NOMAD FOLK ART FROM KYRGYZSTAN

NOMAD FOLK ART

The folk art of the nomads is found mostly on everyday items that the are with them: clothes, ornate silver bridles, inlaid wooden saddles adorned with semi-precious stones, stringed musical instruments, decorated and embroidered boots, koumiss bottles, quilts, decorated daggers, carpets, carved doors on their yurts. They often features designs of animals they have encountered on the steppes and in the mountains. Women carried wealth in the from of jewelry made from silver and semiprecious stones such as lapis Lazuli and carnelian. They also kept things like woven bags and rugs.

On an exhibition of nomadic folk art at the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., “Imagine you are a Turkic woman of the Central Asian steppes, scraping together a nomadic herder's life, forever packing up, loading the camels and moving on as your livestock exhausts the local pasture. You live with a crowd of relatives in a smoke-filled, felt-covered yurt [a domed, portable tent used by nomadic peoples of central Asia] 20 feet across, as your ancestors have done for a thousand years or more. Suddenly, you realise you need another belt to tie around your home, to keep the weight of the roof from pushing out its latticework walls. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, August 23, 2007 ^\^]

“Do you pull together whatever kinds of belty things you can make or find, then get on with churning up the latest batch of fermented camel's milk? Of course not. You take out your primitive little loom — barely a few sticks lashed together with some rope — sit down outside and, surrounded by piles of home-grown, home-dyed, home-spun wool, proceed to craft 50 feet of ferociously impressive weavings, in the certain knowledge that your belting won't be done for many months or years. ^\^

“In the 10-inch span of your tent band, you design and weave an intricate pattern, as notable for its carefully planned repetitions as for its fascinating stutters and riffs and variations on its larger themes. You craft a blank background of bright, tightly woven wool and ornament it with a maze of lines, curls and dingbats worked up in an immaculately knotted pile, in rich and silky burgundies and indigos and scarlets. (Some of your threads may, in fact, be silk, bought or bartered in a local town. You are on the Silk Road, after all, so why not take advantage?) Or maybe the band is for your daughter's wedding tent and dowry and you and she decide, improbably, to lay down a pile across its entire surface: At 275 knots per square inch, that's only 1,650,000 or so tiny bits of yarn to tie and snip around your fabric's weave. ^\^

“Now that new son-in-law owes you, big time. In his groundbreaking catalogue — the first major study of these bands — curator Richard Isaacson speaks of them as "music for the eyes", unfolding over time as well as space. An honoured wedding guest does not so much take the pattern in at once as follow each band's course around the inside of the yurt, as it runs in and out of the supporting struts. ^\^

“Isaacson describes the person who makes one of these bands as a nomadic "Bach, Mozart, Brahms ... inscribing her composition onto the 50-foot staff of her weaving". Isaacson hints at other kinds of meaning, too, beyond the abstract: pomegranates and flowering trees woven in to invoke fertility, or branching limbs to evoke the branching of the Turkic tribes. ^\^

“But maybe the central meaning of these pieces lies in the act of making them: Each one utters a denial of the hardships of nomadic life and an assertion that its maker can afford the luxury of spending time and resources on something that is nothing more than very beautiful. It is said peacocks have evolved their tails to prove to a mate that they have survived despite the waste of energy it takes to grow and carry one around — the bigger the handicap, the more impressive your ability to overcome it. Maybe complex works of art, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the yurt bands of the Asian nomads, are the handicaps that humans have evolved to help assert their worth.” ^\^

Traditional Yurt Items

Hung on the walls of yurts are countless sacks, cases and containers, often colorfully decorated, and used to keep things like tea and salt, scissors. mirrors, crockery and spoons. Wicker items are very popular because they durable and strong and lightweight, making them ideal for nomads moving from place to place.

