Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Kancha - Design for Urban Nomads

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When co-founder Tobias Gerhard first travelled to Kyrgyzstan, he was fascinated with the art of felting developed by Kyrgyz nomads. Back in Berlin he noticed a different type of nomad: urban nomads, with laptops and smart phones, who move from metropolis to metropolis without a fixed workplace or home. This gave birth to the idea to make the traditional crafts of Kyrgyzstan attractive to the world's urban nomads and contribute to the livelihoods of Kyrgyz artisans.

Tobias together with the other co-founders Sebastian Gluschak, Oskar Kim and designer Jonas Görtz put the concept into reality with a successful crowd funding campaign in 2013.

There are many reasons to support this business:

1.  The designs are very cool

Kancha products are felt and leather device covers - for notebooks, tablets and smart phones. Recently wallets were added to the range. (Kancha means "how much?" in Kyrgyz).

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Kancha laptop sleeve inspired by the magnificent Kyrgyz landscape
The patterns that decorate the products use Kyrgyz design fused with a contemporary twist, e.g., the burning sun over pointed peaks, lush valleys, and deep mountain lakes.

The company logo is an elegant design based on a Kyrgyz tunduk – the round, central, roof element of a yurt.

2.   The quality is brilliant

All items are handmade. The natural felt is dense to ensure the device is well protected. The embroidery and stitching are beautifully done and the leather is world class - remember that Kyrgyztsan is a land of nomadic traditions where livestock are plentiful and leather work has a long tradition in producing saddles, bridles and other horse tack.

The covers are designed so that the device slips in and then "tucks in" under the leather flap. It cannot fall out.

3.   Kancha is an ethical employer

A cornerstone of Kancha's philosophy is a commitment to ethical work practices. Its craftsmen and women have fair working conditions, are paid on time and actively contribute to product development.

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Embroidery master Elniza and leather master Artur
Every Kancha product comes with a handmade label from the artisan who made it and you can read the profiles of the craftspeople on Kancha's website.

Kancha is also committed to making a positive contribution to the economic development of Kyrgyzstan and social entrepreneurship projects.

Uzbek Journeys is committed to introducing clients to the best Central Asian artisans. Kancha is one of them and a visit to Kancha  is included in the Kyrgyz tours.

Visit the Kancha website to watch the video about the device designs and preview the goodies before your trip.

Related posts: 5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Alzhir Gulag for Women - Kazakhstan

Display inside a wagon that transported women to the camp
Not far from Kazakhstan's gleaming new capital, Astana, is a memorial for the women who suffered in Alzhir - the Soviet Union's largest women's camp. It operated from 1937 - 1953.

Kazakhstan's vast steppe and harsh climate made it an ideal location for the establishment of labour camps. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to Kazakh gulags.

Alzhir was established for the female relatives of "traitors to the Motherland" - mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. Children under the age of three accompanied their mothers there. Then they were sent to orphanages. Crime by association.

The women were forced to build their own barracks from mud bricks. Each barrack held 200 - 300 women.

Following Stalin's death in 1953, the camp was closed. In 2007 a museum and memorial complex was built on the site - it is a deeply moving experience to visit Alzhir.

To enter the complex one passes the 18-metre high Arch of Grief. A silver and black monument, which symbolises a traditional Kazakh headdress for women. The museum tour starts with an eloquent video presentation in which former prisoners and their children recount their experiences at Alzhir. It is harrowing to listen to the stories of extreme hardship.

The Arch of Grief
The permanent exhibition displays the daily life of the prisoners and some of their personal effects - handbags, gloves etc - as though the owners thought they were going on an outing when they were rounded up. Particularly moving are letters sent from their children.

The Kazakh government should be commended for this museum and its ongoing activities to acknowledge the terror that took place on Kazakh soil. May 31 is now a national day of remembrance of the victims of political repression.

Alzhir is about an hour's drive from Astana and is open daily, except Mondays, from 10:00 - 18:00. Plan to spend a half-day there.

