Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Central Asian Art and Craft Books: Holiday Reading

steppe magazine cover featuring kazakhstan
Cover Steppe Magazine Issue 9
The week before Christmas a stack of books about Central Asia arrived. I plan to laze about reading them during the holiday season. What a treat!

Firstly, the latest issue of Steppe Magazine is here.  It is devoted to Kazakhstan: profiles of artists, musicians, and a restorer of ancient artefacts. The feature stories take in wild fruit forests, tulips, tus kiiz (beautiful embroidered yurt hangings), Kazakh film, and a journey across the steppe by train.

Steppe Magazine is truly worth subscribing to: an online subscription is just US$20 and you get access to all the back issues.  My preference is a hard copy subscription. The photography and articles are superb; I dip into my issues all the time. It's a perfect gift, too.

tent bands from central asian yurts
Tent bands
Next is the catalogue from an exhibition I saw in 2007 at the Textile Museum in Washington: Architectural Textiles: Tent Bands of Central Asia by Richard Isaacson. Isaacson is a retired physicist, who has simultaneously pursued a strong interest in art and oriental carpets.

As he writes, "the trellis tent, or yurt, is a brilliant invention. It has made nomadic life possible across Central Asia for at least one and a half millennia. An important component of its construction is a woven tent band which girdles the lower part of the wooden roof struts. This critical engineering element provides the tension necessary to brace the roof dome against outward collapse under the load of heavy felts and the force of strong steppe winds".

Beyond serving a utilitarian function, tent bands are often elaborately decorated.These are not little narrow bands: these are 30 - 35 cms wide, exquisitely woven and highly decorated bands.  Each band is many metres long, as it has to go around the the whole yurt; the ends of the bands are braided. Here is a 2-minute video clip of the exhibition in which Mr. Isaacson and the curator discuss the exhibtion.

On an Uzbek Journeys tour you spend one night in a yurt at Ayaz Qala, where you can admire the tent bands. The next day you visit the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, which not only includes a beautifully decorated yurt but also has a fine collection of tent bands.

cover of claudia antipinas book krygyzstan
Cover of Antipina's 'Kyrgyzstan'
Then there is the splendid book Kyrgyzstan by Klavdiya Ivanove Antipina, which documents Kyrgyz costumes over the last 150 years. Antipina was an ethnographer, who, during her studies in Moscow, was branded an 'enemy of the people' and exiled with her son to Kyrgyz SSR in 1934.

She was finally able to obtain a post as a travelling teaching adviser that took her all over the country, especially the south. It was only after Stalin's death in 1953 that she could officially complete her studies, graduating with a PhD in 1962. She journeyed by horseback documenting the craft, costumes and customs of Kyrgyz nomads as they were being forced into sedentism. Antipina devoted her life to this research.

Elechek headress, northern Kyrgyzstan
Tragically, Antipina's text disappeared before a definitive book was published. Three years before her death in 1996 (aged 92), she was interviewed about the lost text and all aspects of traditional Kyrgyz costume. In 2006 this book, produced from the transcripts of those interviews, and now a seminal source of information on Kyrgyz costume and embellishment, was published in Italy. The illustrations, based on Antipina's photographs from her travels, are by Temirbek Musakeev, with whom Antipina collaborated.

My final splurge is a German/English volume of Max Penson's work 'Usbekistan: Dokumentarfotografie 1925-1945'. I have written elsewhere about Penson's photography and this is the only English publication I know of some of his works.

Swiss couple Oliver and Susanne Stahel purchased this portfolio of prints taken between 1925-1945. The images document the massive transformations taking place at that time.

max penson photograph of tashkent women 1920s
Tashkent street scene
As Russian film pioneer Sergei Einstein said of him "Penson's unparalleled photo archives contain material that enables us to trace a period in the republic's history, year by year and page by page". This book is hard to come by and I am thrilled to have a  copy. 

There are more titles in my pile, but these are the first I'll be reading. All the details about these books are noted in the book list section of this website.

