Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Kyrgyzstan: Monumental Art in the Provinces

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Celebrating the glory of labour in Osh city, the southern capital of Kyrgyzstan
This article is written in collaboration with Lilya Kas'yanova. Lilya is not only an expert on Kyrgzy history and applied arts - she shares my interest in monumental art of the Soviet period.

Bishkek is not the only Kyrgyz location where stunning examples of Soviet monumental art can be found.

Throughout the countryside large scale works still stand, albeit often in deteriorating condition.

The heyday of Soviet monumental art was the 1970s and 1980s. Apartment blocks and public buildings were often decorated in panels celebrating labour achievements, science, education and local legends.

Professional artists were engaged to create these large-scale works, usually in mosaics, coloured plaster, stones and paint.

This monumental art still reminds citizens of the former Soviet Union republics, and foreign visitors alike, about great achievements, grandiose performances, and ambitious might-have-been aspirations of the Socialist State.

Here are some favourites outside Bishkek.

One of the major goals of the USSR was health care for the working masses. Many specialised health resorts - sanitoria -  were opened, focusing on disease prevention and treatment. Medical facilities were of high quality and free. Some of these sanatoria were embellished with stunning mosaics, murals and panels promoting a healthy life-style.

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Detail of a medical mosaic in the gardens of the Tamga sanatorium. Image: Rachel Watkins
The mosaic detail above is in the grounds of the Tamga sanatorium. Tamga is a small village, 1700 metres above sea level. It is wedged between the Tien Shan mountains and shimmering Lake Issyk Kul.

It was at this sanatorium that the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, recuperated after his space flight. This very large mosaic is located prominently in the gardens of the sanatorium. I particularly like the image on the left side in which a doctor is checking the patient's pulse. Clients on an Uzbek Journeys tour stroll through the sanatorium's grounds and can view this beauty.

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Mosaic panel depicting a Kyrgyz folk story. Image: Rachel Watkins

This enormous panel above - at least 12 metres wide - depicts a romantic Kyrgyz legend.  It is inside the little-used auditorium of the sanatorium and is in pristine condition.

Alamedin Gorge is 25 kms from Bishkek and lies at an altitude of 1870 metres. There is an abundance of natural mineral and thermal waters. A hot springs recreation complex threw its doors open to visitors in 1984; it was created at the initiative and with the active support of the Ministry of Power.

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Mosaic panel on facade of indoor swimming pool at the recreation complex, Alamedin Gorge. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova

The image above is created on the facade of the indoor swimming pool - it is one of the most picturesque and last examples of Soviet monumental art.

At the center is the sun depicting stamina and perpetual youth. From below the sun is supported by golden wheat, emblematic of fertility, renaissance, profusion and revival. Together they symbolise the "tree of life".

Doves, images of longevity and harmony, fly toward the beaming sun.  The turquoise and dark blue wavy lines, which build the background are associated with water – life and purification.

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Mishka, the USSR's Olympic mascot, still adorns this building in Osh
Soviet sporting achievements also adorned original and motley monumental art. Sport was considered an indispensable part of everyday life, and "Homo Soveticus" had to be a many-sided individual, both intellectually and physically.

Therefore, sport was a very important part of a citizen's development and upbringing.

The 22nd Summer Olympic Games in 1980 were the first  held in the USSR. Mishka, the bear, was the mascot for these Olympics. He was designed by children's books illustrator Victor Chizhikov.

Mishka was the first mascot of a sporting event to achieve large-scale commercial success. The Mishka doll was used extensively during the opening and closing ceremonies, he appeared on several products and had both an animated short film and a television series made about him.

At left, Mishka adorns the side wall of an apartment building in Masaliev street in the centre of Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital. It is not easy to spot and now ugly buildings start to block its view.

The detail below is from a huge mosaic covering the side of a five-storey building in Tash-Kömür town not far from the Uch-Korgon reservoir on the lower Naryn cascade.

This town's surroundings were famous for its impressive deposits of anthracite, which were prospected by settlers mainly from the Donets basin in Ukraine

A major project in this region was the Toktogul dam and reservoir, the largest in Central Asia. Construction began in 1960 and the dam opened in 1974.

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Glorifying heroes of Soviet labour  - women shower workers in flowers

On the road from Tokmok town to Kemin, is a derelict building in a field. In Soviet times it was a general store. Now the backyard seems to be used by a local family for storage.

