Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Suzanis as Upholstery: the Brilliance of Bokja Design

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A riot of Uzbek suzanis cover this Bokja chair
Thanks to Uzbek Journeys client, the stylish Carolyn Leigh, I have discovered Beirut-based Bokja Design and my head is spinning with ideas!

The women behind the Bokja concept, Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, have a passion for vintage textiles from the Levant and the Silk Road, and furniture from the 1950s - 1970s. Uzbek suzanis feature heavily in their collection.

It is the attention they create between the traditional textile and the modernity of the furniture piece that they use it on, that makes Bokja pieces so special. (Bokja by the way is the word for the intricately embroidered fabric in which a bride's dowry is wrapped).

In an interview with the online magazine Greek Architects, Baroudi and Hibri explain, "We are mixers and matchers who like to upcycle fabrics, frames, and techniques in a sustainable and fascinating way. We are story-tellers. Every piece of fabric, color, thread, frill that goes into our pieces is a little word from a different part of the world that is chosen in an intuitive process. We collaborate with artisans who use their hands and our mission is to help those people and to make these handicrafts last".

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Uzbek suzanis back this Bokja settee
Baroudi and Hobri claim "to spin tales on our furniture with the inventiveness of Scheherazade and the freedom of modern-day heroines". They sound like my kind of women.

The Sunday market at Urgut, about 40 kms from Samarkand, is the place to pick up suzanis suitable for upholstery. The vintage pieces there can be sturdy and are inexpensive, though the sellers are the most persistent in the country, and you have to haggle hard.

I have a footstool project in mind to start with, followed by a chair. Do visit the Bokja website and swoon.

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A pair of Bokja suzani chairs
Related posts:
Symbols in Stitches: Uzbek Suzanis
Uzbek Ikat as Interior Design Element
Woodblock Printed Cloth of Uzbekistan
Nargis Bekmuhamedova - Samarkand Textile Designer
Fashion's Obession with Central Asian Design
Uzbek Suzanis - Like Flowers in the Sand Part #1 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Turkmen Jewellery at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Turkmen head dress, late 19th century
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is holding a splendid exhibition of Turkmen jewellery culled from the collection of Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf, who recently gifted 250 works to the Met.

A selection of 43 finely crafted pieces, on display until 24 February 2013, showcases 19th and 20th century Turkmen culture.

The couple, frequent visitors to Central Asia and the Middle East, started as textile collectors and were later drawn by the strong, bold jewellery pieces in the 1990s.

According to the Met's publicity: "the exhibition is organized according to the principal techniques employed by Turkmen silversmiths. One grouping shows fire gilding, a technique in which gold filings—possibly obtained from coins—were combined with mercury in a paste that was brushed onto prepared silver; heat drove off the mercury, and the remaining gold was burnished to a brilliant sheen. 

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Cover of the exhibition catalogue
Other items feature stamped beading that was produced by stamping metal from behind to obtain the appearance of individual beads or granulation on the front. A third section focuses on the inlay of carnelian and turquoise using bezels. The fourth major technique—openwork decoration—involved the use of a chisel or fine fret saw to cut through silver sheets. Many of the items on view, in various techniques, include small bells suspended from chains, which would have added an auditory component to the jewelry.

Some motifs in Turkmen jewelry are similar to those found in textiles from the area. For example, repeat patterns of squares, rectangles, or lozenges can be found both in silverwork and in carpets. The repertoire of motifs varies according to the tribe of the maker and owner, and the exhibition will highlight distinctive designs from Teke, Yomut, and Kazakh jewelry-makers". 

Those of you with a particular interest in jewellery and unable to visit the exhibition, can pick up a copy of the gorgeous catalogue through regular online bookstores. It is the first publication in English about Turkmen jewellery.

At the Savitsky museum in Nukus, passengers on Uzbek Journeys tours have the chance to see exquisite examples of Karakalpak and Turkmen head dresses, amulets and other ornaments.

