ART AND CRAFTS IN KYRGYZSTAN

ART AND CRAFTS IN KYRGYZSTAN

According to everyculture.com: Traditional crafts are taught in school, and the graphic arts are well developed. In most cases artisans create objects to be sold either as souvenirs to tourists or as heirlooms for people's homes. Some are displayed in the National Gallery or in museums abroad. Most of these are done in wool or silk, including the wool carpets called shyrdaks and alakiis, embroidered wall hangings called tush-kiis, and small animal or human figures. Wood, horn, leather, and clay are also used. There are a number of painters as well, whose works are sold mostly to foreigners. These often have traditional Kyrgyz themes but often use modern and postmodern styles of painting. Galleries and art exhibits are almost exclusively in the capital city. [Source: everyculture.com]

Public art abounds in the form of statues, murals, roadside plaques, and building decorations. But Perhaps the best indicator of the condition of the fine arts in postcommunist Kyrgyzstan is the fate of the open-air sculpture museum in Bishkek, which began suffering a series of thefts in early 1993. Because the targets were all bronze, presumably the sculptures were stolen for their value as metal, not as art. When a large statuary group commemorating Aitmatov's Ysyk-Köl Forum (a notable product of the early glasnost period) disappeared, the museum's remaining statues were removed to a more secure location. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Themes and Symbols in Kyrgyz Art

According to everyculture.com: One of the most popular themes is Manas, the legendary father and hero of the Kyrgyz people. His deeds are commemorated in the national epic Manas, which is chanted by manaschis. Manas is the symbol of Kyrgyz bravery and is often shown astride a rearing horse, with sword in hand, fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. While they call Manas their "father," the Kyrgyz do not see themselves as a warlike people. Instead, they are a family of artists. [Source: everyculture.com]

“This identity is embodied in the yurt, or boz-ui, the traditional Kyrgyz dwelling. The boz-ui is an important cultural symbol, as both the center of the Kyrgyz family and the showplace of Kyrgyz art. The Kyrgyz flag reflects this. On a field of red a yellow sun is centered with forty rays coming from it. In the center of the sun is a tunduk, the top of the boz-ui. It was under this that the family gathered. Inside the boz-ui are hung all the forms of Kyrgyz craftsmanship, including rugs called shyrdaks. They are made of brightly colored appliquéd wool felt, with stylized nature motifs that have been passed down for generations. These motifs are also often used for borders and decorations on public art.

“Other important symbols are taken from the Kyrgyz landscape. The unofficial national anthem is "Ala-Too," which names the various features of Kyrgyzstan's landscape. The mountains are described as a body wearing snow and sky, and Lake Issyk-Kul is the eye. Issyk-Kul, in the northeastern part of the country, is called the "Pearl of Kyrgyzstan," and its beauty is a source of great pride. Both the mountains and the lake are on the Kyrgyz seal behind a large golden eagle, flanked by shyrdak designs, cotton, and wheat.” Balbal are stone idols of nomads.

Kyrgyz Crafts

Kyrgyzstan is famous for shyrdak (felt rugs with appliqued colored panels), ala-kiyiz (pressed wool designs), tush-kiyiz (cotton or silk wall carpets) and Kyrgyz-embroidered felt carpets with a traditional Turkmen design. Kyrgyz also produce fine leather saddles and silver jewelry.

Shydaks have traditionally been made in the summer from pieces of felt (pounded and layered wool) that has been repeatedly dried and dyed and sewn together with camel-hair thread. Patterns are made by cutting away upper layers to reveal different colored felt underneath. Common motifs include the ibex horn pattern, plant patterns and decorative scrollwork.

Different regions have different motifs and different patterns. A good shydak can take a group of Kyrgyz women two or three months to make but it can last for decades. The best quality ones are hand made. They generally have irregular stitching on the back and even stitching around the panels. To make sure colors do not run lick your finger and run them over the fabric to make sure it doesn’t bleed. The best shydaks are said to come from the Naryn area.

Among the other interesting items you can find are Kyrgyz felt hats, traditional clothes, saddles, “white beard” ceramic figurines, chess sets with Manas figures, miniature yurts, horse whips, embroidered bags, musical instruments, koumiss shakers,coats and hats and other items made with the fur of wolves, ermines, rabbits, hares, marmots, foxes, squirrels, sables and minks. There are good buys on leather goods, cashmere sweaters and lambskin and sheepskin coats and vests.