Covering an entire side wall is this marvellous Kyrgyz eagle hunter below, wearing a traditional Kyrgyz man's hat - a kalpak.

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A proud Kyrgyz eagle hunter

On the other side wall, is a matching panel adorned with Kyrgyz traditional patterns. The woman is wearing a stylised, traditional Kyrgyz woman's hat - perhaps a shökölö, worn by brides on their wedding day or unmarried women on festival days.
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Kyrgyz woman wearing a stylised, traditional hat 

We believe these panels to be an important part of Kyrgyzstan's social history. If you find other examples either in Bishkek or the countryside, we would be very pleased if you send us a copy and a brief description of its location.

Related posts:
Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #1
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #2
Back in the USSR: Soviet Roadside Architecture

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Kagan Palace, Near Bukhara, Uzbekistan

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19th century postcard of Kagan Palace, designed by Alexey Leontievich Benoit
As part of the construction of the ambitious Trans-Caspian railway,  Russia needed the agreement of Emir Abdul Ahad of Bukhara to cross his territory.

For a vast sum of silver, the Emir consented, on condition that the railway line did not come within 16 kms of the city of Bukhara.

So the Russians built a new  settlement outside, in nearby Kagan. The railway line opened in 1888. This area became the "new town", where Russians settled. And to this day, there are large numbers of Russian who live in Kagan.

The Emir of Bukhara had visited St Petersburg for the coronations of Alexander III and Nicholas II; he was taken with the flamboyant architectural style of the city. It is said that Tsar Nicholas II had planned to visit Bukhara and the Emir wished to accommodate him and his retinue in luxury. He engaged the famous Russian architect, Alexey Leontievich Benoit, to build a palace at Kagan. Construction began in 1895.

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Kagan Palace today
Benoit had designed many pre-revolutionary, noble buildings in Tashkent, some of which can be seen today. The Lutheran church in Tashkent and the palace for exiled Grand Duke Nicholas Romanov, which is now the venue for receptions held by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were both designed by Benoit.

The wedding cake palace in Kagan - an eclectic mix of Moorish, Empire and Baroque styles - still stands today.  It features an extravagance of turrets, columns and domes. The internal decoration is a fusion of Oriental, Arabian and Empire motifs.

Unfortunately, historical events overtook Nicholas II, and he did not visit Turkestan. For some time the residence was a hotel for visiting dignitaries - non-Muslims not permitted to enter the holy city of Bukhara. Later it was used by the tsarist Russian political commissar.

In 1920, after the Soviet conquest of the Bukharan emirate, it became the social club for the railway proletariat. Today it belongs to the Kagan municipal authority and houses a small railway museum. The banquet hall is the venue for local cultural performances and can be hired for a soiree if you so desire.

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The entrance hall today. Image: Bret Wallach
A visit to Kagan is not included in an Uzbek Journeys tour. However, there is ample free time to visit independently. Hiring a local guide is recommended as he/she should be able to arrange entrance to the palace.

Also tucked away in Kagan is the small Russian Orthodox church of St Nicholas dating from 1892. It has been extensively rebuilt and was reconsecrated in 1969.

Some historians refer to this building as the Versailles of Central Asia.  Judge for yourself from the images below.

Related posts:
Travelling by Rail in Uzbekistan  
Chor Bakyr - The City of the Dead, near Bukhara
Bukhara's Summer Palace: Sitora-i Mokhi-Khosa
Bukhara's Contemporary Art Museum

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The Palace today. Image: Bret Wallach

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Close up of the external wall. Image: Bret Wallach

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The Emir's office - a riot of gorgeous Eastern patterns. Image: Bret Wallach
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The ballroom, with Soviet era floor. Image: Bret Wallach
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Emir Abdul Ahad of Bukhara, who commissioned the palace

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Kyrgyzstan: Jailoo, the Summer Yurt Project, June - July 2016

Left to right: Aidai Asangulova, Alperi Asygalieva, Nurjamal
Asangulova of the Min Kiyal Foundation
Frequent contributor to this website, Lilya Kas'yanova, provides an overview of the upcoming Jailoo Summer Yurt Camp, dedicated to the preservation of knowledge about the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life.

