Monday, October 31, 2011

London Book Launch: Biography of Igor Savitsky, Founder of the Karakalpakstan Museum, Nukus

Igor Savitsky founder of Nukus Museum Uzbekistan
Igor Savitsky
If you're in London on Wednesday 9 November, don't miss the launch of Marinika Babanazarova's biography of the founder of the Karakalpakstan Museum: Igor Savitsky - Artist, Collector, Museum Founder at Pushkin House at 7:00 p.m.

The museum, located in Nukus in far western Uzbekistan, houses a collection of Soviet avant-garde art that is rivalled only by St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. Russian artists, caught up in the idealism of the early Soviet days, were drawn by the exoticism of Central Asia. They visited the region, some settling there, and painted exuberant works fusing modernism with orientalism. Simultaneously, Uzbek artists were producing remarkable pieces influenced in particular by primitivism.

All this came to an abrupt end when Stalin promulgated the decree On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations in 1932. Artists whose works did not meet the 'radiant future' style of socialist realism found their paintings removed from galleries and were unable to participate in exhibitions. Worse, some artists were repressed, sent to gulags and mental institutions or executed.

Savitsky rescued thousands of these 'dissident' works and hung them in his museum. Nukus' very remoteness worked to his advantage: because of the chemical warfare testing conducted nearby it was off-limits even to most Soviet citizens. So displaying paintings, even banned paintings, that no one would see, was feasible.

Road of Life and Death by Alexander Nikolaev
Road of Life and Death by Alexander Nikolaev, 1924
Marinika Babanazarova has been the museum's director since Savitsky's death in 1984. She is the grand-daughter of Karakalpakstan's first president (who was himself repressed and shot as an enemy of the people in 1938). Savitsky often visited her family's house in Nukus and later, Tashkent.

Her memoir draws upon correspondence, official records, and other documents about the Savitsky family that have become available during the last few years, as well as the recollections of a wide range of people who knew Igor Savitsky personally.

As she states in the foreword to this deeply moving and personal narrative: “I hope this memoir will serve not only as a multifaceted, broad-based portrait of a great man who was my mentor, but also as a tribute to his legacy.”

Houses by Lyubov Popova 1914
Houses by Lyubov Popova, 1914
The book, in separate English and Russian editions, will be on sale at Pushkin House (from 9 November) and at selected locations in Tashkent, London, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. as well as the Nukus Museum. All sale proceeds go directly to the Museum to support the maintenance and preservation of the Savitsky Collection. The book is available online now through Discovery Books, London. (Around A$24 including postage to Australia).

The story of Savtisky and the collection is told in a remarkable, award-winning documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev. You can watch the trailer and purchase a copy online. (US$35 including postage to Australia). Should you happen to be in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 3 November there will be a screening at 6:00 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency and a screening on 11 November at the University of Central Asia, Bishek at 4:00 p.m.. Also on Monday 7 November in Riga, Latvia, at the historic Splendid Palace cinema at 7:00 p.m.

On Uzbek Journeys tours we spend an entire day at the Nukus Museum: it is one of the highlights of the trip . As well as the marvellous paintings and works on paper, the collection includes priceless examples of Karakalpak nomads' carpets, jewellery and textiles, also saved by Savitsky. Excellent catalogues are available there for purchase. Visiting the museum's website provides a valuable overview of its history and collection before your visit.

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

Monday, October 24, 2011

Uzbek Caravanserais

Indian caravan arrives in Bukhara
An Indian caravan unloads at a caravanserai in Bukhara
In the heyday of the Great Silk Road, many ancient trails connected countries, people, goods, technology and ideas. Camels and mules, loaded with spice and porcelain, silks and medicines, carpets and jewels plied across the hot desert sands, mighty mountain ranges, and the green plains of the oases.

Guest houses to accommodate the animals, merchants and goods were constructed about every 25-30 kms along the routes: these were known as Caravanserais. The word is derived from 'carvon' meaning a 'group of travellers' and 'saroy', which means house or palace.

The first caravanserais appeared in Central Asia in the 9th century A.D. and were generally built by order of the rulers, governor-generals and wholesale merchants. Some of them were built inside the towns and did not require protection. Those built along the roads were small defensive fortresses.