Many of the crafts of Kyrgyzstan are associated with their ancient nomadic style of living. Their nomad lifestyle left its impression on their lodgings, clothes and everyday items and how they were decorated. Crafts that have associations with the nomad lifestyle include carpet-weaving, woodwork, crockery-making, teasel-weaving, embroidery and making reed-screens, leather items, jewelry, kuraks (patchworks) and horse-saddles.

Felt Articles in Kyrgyzstan

Felt —pounded and layered wool, kiyiz in the Kyrgyz language — is a fine wool fine material manufacturing is very laborious process. Carpets, wall hangings are a number of other items are made with felt in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Felt is made by subjecting piles of loose wool fiber to heat, moisture and pressure. It is easier to make than woven cloth. It was probably first recognized by cave dwellers who noticed the permanent matting that occurred when they wore the fur side of their pelts against their skin.

In the old days felt was made from fluffed wool, which is doused with water, rolled around a pole and then wrapped with a freshly killed yak skin. This bundle, which looks sort of like a rolled up carpet, is dragged around behind a horse for hours until the wool fibers compress enough to become felt. If the wools is not washed properly felt smells like cattle dung. [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988]

In Kyrgyzstan, felt is produced from wool from sheep sheared in autumn, but the process of manufacture it requires warm and sunny weather. Sheared wool is washed and cleaned. After the wool dries it is placed on a Chiy mat — long mat made of reeds — and whipped for several hours to make it fluffy, then the surface is sprinkled with hot water and Chiy mat is rolled up and strings are tied around it. Then hot water is poured on the roll, which is then taken to an open space and rolled, kicked and trodden on for several hours. This process melds the wool together into a friable whole. The mat is then unwound and the resulting felt is left to dry. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Felt is the main material used in making yurts —the traditional Central Asia round tent dwelling. Felt is one reason yurts are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In addition to yurts, felt is also widely used for making ornamented carpets, which are used as in multi-layered yurt decoration. The making of ornamented felt articles has traditionally been women’s work.

Skilled felt artists — or Ormokchu — are usually employed by families only to manage the process of outlining the pattern on the felt panel and cutting out the outline. The other task are usually performed by women and girls in the family household making the felt article. Traditionally, all necessary materials were provided by the customer. Usually there was no agreements on payment and workers were paid by livestock, food or sometimes by clothes and fabrics. Skills were passed down from generation to generation within a family and rarely obtained from professional masters outside the family.

The artistic qualities of felt articles depend on the technique. There are various methods of ornamenting felt articles. The central field pattern is most often based on a large-sized decoration with various curls: "muyuz" with forks and sprouts; "karga tyrmak" and "ala bakan" composed of cross-shaped "tort muyuz" figures; or include in ovals or diamond "tabak oyuu".

The most common felt articles are ala-kiyiz and shyrdak or shirdamal (See Below). Ala kiyiz patterns are generally similar to shyrdak pattern, but have a softer and blurred shape due to the peculiarities of the production process. The traditional sizes of felt carpets are typically 1.5 x 3 meters and 2 x 4 meters with a width-to- length ratio of 1 to 2. These days, small ornamented carpets bearing the author's unique pattern are prized.

Kyrgyz Embroidery

Embroidery has always been a female craft. Many embroidered items are intended for practical use a well as for decorating a yurt or home. Embroidery is used to decorate fabrics, mats, clothes felt carpets and wall hangings, household articles and various sacks and bags. Parts of a yurt adorned with embroidery include decorative stripes (djabyk bash) and the curtain at the entrance of a yurt (eshik tysh). Techniques have traditionally been passed on from mother to daughter. Girls are taught to embroider at a young age. Every girl learns embroider but only a few become skilled craftswomen, or saimachy. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Patterns are usually created by talented needle women. The outline of the pattern is first laid on a cloth and then the pattern is embroidered. Very skilled needle women embroider by memory without initially laying down a pattern. They improvise and sometimes vary patterns taken from other articles. The arrangement of pattern, color, materials and embroidery technique all play a part in creating beautifully textured and embroidered articles.