The video clip below [3.23 min] is well worth viewing. The Wolf's philosophy is "if you can't see it every day and you're not interested in it, you shouldn't own it. You don't hide things away". So instead of jewellery boxes, the Wolfs have jewellery walls.  (If you are unable to view the video on your device, please follow this link:

Related posts: Islamic Galleries Reopen At New Yorks's Met
Afghan Art - Tradition and Continuity at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
Biography of Igor Savitsky, Founder of the Karakalpakstan Museum, Nukus 

Images source:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rosemary Sheel's Images of Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan

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The Fabled City of Samarkand
California-based photographer Rosemary Sheel travelled to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in October 2012.

Rosemary and her companion, both passionate photographers, with special interests in markets, animals, tribal people and remote villages, travelled independently. Uzbek Journeys arranged cars, drivers and local guides for their trip.

What a pleasure it is to dip into Rosemary's website. I like Rosemary's eye and her curiosity: how she notices the small details and describes the setting, people, light and context for her posts. Indeed she weaves a very personal story about her subjects.

She is also a generous photographer, sharing the techniques used to create a special effect or discussing why a certain angle or light was selected.
By subscribing to Rosemary's blog I receive a daily treat. As the Uzbek and Kyrgyz trip was her most recent, the image is generally from Central Asia. And if it is not Central Asian, it is still a great image and interesting view about a remote place. I sip a green tea and dream a little.

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The Extrovert

The couple on the left, an image Rosemary has titled The Extrovert, is most appealing. It is taken in a Tashkent market. Here is her take on this:

"Suddenly, the woman in the photo tapped me on the shoulder and gave me to know that she wanted me to take her photo. By the time I’d lifted my camera to my eye, she was posed as you see: her hand caressing the bald pate of her husband. 

Her expression is contentment itself. She makes me think of a cat curled on a cushion. His expression is contentment as well,  but he’s a bit shy because he won’t look into the camera. I like his diffidence. I think he’s a manly man. He wants his wife to be happy and he accepts her flamboyant way with a barely perceptible smile.

I show you this photo because I want you to ‘know’ this woman and her personality: to have an idea of what an Uzbek couple might look like and act like. You can see Asia in the man’s features, but she looks very European. Uzbek faces were not uniform. Uzbekistan is like America in that way; you can’t pick a ‘look’. Tall, muscular, fair men told me they were 100% Uzbek. I’d have said that they were Russian or Eastern European. I might add that most, the youngish ones, were handsome. Very. The women could be tall and fair or dark and slender".

In Kyrgyzstan, Rosemary saw an eagle hunt. Here are her notes about the image below:

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The Master
"You might call him an ‘eagle whisperer’. He is looked up to by younger Kyrgyz men who want to learn the skill of hunting with an eagle. We could see that he and his bird were a team. He talked to his bird to calm her, to encourage her, to praise her.  That was the best part for me, to see the relationship between the two of them".

Regrettably I did not meet Rosemary last autumn in Central Asia. But I know by reading her blog that we would have gotten on famously.

Have a wander through her Uzbekistan images and likewise her Kyrgyz pieces.

You may even think about subscribing to her daily image. It is a lovely way to remember your trip there or to dream about future travels. Hopefully Rosemary will add some of her Central Asian experiences to her Travel Stories section.

Related posts: Uzbek Sketchbook
Christine Shoji's Samarkand and Khiva Sketches
Kyrgyzstan's Quest for Historical Photographs

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Exploring Tashkent's Botanical Gardens with Ada Alexandrovna

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Botanist Ada Alexandrovna
In September 2012 I visited Tashkent's Botanical Gardens for the first time, guided by the remarkable Ada Alexandrovna.  A botanist by training, Dr. Alexandrovna knows every inch of the 66 hectares of garden, located in the north-eastern section of Tashkent.