Generally caravanserais were two-storied structures of massive stone walls surrounding a square or rectangular yard, thick wooden gates often upholstered in metal, and no outside windows. There was a well in the centre of the courtyard, and sometimes the water was brought there from long distances. The ground floor served as stalls for pack animals and warehouses for the merchandise; the first floor provided space where travellers could spend the night without fearing for their cattle and goods.

Caravanserais were full of people: merchants learnt the latest news, met new partners, made deals with traders from other lands and exchanged ideas and philosophies. They served as storehouses for major consignments, stock exchanges for price settings, intermediaries for transfers of oral and written messages, and wholesale centres. They also housed restaurants and artisans' workshops, such as tanners, blacksmiths and tailors. Hammam (baths) and tabibs (local healers) were at the disposal of travellers as well.

Rabati Malik caravanserai between Samarkand and Bukhara
Rabati Malik caravanserai
With the rise of maritime trade and later railways, many caravanserais fell into ruin or disappeared altogether. In Soviet times some were used as warehouses, and today many of them serve as splendid bazaars for artisans' workshops and boutiques.

In Samarkand, the Oriental Sweets tea house is located inside a restored 19th century caravanserai, close to the Registan. On the Kyzyl Kum desert road between Samarkand and Bukhara  there is the impressive Rabati Malik caravanserai, built in the 11th century. It has been added to UNESCO's World Heritage tentative list. The ruins of this site have been preserved, and we will stop there en route to Bukhara.

Inside the Rabati Malik caravansera between Samarkand and Bukhara
Inside the Rabati Malik caravanserai

Materials source: Many thanks to Uzbek writer Nigora Abdukayumova, who is now based in Manila, Philippines.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Oscar de la Renta's Love Affair with Uzbek Ikat

Oscar de la Renta Trench coat from the 2005 collection
Oscar de la Renta Trench Coat, 2005
Since 2005 New York-based designer Oscar de la Renta has included ikat fabrics in collections ranging from clothing and accessories to furniture fabrics.

"They are so unbelievably rich in color," he said. "Ikat is a very traditional fabric that works well for all seasons".

Collaborating with Rasuljon Mirzaakhmedov, master craftsman from Margilan, in the Ferghana Valley, his collection includes adras (cotton and silk ikat), baghmal (silk velvet ikat) and atlas ikat (satin ikat) in bright, graphic patterns. Mr. Mirzaakhmedov's family is at the vanguard in a revival of velvet ikat weaving in which white silk threads are dyed and placed on a narrow loom, a technique that is highly complicated and practiced by very few. The process requires a month to produce just a few metres of fabric.

Ikat refers to both the type of fabric and the resist-dye technique used to create the cloth. To make ikat, parts of the warp (the yarns which run vertically) or the weft (horizontal) yarns are bound and placed in a series of dye baths. The parts of the yarns that are tied and protected resist the dye, allowing makers to produce multi-colored textiles through exposing the yarn to multiple dye baths. Unlike carpets or tapestries, the design of an ikat is articulated on the yarns before weaving begins.

Many other designers have jumped on the ikat train, including Dries Van Noten and Gucci.

Oscar de la Renta ballet flats 2010 collection
Adorable ikat ballet flat from Oscar de la Renta, 2010
Although Uzbek Journeys accompanied tours do not visit the Ferghana Valley, you certainly will see silk ikat weaving and have the chance to purchase fabulous fabrics, including silk velvet ikat, in Samarkand and Bukhara.

Excursions from Tashkent to the silk centres of the Ferghana Valley can be arranged pre- or post-tour.  View the range of Ferghana Valley tours.

In the clip below [1.22 mins} you can view some of Oscar de la Renta's gorgeous ikat pieces.

Related posts: Feruza's Ikat Store, Bukhara
Uzbek Ikat as Interior Design Element 
Ferghana Valley Silk Ikats: Tying the Clouds
Uzbek ikat robes feature in Russian textiles book
Ikat Porcelain Tableware
Valentino Haute Couture Meets Suzani
Basso & Brooke Meet Ikat on the New Silk Road Project

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tamara Khanum: Legendary Uzbek Dancer

Tamara Khanum Uzbek dance icon photographed by Langston Hughes
Tamara Khanum, image: Langston Hughes
According to the research of Uzbek dance specialist Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray, it was  the Bolshevik campaign after 1924 to eliminate the custom of veil wearing that lead to public dance performances by women.