Kyrgyz women embroidered with wool and cotton threads on felt, leather, velvet, cotton and woolen fabrics, and homespun cloth. Felt, leather, woolen cloth and wool threads are the most ancient Kyrgyz embroidery materials.

Kinds of Embroidery Stitching and Patterns

Embroidery techniques are diverse. The most frequently used stitch (ilme) is made with a needle. In northern parts of the country this stitch is called shibege and is made with a special hook called a shibege. A chain stitch is used in different ways to make a unique textures on the embroidered surface. Completely filling in elements of a pattern with stitches is characteristic of older works. In this type of embroidery a chain stitch winds along the outline of the pattern, then curves inside the pattern like a spiral, with each stitch close to previous chain, until the whole shape is filled in. Sometimes a space inside of a shape is left blank. Sometimes these spaces are filled in with a contour pattern.

The chain stitch is one of the most ancient stitches. It is the main stitch of Turkic people in the Near East, Central Asia, and the Volga river area. In addition to the chain stitch other stitches called ilmedos and tuura saima are very popular in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Ilmedos stitches are laid in zigzag manner. Tuura saima stitches are laid in straight parallel lines. The background may be slightly seen through interlace of stitches, making the embroidery appear laced.

Kyrgyz embroidery is distinguished by it simplicity and a precise and clear rhythm revealed in the succession of shapes and colors. Most Kyrgyz embroidered articles use a contrasting combination of a black background and bright silk threads. Red white, yellow, blue and green threads are frequently used. Older works have soft colors as their threads have been dyed using natural materials. Narrow stripes completely filled in with embroidery are used for bordering edges and round rosettes and for dividing a work into sectors. The stripes are filled with bright triangles and crossing lines that highlight the beauty of embroidered items.

The names of different embroidery patterns are mainly derived from the nomadic life style. Some patterns owe their names to their resemblance to animal body parts, birds, or household articles. For example karga tyrmak means crow's claw; kochkor muyuz is translated as a sheep's horn; and ko'okor is a container for koumiss. Some pattern names are borrowed from plant life including gul, a flower. Other names, such as aichyk, the moon, reflect the ancient cosmogony ideas of Kyrgyz people. There are many embroidery patterns which are similar to patterns used in other kinds of applied arts, though the same patterns look different then compared to the patterns placed on felt carpets or wood carvings. There are also patterns which are used only in embroidery including badam, or almond. In general, embroidery patterns are more diverse than the patterns found in other art genres.

Characteristics of Kyrgyz Embroidery

Kyrgyz embroidered items have large patterns with plain and clear outlines. Kyrgyz needle women determine the proportions of their motifs in accordance with the size of the patterned surface. They skillfully and harmoniously balance the separate parts of a composition, combining the pattern and background.

Kyrgyz embroidered articles have definite pattern arrangement rules peculiar to Kyrgyz craftsmanship. A large number of compositions and separate motifs have patterns arranged along two axises crossed at a right angle. They often add two axises going through the same center and divide the right angles in half. In this way a symmetrical four pointed or eight-pointed composition is made. Other compositions have motifs of similar patterns and color diagonally opposed to each other. Still other patterns are arranged on stripes or edges by using a winding or interrupted stem. Separate motifs or motifs branching from the stem are placed within twists of the stem.

The pattern motifs of Kyrgyz embroidery are marked by soft and rounded shapes due to the type of stitches used. Nevertheless, angular geometrical patterns dominate in narrow patterned bands of cloth, breastplates embroidered in satin stitch and on women huts (Kep takyia).

Pile Weaving

Teasel weaving — weaving using a frame — holds a special place in the rich and diverse heritage of Kyrgyz people. Piled carpets and other items made using this technique are colorful and known for their original designs. Carpets and woven items have their own stylistic traits, creating a harmony of patterned motifs in a variety of colors. This type of weaving is mostly associated with the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Kyrgyz pile-woven items come in various sizes and are used for different purposes. Small bags are used for storing clothing and household articles, small carpets, horse harnesses, and a long band called a tegirich are used for decoration of the yurt. Large piled carpets called kilem are a greatly valued. Their size is approximately 150x300 centimeters. Kilems are widely used. When nomads and herders move from one place to another, they covered a loaded camel with a carpet. Carpets are laid upon felts and mats on the floor of a yurt at weddings, funerals, celebrations and when receiving guests. The carpets are stored faced down on the Juk - the central part of the yurt.

