowledge about natural vegetable dyes and carpets. However, a peaceful life in Afghanistan and opportunities to create there were also interrupted, first by the Soviet invasion in 1978, then by the domination of the Taliban in 1992.

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Haji Baba holding madder plant and madder root - used for red dye
Thus in 1992 Haji Baba's family left Afghanistan and settled in independent Uzbekistan, where the new government supported initiatives on the Revival of Lost Arts.  Haji Baba opened a school-workshop in Samarkand to teach everyone interested in the art of carpet creation: from unwrapping the cocoon, spinning and dyeing silk through to weaving a masterpiece. Haji Baba preserved weaving traditions and passed these traditions with love and respect to his large and friendly family.

His son, Abdullah, and daughter, Zainab, take care of the workshop today.  Instantly they charm you with their energy and passion and then with their encyclopedic knowledge and sense of humour.  Between them they speak 10 languages. They show you every corner of the workshop so you can become a weaving expert.

Firstly you are invited to the dyeing area where you learn everything about the birth of silk and creating the colours. All carpets produced here are 100% silk and the threads are coloured using natural, vegetable dyes. Nearby is the garden where madder is grown. There are bags of walnut shells, onion skins and pomegranate skins.

Then you see the weaving process: you go upstairs and find yourself in a large room where you feel as if you came for a party at your closest friend’s house, albeit a rather unusual house. Because there are looms all around.  The atmosphere is so cosy you feel as if everyone is related to each other.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
Brother & sister Abdullah & Zainab, who manage the workshop
Most weavers in the workshop are women, which is symbolic. In the past our grandmothers served as the main keepers of traditions.

Weaving skills were crucial to a nomadic lifestyle. First, because every piece of furniture and decoration in a yurt was woven. Second, women prepared special carpets before their wedding; after marriage they served as yurt doors and floor coverings and demonstrated the skill of the maker.

For women living in the cities it was necessary to prepare suzani as part of the dowry. These decorated walls, dastarkhan (the traditional space where food is eaten) in the house, niches in the walls for personal belongings and many more purposes. From the designs and colours of the rugs and suzani you could can learn about the origin of the piece as well as the dreams and fears of its owners.

Frequently they are decorated with symbols and amulets to attract fortune, wealth, fertility and to turn away the evil eye. In the past, every pattern in the carpet belonged to a certain tribe. Now when we talk about patterns we remember their origins and analyze their symbolism.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
Clara - indispensable part of the carpet team
Then you will be invited to the show room and served a cup of tea and traditional candies. Here you will see wondrous carpet after carpet in gorgeous patterns and colours, kilims, and suzani (from cushion covers,  table runners and bed covers).

Please do not fear that you may be pressured into a purchase. That is not their way. The family enjoys watching your pleasure as you view the beauty of the designs, the harmony of the colours and the quality of the weaving.

For a moment you forget where you are:  you start dreaming, you close your eyes and feel as if you are in an Oriental palace far away from reality and routine. If you travel in summer I recommend you lie down on a silk carpet to feel its cool, delicate, tender touch. (I should let you know that the family makes it very easy for you to purchase carpets - credit cards are accepted and shipping can be arranged).

The workshop is a fair employer. All staff undergo a three-month training program. They work five days a week, eight hours and day and have guaranteed annual and maternity leave. There are opportunities for women, after having children, to embroider suzanis at home if they prefer.

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A stunning silk carpet designed like a suzani

Usually a carpet is woven by two or three women - they chose with whom they wish to work, as it ensures a convivial spirit at the loom as well as faster completion of the carpet. The workshops are light and airy and staff take regular breaks.

A visit to Samarkand is incomplete without stopping by Haji Baba's workshop, at 12A Hojom Street Samarkand. It is open seven days a  week. Phone them on +998 66 2352273 or ask your tour guide to bring you there.

And of course a visit there is included in Uzbek Journeys tours.

Contact Suzanna via email at susanna202001(at)yahoo(dot)com          

Read all Suzanna's articles and restaurant reviews.

Related posts:
Symbols in Stitches: Uzbek Suzanis
Suzanis as Upholstery: the Brilliance of Bokja Design

The light, airy weaving room at the Samarkand silk carpet workshop. Image: Richard Marshall

Monday, July 28, 2014

2015 - Your Year to Discover Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan

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The magnificent dome of Bibi Khanum, Samarkand. Image: R. Marshall
Dates for Uzbek Journeys 2015 small group tours to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have just been published.

The 16-day Uzbek tours, scheduled for the very best seasons in Uzbekistan, focus on the art, craft and history of this fascinating section of the Silk Road.

Explore the architectural masterpieces of the ancient cities of Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Bukhara and Khiva.

Visit artisans’ workshops to meet families who have practised their craft for generations and contemporary artists who are fusing ancient techniques with modern style.

Roam the bazaars, lounge around in tea houses and spend the night in a yurt in the Kyzyl Kum desert. Learn about the intrigues of the Great Game between Britain and Russia and view the extraordinary collection of avant garde art in remote Nukus.

Kyrgyzstan landscape Issyk Kul region Image: Lilya Kas'yanova
The 8-day Kyrgyz tours combine the majestic, rugged landscapes of snow-capped mountains and lush valleys, with visits to craft co-operatives, design workshops, felt carpet makers and yurt makers. 

Travelling around shimmering Issyk Kul lake, with the towering Tien Shan mountain range in view, you will understand how nomadic traditions are still at the core of the Kyrgyz people, who take immense pride in their heritage.

There are opportunities for hiking, picnics by streams, and listening to traditional musicians and bards in private homes. You will have the chance to see a kupkari (buzkashi) match and an eagle hunt. The tour also includes a visit to the famous Sunday Karakol livestock market.

Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country, often called the Switzerland of Central Asia, and makes a marvellous contrast to the landscapes of Uzbekistan.

Why not discover this fascinating region in 2015?

View the 2015 Kyrgyzstan tours.
View the 2015 Uzbekistan tours.

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Kyrgyz shyrdak carpets. Image: Rosemary Sheel