Dr. Gray writes: "Born in Margilan, Ferghana, in 1906, Tamara Khanum was one of the first women to defy tradition and perform unveiled, often courting death at the hands of Basmatchi reactionaries. (One of her colleagues, a young dancer named Nurkhon, was murdered by her own brother for dishonoring the family by dancing in public. Nurkhon later became the subject of a musical drama by Kamil Yashin)".

After graduating from the Moscow Theatrical College, Tamara Khanum was selected to be part of the delegation of USSR artists to the 1924 World Exhibition in Paris, where she performed Uzbek dances and songs. This was the first time in modern history that Central Asian dance had been seen in the West. (1924 was also the year that Isadora Duncan performed in Tashkent and Samarkand).

At the end of 1930s Tamara Khanum collaborated with composer Evgeny Grigoryevich Brusilovsky to create the first Uzbek ballet, Gulyandom, in which she performed the lead role. She also established the first ballet school in Tashkent and composed her own original genre 'song-dance'.

During World War II Tamara Khanum was a member of the front theatrical companies: she gave more than 700 concerts to the troops, and donated her Stalin Prize to the Fund of Defence. In the 1950s she toured Austria, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China to great acclaim.

Tamara Khanum Uzbek dance legend photographed by Max Penson
Tamara Khanum, image: Max Penson
Tamara Khanum was awarded the title of the People's Artist of the USSR and many other  government awards. She died in 1991.

On an Uzbek Journeys tour, you will visit the Tamara Khanum museum, located in her former house in Tashkent. In 2008, the museum received a $34,000 grant from the U.S. Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation to revitalize and expand exhibits. The museum has used the funds to restore 75 costumes the dancer wore as she performed around the world, create a new exhibit of hundreds of historical photographs, record an audio guide for visitors to learn about the life of Tamara Khanum, and to improve the display of the museum’s exhibits.

A new exhibition area displays hundreds of photographs with captions in Uzbek, Russian, and English. The photos include pictures of the dancer and the musicians with whom she performed, black-and-white scenes of life in Uzbekistan in a bygone era, and posters advertising her international performances. Together they tell the story of the dancer’s life, as well as that of a changing cultural landscape as Uzbekistan evolved throughout the 20th Century.

You can view rare 1939 archival footage of Tamara Khanum dancing at the opening of the Ferghana Valley canal, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Soviet Union in this 2-minute video clip.

A footnote on these images:
the upper photograph was taken by Langston Hughes, the American poet, who described Khanum as "Soviet Asia's greatest dancer". The famous Uzbek photographer, Max Penson, captured her in the lower image.

Materials source:  Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray Persian, Central Asian, and Arabic Culture

Related post: Tashkent's Small House Museums

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Chekichs: Uzbek Bread Stamps

Uzbek non bread decorated with checkich stamp centre
Glossy, stamped Uzbek bread.
Uzbek non (flat bread) is scrumptious. And for Uzbeks it is more than just food: non is sacred.

Non is placed under the head of a newborn as a way of wishing it a long, healthy life. It is put between the legs of a baby who has just taken its first steps, to provide a blessing for its path. Mothers make their sons take a bite hoping they will soon return safely from war or army service. Life without non is unthinkable.

At any Uzbek market, there are endless rows of non with different designs, names and aromas. Everywhere you go you can see bread sellers wheeling non around in old-fashioned, big-wheeled baby strollers straight from the tandoor oven. Indeed there are more than 30 types of Uzbek non.

Bakers and householders stamp the centre of each non with an instrument - a chekich. The chekich is a carved handle with metal pins or nails set into it. It produces a distinctive pattern, based on a traditional design, and keeps the bread from rising.

Rows of chekich bread stamps bukhara
Chekichs in Mirfayz Ubaydov's spice shop
Chekichs match my idea of a perfect souvenir: charming, small, inexpensive and evocative. Mirfayz Ubaydov of the Silk Road Tea House and Spice Shop, Bukhara, has lovely chekichs in a range of sizes and patterns, which sell for $4-$8.

Update September 2017:  Good news! If you are unable to visit Uzbekistan to buy a chekich, Shakhista Turaeva has opened an Etsy shop with a lovely selection.

Related posts: The Glory of Uzbek Bread
Khiva: Bread Making Master Class