Kyrgyz piled articles are decorated with great variety of designs. Pattern plays a key role in decoration. Specific shapes often have symbolic value with a deep meaning to the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian people.

Tush Kiyiz Wall Hangings

Tush Kiyiz (pronounced “toosh keeyiz”) are wall hangings, or wall panels. Originally used in yurts, they have traditionally been found all over Central Asia, where yurts are were used — including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Xinjiang in China. Kyrgyz carpets, such as Shyrdaks and Ala-Kiyiz, are made from felt. Tush kiyiz, however, are not made from felt. Rather they consist of a cloth background onto which is sewn a montage of bright embroidery designs. The outline of a pattern is usually laid out on the piece of cloth to be used – but experienced and talented craftswomen prefer to work without laying out the pattern first, which gives them greater freedom to improvise. [Source: advantour.com]

Tush Kiyiz are popular through Kyrgyzstan except the south west areas. A tush kiyiz is a mandatory item in a bride's dowry. It is usually hang on a latticed wall in the yurt to the left of the entrance. That part of the yurt is separated by special curtain and is intended for newly married couple. Traditionally, they were sewn by elderly women, often as a gift for a young married couple. Some of them have the names of the couple, or perhaps the maker - sewn into them.

Some tush kiyiz are folded and made into containers for clothes and other items. These cloth cupboards, known as “tegche”, are hung on walls and made from other materials. Some tegche have lost their functional use as bags and containers and have became purely ornamental. There are actually two main types of tush kiyiz: large ones and small ones. The large ones cover much of a wall. The middle of the wall panel is a not sewn work but is made only of the original base material. The sewn montage work appears around the edges, like a fringe, although triangular shaped pieces of it will protrude towards the middle of the panel. If you visit a Kyrgyz home, you will still very often see these large types of hanging on the walls.

Smaller tush kiyiz are used as headboards for beds or — since the bed often serves as a divan or sofa — as a divan or sofa covering. This type of tush kiyiz is now hard to find and, sadly, tush kiyiz in general are becoming much rarer. Nowadays, very few people live in yurts and although the tush kiyiz survived the transition into fixed houses, the skill of making then is dying out and cheaper but less interesting machine-made materials are used to make them. A good tush kiyiz used to take several months to make, with the woman making it working on it for a couple of hours a day. Though new shyrdaks are still common, new tush kiyiz are rare. It is also rare to find one that is older than 40 or 50 years. Some of them have the date sewn into them. Machine made variants of tush kiyiz are obtainable. Many come from Uzbekistan, but these are much less interesting than the traditionally-made varieties. Machine-made ones can be easily detected by studying their backs. Genuine hand sewn tush kiyiz have many discontinuities (broken thread ends) where the needle was re-threaded as the work progressed.

Tush Kiyiz Designs and Embroidery

On the base or background of soft cloth, designs are sewn in relief, to create a montage of images. What look like abstract designs are typically abstract realizations of natural things, such as plants, flowers, and, occasionally, people. Sometimes the design embroidered is simply an outline in a form of chain stitch – but in many older tush kiyiz, the elements of the design are completely filled-in by row upon row of fine chain stitching. Also, the colors in the older tush kiyiz tend to be softer than the brighter colors used in more modern examples – because natural dyes were used. No two tush kiyiz are alike.

The black velvet border on the top and both sides of the tush kiyiz is embroidered. The bottom which often touches the ground is borderless. Sometimes the craftswomen stitch one, two or three descending triangles of velvet to a part of the velvet border. To make a tush kiyiz more elegant they sew fringed lace made of colorful threads named chachy, and a narrow strip of otter fur to a part of the border. In contrast with the black velvet border, a central embroidery in the main part of the tush kiyiz is made of with bright colored or patterned Uzbek silk. Sometimes although rare, they are made from velvet, plush or gold - cloth. Today, the center of the tush kiyiz is made of a single-color or motley silk, plush or sateen.