Nomadic Kyrgyz have traditionally valued various bags and sacks for keeping and transporting their belongings. In north Kyrgyzstan such bags are called ayak-kap, in the south, bashtyk. These bags are usually squarish and have flap closing over the top. Some have pockets and are decorated with fringe or trimmed with wool lace. The pattern on the flap often differs according to region and tribe. In some places such bags are no longer used in everyday life, and have became purely decorative article still placed in yurt. Bags were traditionally made from felt and leather. Newer varieties are often made of homespun wool, velvet or cloth embroidered with wool, silk or cotton threads on the right side.

Syulgu are embroidered decorative towels, made of flax or silk fabric. They are usually hung on kerege or tush-kiyiz and are embroidered on both sides. The smaller a thing is often the more mastery is required to create its decorations.

Kyrgyz Camel Hide Crafts

The Kyrgyz have a long association with hairy, double-humped Bactrian camels. Camels have not only been important transportation tools for long journeys, migrating and carrying stuff, they also supply meat, milk, wool and fur. Kyrgyz people have developed their own set of crafts to process camel hide. Camel hide is very strong, hard and wear-resistant. Wise and experienced Kyrgyz herdsmen utilize different parts of camel hide to make various beautiful, light, flexible bowls, kettles and pails, which are well-suited to the livestock breeding life. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Camel hide bowls are made of camel knees. To make them: 1) cut out the whole camel knees; 2) shell them into bowl shape, removing outsider hair and inside flesh and fat; 3) sand them to a round shape with sand and put into a dry place; 4) when they are dry, pour out the sound and cut the knees to size of common bowls; 5) two pieces of camel skin are sewn together and cut into a round shape to make bowl props. 6) At this stage the bowls take their shape and the finishing process begins. 7) At first, the bowls are sanded and kneaded continuously until they are smooth; 8) ghee is smeared on them and heated on a fire for days to let the ghee be absorbed into the camel hide. As the knees of living camels are constantly touching sand, they are very hard and friction-proof. Consequently, camel-knee bowls are very hard and easy to clean. They are as beautiful and useful as modern porcelain bowls. ~

Camel hide kettles are made of hump hide. To make them: 1) cut off the two humps and remove the flesh and fat; 2) then cut into the shape of a kettle, which is large at the bottom, small at the top and robe-like in the middle. 2) Two pieces of hide of this shape are sewn together and filled with sand to maintain their kettle-like shape, then they are dried. 3) After a half-dry, the two pieces of hide are separated and some alkali, sour milk and corn flour are added and rolled together in order to let them rise. After 15 days, the remains of flesh and fat are soft and can easily be removed. Then the two hide pieces are sewn together again, carefully with embroidered patterns on the seams, face and mouth. It is said, that kettle like these were originally prepared for soldiers to wash their hands and faces. ~

Camel hide pails are made of camel neck. To make them: 1) a whole camel neck is cut, with the flesh and bone removed to make a hide tube. 2) Outside hair and inside fat are scraped carefully. 3) One end of the tube is sewn together. 4) The sewn tube is filled with sand and smashed, and the whole tube is set in the sun until it is half dry. 5) The sewn end is opened and the tube shape is restored. 6) The sand is poured out, ghee and fat are applied to inside of the pail wall. 7) The pails are put over smoke and fire for some time. 8) A round camel hide is used to make the bottom of the pail. 9) The tube and bottom are sewn together, and holes are made in the pail wall to fasten a rope. The result is a light and durable pail that is well made and can hold five or six liters of water or milk. ~

The history of making Kyrgyz hide containers and utensils is very long. However, many traditional hide crafts have disappeared as cheap modern alternatives have arrived on the scene. Still camel hide bowls, kettles, pails and other items are still sought after as they are unique; they have positive distinguishing features; and often are so beautifully crafted they can be considered works of art. ~

Reed Screens

The Kyrgyz produce braided reed from a kind of reed called chiy in Kyrgyz. It grows in abundance on the foothills of mountains and sometimes can be found around yurts. The same reeds are used to make mats vital to making felt and reed screens is the basic material for a number of handicrafts. In areas where there are no such reeds cane. Making reed screens has traditionally been a woman’s job. In the old days, plain screens called ak-chiy could be made by every women, while patterned or decorated ones were made by professional masters. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

In the past, when Kyrgyz nomads lived in yurts, whole villages and camp groups participated in the gathering and storing reeds. The reeds were not cut, but pull out of the ground with the roots attached and transported to villages and camps by horse, camel or ox. There the roots were chopped off and the reeds were left to dry for seven to fifteen days. Then the reeds are peeled off the upper ply and the work started.