Min Kiyal Foundation

In 2010, Kyrgyz artisan and business woman Aidai Asangulova, along with a group of enthusiasts, formed the Min Kyal Foundation. Since then, the foundation has implemented some remarkable projects aimed at reviving, supporting and promoting Kyrgyzstan's distinctive applied arts and crafts.

Historically, Kyrgyz tribes were nomads. However, in the early 20th century, this way of life declined due to both political and economic changes. Nevertheless, in Kyrgyzstan, it is still possible to encounter semi-nomads, people who are "in motion" for at least half of the year.

In 2011, Min Kiyal Foundation won a Christensen Fund grant for the execution of a multi-phased project "Kiyiz Düinö" ("The World of Felt"), which involved the staging of three International Felt Festivals in Kyrgyzstan.

All three festivals were held in Kyzyl-Tul village, Issyk-Kul' province. The first focused on the deep-rooted traditions of seasonal nomadic migration and the second on the Kiz Uzatuu ritual. This ceremony provides insight into the significance of the family unit in Kyrgyz society.

Ala-kiyiz carpet
The final festival, completely organised by residents of Kyzyl-Tuu, highlighted local handicrafts, such as felt making, embroidery and patchwork.

During all these festivals traditional activities were demonstrated: trade fairs where villagers and artisans sold locally-made products, yurt setting-up demonstrations, felt carpets with rolled-in patterns (ala-kiyiz), competitive exhibitions, national games, musical performances, cooking demonstrations, master classes and more.

The other major project implemented by the Min Kiyal foundation was the Elechek project. The unconventional headdress of Kyrgyz married women, wound like a turban, is known as elechek.

The major goal was to preserve this valuable component of the Kyrgyz nomadic culture for present and future generations. I have written extensively about elecheck in previous articles: Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress


The Jailoo Project: 15 June - 23 July 2016

The Min Kiyal Foundation will soon host a unique event: the Jailoo Summer Yurt Camp. Sponsored by the Christensen Fund, this project aims to preserve and propagate traditional knowledge about nomadic life.

Kyrgyz jailoo - high altitude pasture
Within the framework of the project, a yurt camp will be set up on a picturesque jailoo, (high-altitude summer pastureland). It will operate from 15 June to 23 July 2016 in the Ton district of the Issyk-Kul’ Province.

The event organizers, shortlisted participants and custodians of traditional knowledge will conduct training courses on traditional handicrafts, hold cooking master-classes on nomadic specialties, and demonstrate specific customs and traditions etc.

The 15th of June is the official opening ceremony during which participants, following seasonal traditions, will migrate from the lowlands to one of the mountain pastures of the Ton district.

Yurts will be set up and in this encampment all events, ceremonies and training programs will take place for the duration of the festival.

Kyrgyz patchwork
Every day of the program is thematic. For instance, one day will be devoted to kuurma tea making. Kuurma is a hot drink made from milk, flour and melted butter.

On another day, there will be a training course on how to smoke saba (a leather vessel for fermented mare’s milk storage and transportation) as well as fermented mare’s milk (kumiss) preparation. Another day will focus on weaving technology, setting up the loom, and so on.

The program includes a number of traditional days, such as:

National Games Day;

Jargylchak (Hand Mill) Day – grain threshing, grinding, bread baking and drinks based on grain making;

Ala-Kiyiz (Bright Felt Day) – wool dying, felt and carpets with rolled-in patterns making;

Tebetey (traditional headwear) Day – training on cutting-out and sewing tebetey;

Manas Epic Poem Day – recitation of the epic poem accompanied by national music.

An indispensable part of each traditional day is a photo shoot.  Particular emphasis will be placed on the  reconstruction and recreation of Kyrgyz national costumes.

Learn Kyrgyz weaving techniques at the festival
All interested parties are welcome to visit the summer yurt camp, take part in the activities and events and just plunge into the fascinating atmosphere of the nomadic life.

There is a Facebook page for the event and you can follow on Instagram.

If you have any questions about how to attend and participate you can email:

kiyizduino (at) gmail (dot) com

And if you are unable to attend the festival, you can enjoy watching a delightful 5-minute video of the highlights of the 2013 World of Felt festival, below.  [If this link does not work on your device, please go directly to: ]

Maybe you will even consider exploring this marvellous, little-known country? There is just one place available on the September 2016 tour.

Related posts:
Yurts of Central Asia
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan: Hunting with Birds of Prey
Manaschi - Bards of Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan - the Felted Dolls of Erkebu Djumagulova