Related posts:  Holiday Reading 2013: Central Asian Titles
Holiday Reading: Central Asian Titles (2012)
Max Penson: Uzbek Photography between Revolution and Tradition 
Jamilia: A Kyrgyz Love Story 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Karakol: A Frontier Town in Kyrgyzstan

Roof detail Dungan mosque; image Sue Byrne
Karakol, wedged between the eastern tip of Issyk Kul lake and the Tian Shan mountain range, began life as a garrison town for the Russian Imperial Army in 1869. Settlers followed, drawn to the fertile lands of the region.

The Russian explorer and Great Game player Nikolai Przhevalsky used Karakol as a base camp for his expeditions into Central Asia and China. (The town is 150kms from the Chinese border). He died of typhoid here in 1888 and the town was renamed after him in honour of his life and work.

In 1921 Lenin renamed it Karakol, then Stalin changed it back to Przhevalsky in 1939, the centenary of the explorer's birth. In 1957 a small museum and garden were built as a tribute to Przhevalsky. At Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991 its name reverted to Karakol.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Karakol
The wooden Holy Trinity Cathedral, constructed in 1895, has been restored and reconsecrated. In Soviet days it was a dance hall and later a school. It holds several important icons salvaged from nearby Svetly Mys, the nearby hamlet where the Christian apostle Matthew is said to be buried.

There is also a Chinese mosque in Karakol: Dungan mosque, built in 1910 entirely of wood without a single nail. The Dungans fled China during the Han Chinese retaliation after the Muslim uprising in the north west in the 19th century. Instead of a minaret the mosque has a wooden pagoda. A Dungan community still lives in Karakol.

Khan Tengi, sunset
The town retains a small section of Russian colonial 'gingerbread' buildings and, with its parks and poplar-lined streets, there is a gracious air.  Not so gracious, perhaps, but very exciting, is Karakol's famous Sunday livestock market to which nomads flock to trade sheep and horses.

Today Karakol serves a base for various outdoor activities, especially mountaineering expeditions to the Enlichek glacier and the mighty peaks of Jengish Chokusu (formerly known as Pobeda, 7439 metres) and Khan Tengi (7,010 metres). In winter Karakol is a popular resort for skiing and snow boarding.

Uzbek Journeys arranges excursions to Kyrgyzstan before or after the Uzbek tours; these include a visit to Karakol. In 2013, I plan to offer a combined Uzbek-Kyrgyz tour that will include visits to the felting and design studios of Kyrgyzstan as well as time in the mountains.

Related post: Jamilia: A Kyrgyz Love Story
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan

Monday, December 12, 2011

Central Asian Head Gear

turkmen elder and telpek
Turkmen telpek
Central Asians adore hats: there's an astonishing range of fabrics, colours, shapes, and embroidery. Each region has its own style and the head piece can be an indicator of status, age or gender.

Turkmen are most readily identified by their big, woolly telpeks. Usually made of black sheepskin, the hats are shaggy and surprisingly very practical. Despite appearances, it was the headgear of choice for nomads. Even today the wearer has usually shaved his head and wears a skull cap underneath. This creates a microclimate that prevents overheating in summer and extreme cold in winter. Happily the telpek industry is alive and well in Turkmenistan.

Kyrgyz alkalpak white felted hat
Kyrgyz al kalpak
Kyrgyzstan's al kalpak is more than a hat: it symbolizes the snowy peaks and vitality of this mountainous country. It is the most sacred part of the Kyrgyz national dress and is referenced in many everyday expressions, e.g. "If you lose your kalpak then you will lose you head". Kalpaks are still hand made of white embroidered felt with black highlighted seams.

The skull cap, known as duppi or tyubeteyka, is an integral part of Uzbek national attire, both for men and women. There is a large diversity of forms: conic, four-sided, round, and cupola-shaped. Often richly embroidered, they can resemble a delicately bejewelled carpet.

Each region has developed its own style, passed from generation to generation. Every woman enriches the traditional ornamental motifs with her own creative images and stylization.

emroidered uzbek skull cap
Emroidered Uzbek tyubeteyka
Probably the most common men's skull cap originates from Chust in the Ferghana Valley: it is black with 16 decorative arches around the border, representing strong gates through which no enemies may enter to kill the wearer of the skull cap.

Often there are almond or pepper patterns stitched on these. The design is an ingenious 'flat pack'. In Tashkent there is a garden cafe that has used this shape to create a very cool sun umbrella!