Excellent English speaking guides are available for a group of minimum five persons. Fee: around US$2. There is a comprehensive English website. Brace yourself - this is a disturbing museum.

Joanna Lillis and David Trilling have put together an excellent photo essay The Forgotten Women of the Gulag, describing the camp and its exhibits.

Related posts: Kazakhstan: A Visit to the Arasan Baths, Almaty
Almaty, Kazakhstan - Riding the New Metro
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania

Archival image: Inside a barrack at Alzhir

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ernst Neizvestny's Last Soviet Sculpture - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

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The Neizvestny-designed facade of the Turkmen State Archive, 1975. Image: David Cash
Legendary sculptor Ernst Neizvestny was born in the Ural Mountains region of the USSR in 1926.

Noticed as an artistically gifted child, he studied in Leningrad and Samarkand as a teenager and later in Riga and Moscow's Surikov Institute.

In 1962, Neizvestny's work was heavily criticized as "degenerate" by Soviet President Khrushchev, who publicly insulted numerous architects, sculptors, and composers.

(Ironically,  Neizvestny was approached by Khruschev's family to design and build Khruschev's tombstone in 1974 -  a black and white monument symbolising the bright and dark sides of the Soviet leader and the post-Stalinist period).

Neizvestny was one of the few living Russian artists whose work became known and admired in the West. This was largely the result of the admiration and advocacy of the English art critic John Berger, in whose opinion "Neizvestny is principally the first visual artist of genius to have emerged in the Soviet Union since the twenties." (Berger's 1968 book Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny, Endurance, and the Role of the Artist was republished by Vintage Books in 1998 and is readily available).

In 1965 the Grosvenor Gallery in London held a joint exhibition of works by Ernst Neizvestny and Marc Chagall. In the same year, an international jury awarded him first prize in the UNESCO-sponsored art competition in Belgrade, to honor the 700th anniversary of Dante.  Among the participants were Robert Rauschenburg and Salvador Dali.

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Internal view of Lotus Blossom sculpture, Aswan Dam,1968. Image: Gradiva
In 1968 Neizvestny won the international competition to design the sculpture for the Aswan Dam, Egypt. This monument - Lotus Blossom - is the world's largest sculpture. Throughout the 1970s, and before his exile to the West, he exhibited widely in Europe and New York.

The Ashgabat Sculpture

As Ashgabat transforms itself into a marble and gilded city, this rare and remarkable sculpture is one of the few monumental works that remain in the city from the Soviet period.

Neizvestny's concrete bas-relief decorates the former building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. It is now the State Archive. In the panel, the face of Turkmenia is depicted, having thrown out the tsarist regime and built a socialist society through hard work and collective effort.

In the centre of the composition heads of the imperial Russian double eagle lie torn from their bodies, trampled upon by a woman wearing a Turkmen ornament. The figure of the woman also forms the nose on the fifteen meter long face.

As writer Maksat Alikperov noted: "The panel is very frightening; however, it is hard to take your eyes off it. One can only admire the talent of Neizvestny, who successfully combined the ideology of the victorious socialism, the national flavor, the inextinguishable flame of freedom, a furious cat, a suffering horse, and human limbs grown out of proportions from the works of Pablo Picasso".

The sculpture also evidently caused a scandal when it was unveiled in 1975 because it was composed around the shape of a cross.
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Neivestny's Memorial to the Victims of Stalinism, Magadan, Russia. 1996

After 65 applications for an exit visa were refused, Ernst Neizvestny finally emigrated to Zurich in 1976. He moved to New York in 1977, where he still lives.  American playwright Arthur Miller described Neizvestny as an "artist of the East: who is regarded by Russians as an "expression of the country, of its soul, language, and spirit" and as a "prophet of the future".

Evidently before his departure from the USSR, a friend asked him "Why did you decide to emigrate?" Neizvestny answered: "I am fed up. Look – if I create another work like the one in Ashgabat, I will simply die".

Related posts: Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings

Photographer Ilia Torlin took brilliant images of Turkmenistan in 2008.  His more recent work, e.g. of Georgia and Iran can be viewed here.