Embroidery is laid in a wide stripe which is bordered by narrow lines going along either the external side, or both the external and internal sides of the tush kiyiz. This edging makes the carpet composition complete. There are several ways to ornament the stripe of the tush kiyiz. In some cases, the pattern is comprised of repeated and similar motifs with a rhythmical interchange of pattern and color. In other cases the pattern is made of repetitions of two different motifs, commonly a rosette and stretched column with symmetrical scrolls on its top and bottom. If the round rosettes are close to each other the columns serve as a separating motifs. If the rosettes are farther apart the separating motifs are stretched into independent cross or oval shapes.

Bo’os and Pileless Weaving in Kyrgyzstan

Pileless weaving is hardly done anymore. Traditionally, it was done with a Kyrgyz wooden loom called an ormok. There are a few of these in museum, and a few can still be found at work. On these looms Kyrgyz masters make Terme, a kind of Kyrgyz fabric. The yarn for the warps is made of spun threads dyed in red and blue colors, while wefts are more thin and monochromatic. The result is a carpet that very durable and has a relief texture and deep, colorful, dot-like designs on background and pattern. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Pileless weaving on an ormok is often used make bo'o — long patterned strips of cloth. Bo'o are generally 10 to centimeters wide. Each stripe is surrounded by a border. The centee is filled with single continuous pattern or rhythmically iterative composition of motifs. Different bo'o have different purposes: 1) Tizgich — the narrowest kind — holds cupola poles (uuk) which form the yurt roof. 2) Chalgych — with a medium width — are used to draw together the latticed frame (kerege). 3) Tu'urduk bo'o and Yzuk bo'o serve as felt coverings. 4) Tegerich and kerege tanu'u stripes are used mainly as colorful decorations.

Patterned"kadjary" fabric is more popular in south regions of Kyrgyzstan. The threads are thin, producing a soft fabric, whose patterns are more segmented and elongated. Kadjary often features repeated alternation of narrow ornamental and smooth stripes, and a traditional patterns on background. Patterned fabric is widely used for making weathercocks (Kurdjun), comprised of a few types of woven stripes. "Kadjary" is called "terme" in the north.

Kurak

Kurak is a name given to different kinds of articles made of fabric scraps sewn together — Kyrgyz patchworks. Its name originated from the word “kura” which means “sewn together” or “put together from separate pieces” and refers to both finished products and to the methods of their fabrication. This kind of handicraft is found throughout the whole Central Asia. In in Kyrgyzstan it is particularly associated with the South. Among the different kurak items are children’s clothes, coverlets and blankets for cradles, wedding curtains, mattresses, pillows, and covers for saddles, bags and carpets. These same items also provide materials for kuraks. [Source: Aijbek Aitbaev, advantour.com]

Items made of scraps are often associated with magic characteristics such as bringing fortune and prosperity and offering protections from demons and fiends. There are some special rituals connected with kurak. For example, kurk koynok is a shirt out placed on a newly-born baby 40 days after its birth. The shirt sewn from 40 pieces of fabric collected by its mother from friends, relatives and neighbors. A great number of scraps is often included in a girl’s dowry to bring good luck. Fabric pieces are collected at various family events. Black and white scraps are regarded as the most valuable. Other colors, especially red, are sought. The exact combination of the pattern depends on what scraps are available.

Kuraks provide many possibilities for self-expression, though the majority of the items incorporate of the same geometric forms, proportions and symmetry. The ways various colors and intricate patterns are created demonstrate the skills of their makers. There are two main types of scraps; 1) square and triangular pieces; and 2) long strips of different color. Standard patterns include boto koz (“camel’s eye”), turna-kurak (“crane”), boru koz (“the eye of wolf”), kara koz (“black eyes”); kerege koz (“lattice eyes ”), tumarcha (“amulet”) and jyldyz (“star”). The most popular pattern is a black triangle on a white background. Often you can find patchwork, embroidery and even knitting on the same item.

Kyrgyzstan kurak are usually made from felt, wool or cotton but are also made from velvet or leather. Different symbols and the complexity of composition with squares, triangles and stripes vary according to different regions. Kurak items include tush-kiyiz, blankets (toshok), shelving (tekche), bags and sacks (ayak-kap) and other household items. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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