History & Design of the Tashkent Botanical Gardens

Dating back to the 1920s, it is the oldest and largest botanical garden in Central Asia. The construction of the garden at its present site began in 1950 under the visionary leadership of the academician Dr. Fedor Rusanov. He was the Director until his retirement in 1975. Today it continues to be managed by the Uzbek Academy of Science's Botanical Institute.

The garden is divided into zones corresponding to different geographic regions: Central Asia, Crimea and the Caucasus, Europe, the Far East and East Asia, and North America.  This collection, covering around 40 hectares, includes more than 4,500 species and varieties of trees, shrubs, dwarf shrubs, vines, grasses and aquatic plants. 

In addition to the open-air zones there are greenhouses and hothouses of over 800 varieties of tropical and subtropical plants. There is also a special nursery for medicinal herbs. Researching Central Asian medicinal plants, most of which have not been properly evaluated, is an area of particular interest to the scientists at the Botanical Institute.

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Tashkent Botanical Gardens overview
In the eleventh century, Al-Biruni and Avicenna, two great scholars born in present-day Uzbekistan, made important contributions to the science of medicinal plants. Al-Biruni conceived a new field of science concerning medicinal herbs, and classified and described numerous plant species.

In 1025, Avicenna published The Canon of Medicine, in which he described the herbs that were most widely researched and used in medical practice then. Today, many of those plants are still used in medicine in Central Asia.

Visiting with Ada Alexandrovna

Ada Alexandrovna has been associated with these gardens for decades. Trained as  botanist, she was a teacher and has also guided at the gardens for a long time. Her deep knowledge and joie de vivre make her very popular with school groups. Her stories transform the space into a magical world. And not just for children.

Meeting at the main gate, Dr. Alexandrovna explained that the magnificent specimens that greet the visitor were transplanted by Dr. Rusanov from the old garden to this site. Many are very old, such as the ancient ginkgo bilobas and junipers.

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An inviting alley way in the gardens
These botanical gardens are not manicured and prissy. Indeed they have a marvellous, unkempt look. Trees and plants varieties from Central Asia, the Crimea and the Caucasus were of particular interest to me: Dr. Alexandrovna patiently pointed out and explained the characteristics of the more unusual plants from those regions.

Since my visit was in autumn, Dr. Alexandrovna's focus was on discovering edible and medicinal berries and nuts.  I followed her down winding alley ways of autumn trees, stopping now and then as she pointed out favourites.  She had a story or legend about every tree we paused at. Dr. Alexandrovna also vigorously shook the branches when she spied ripe foods. I would never even have known to look for them; soon I had filled my pockets with delicious berries and nuts that could not only assist heart problems and respiratory troubles but were tasty to boot!

The gardens must be beautiful in each season. It is a lovely place, a little out of town. (A taxi ride there takes around 20 minutes and is about 10,000 soum). On weekends it is a popular family picnic spot. Wedding parties enjoy visiting as well, particularly the wishing tree, on which the bride and groom tie ribbons to the branches as they make wishes for their future.

Ada Alexandrovna's card and my healthy heart berries
It was a special morning thanks to Ada Alexandrovna's company. Noted for her support of the innovative and independent theatre company, Ilkhom, she evidently never leaves home without her lipstick and Chanel No. 5!  She is an inspiring woman: knowledgeable, charming, with an immense passion for life. At the end of the tour, Dr. Alexandrovna presented me with a hand painted card that she had made.

The gardens are open every day, except Monday, from 10:00 a.m - 5:00 p.m. and the entrance fee is 2000 soum. If you would like a guided tour, please telephone the gardens in advance on +998 71 2891060 or +998 71 2890465. If you are not a Russian speaker, you will also need to hire an interpreter for the tour. Uzbek Journeys can arrange all this for you.

Update: Sadly, Ada Alexandrovna passed away in September 2014.

Related posts: 48 Hours in Tashkent
Avicenna of Bukhara and Al-Khorezmi of Khiva