Bukhara is the Uzbek centre of gold embroidery and the skull caps here, particularly favoured for weddings, reveal very delicate needlework.

Tajiks wear skull caps with Zoroastrian and Indo-Iranian symbols woven into the design, e.g. fire and the swastika. The people of the Pamirs wear round and flat caps and people of different religious sects within the same region may also wear group-specific skull caps.

Although Kazakhs often wear the felt al kalpak, their hats can also be made with fur and feathers.  Kazakh men may wear a rounded warm cap, trimmed with astrakhan, marten or raccoon fur. During the harsh winter they wear the tymak, a fur cap with three flaps - a pair for the ears and a longer and broader flap at the back.

uzbek man skull cap black white
Chust style skull cap
The Kazakh bridal headpiece, the conical saukele, is 70cm high, and is the most expensive item in a dowry. Ornamental images such as the tree of life or ram horns form part of the saukele design.

This article is merely a quick romp through some of the fabulous head pieces of Central Asia. The finest examples are on view in the national museums. In Uzbekistan, Urgut and Shakhrisabz are good places to pick up vintage pieces.

However, it is on the streets, in the bazaars and the countryside where you will be dazzled by how strong and glorious the head gear traditions in Central Asia remain.

Related post: Uzbek Robes Features in Russian Textiles Book 
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #1
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #1

Kazakh bridal headpiece, the conical saukele

Monday, December 5, 2011

Symbols in Stitches: Uzbek Suzanis

pomegranate suzani bukhara
'Suzani' derives from the Persian word for needle. However, for textile lovers, the word is synonymous with the glories of Uzbek embroidery. Stitched cooperatively by women and girls for centuries as part of their dowries, suzanis today remain a significant decorative and cultural art in Uzbekistan.

Since the 2nd century B.C. Central Asia's great oasis cities absorbed designs from all over the Silk Road: Chinese porcelain, Persian carpets, Mughal embroideries and Islamic art all influenced the patterns so patiently stitched in these splendid wall hangings and covers.

Major suzani centres evolved: Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and Nurata. Each centre developed distinctive embroidery techniques, producing different effects. Motifs chosen were often the same across schools, albeit abstracted with differing stylistic features.

Pomegranates are frequently used in suzanis: the many seeds symbolize fecundity and it is strongly associated with wedding rituals. The 'botum' motif, shaped like a teardrop or almond signifies abundance, while the chili pepper pattern is said to protect against the evil eye.

Surrounded by deserts, lavish flowering garden scenes reminiscent of Persian 'garden carpets' were always popular: carnations, roses, iris and twining vines decorate the fabrics. The ewer is a recurring motif, representing the life-giving qualities of water.

Large circular motifs, assumed to be sun and moon, are thought to derive from ancient Zoroastrian cosmological symbols crucial to agricultural communities. Leaves in vegetative patterns can be of several shapes: oval, serrated like lilac leaves, trefoil and cinquefoil. Garlands of leaves and rosettes are also widely used. A wavy stem of the trumpet-like bindweed signifies wealth and vitality.

Some of the finest examples of suzanis are displayed in the Applied Art Museums of Tashkent and  Bukhara, both of which are visited during Uzbek Journeys tours. Bukhara is my favourite place to purchase embroidery works: the range is astonishing of both old and new pieces, sewn on cotton and silks.

At a private collection in Bukhara, you will see splendid antique pieces as well as fine examples of modern works. Roaming through the city's converted madrassahs and caravanserais will also provide opportunities to purchase suzanis directly from embroiderers.

At Urgut market, near Samarkand, Uzbek women laden with new and old pieces will pursue you, pleading with you to purchase a suzani. I have bought excellent ones there (hard bargaining required) as well as at stalls in Shakhrisabz.

To learn more about Central Asian embroideries, I recommend Christina Sumner and Guy Petherbridge's book Bright Flowers: Textiles and Ceramics of Central Asia.

Related posts
Uzbek Suzanis: Like Flowers in the Sand - Part #1
Uzbek Suzanis: Like Flowers in the Sand - Part #2
Suzanis as Upholstery: the Brilliance of Bokja Design
Sacrament of Magic Yarn - Madina Kasimbaeva's Exhibition, Tashkent