Reed screens in turn are used to make various kinds of household items. Eshik-tysh, for example, are a kind of mat put up around the fireplace, serving as a wind stop and used in drying wool, It is also laid on the ground underneath felt carpets, protecting them from moisture and mildew on the ground. Chiy mats are also are used to make felt and mold wool together to make shyrdaks and tysh-kiyiz. Reed ashkana-chiy and chyrmagan kanat chiy are placed around a yurt as a decoration and to block the wind in the winter time. Ashkana chiy are also used to screen off the female part of the yurt, where pots, pans and food are kept, or placed against a wall to serve as a decoration or a place to hang things.

Making Reed Screens

To make reed screens the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian nationalities use special tools whose names vary from region to region. The most important tool consists of two vertical poles with one horizontal pole fixed between them at a height comfortable for the user. The height of horizontal pole is based on the size of the screen. Over the horizontal pole are placed wool yarns, the ends of which are wound around stones called plummets. There are around 20 to 30 of plummets placed about 10 to 15 centimeters. The reeds are placed over the yarns and the plummets are thrown over the pole to other side, splitting the reeds.

Screenmakers take four reeds and weave them together with wool thread. Later, the reeds are placed together with thick and thin ends on opposite sides in order to form smooth and durable reed screen. Decorative reed screens are made by professional masters called chyrmakchy. Such screens require only smooth and thin reeds. The master makes an outline of a pattern on the reeds with a needle. To do this the master first takes eight reeds, put them on a fabric panel placed on smooth surface and pricks the outline of a pattern with a needle. Then every reed is braided with wool of various colors. Braided reeds are for checked for the accuracy of pattern and bound together and decorated by piercing each reed with a needle and thread.

Decorative reed screens are braided on the same tool used to make plain mats. But three or four women work together to braid the reeds while a master makes sure the pattern is in order. At the beginning and the end of reed screen the master left about 60 centimeters of plain surface in order to protect the patterned surface from dust and decay when it is transported to new places. When a yurt is taken down, the reed screen is rolled up and covered. A good screen takes several months to make. Usually the work is done in the summer or winter. In the old days, the screens were made to order and masters were usually paid in livestock.

Kyrgyz Leather Articles

Since ancient time Kyrgyz people have used and decorated leather articles. Animal skins are used to make a variety of everyday articles including clothing, footwear, kitchen containers (ko'okor, saba, konochok, konok, chyny kup), horse harnesses, tail-straps, saddle-girths, bridles, and saddle-clothes. All of these items are integral part of the everyday life of a nomad. Special craftsmen have traditionally been employed in the processing of leather and the production of leather goods. Simple things like dairy product containers are made by women, while difficult works are made by men. Carefully-crafted items such as harnesses are made by special craftsmen called jugon usta. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Women — sometimes known as called oimochu, onorchy or chiymechi — have traditionally been involved in cutting the leather, sewing it, and decorating it with patterns. Women who participated in leather craft are. Man decorated harnesses, small trunks and containers for pialas (bowls for drinking tea) with metal plates and patterns. Leather craft techniques and secrets have passed down from generation to generation. Leather is manufactured and stamped through out the year, but summer is considered to be the best season. During the winter days, when people spend a lot of time indoors, the whole family participates in making patterns on cut leather. There are no any special tools for cutting leather. Kyrgyz use any sharp knife to cut it and tendon thread to sew containers and leather parts together.

Leather items are decorated using different tools. Stamping is the most frequently used method. Patterns made by stamping typically are made with a tool with a sharp end or one that is heated.

The patterns used on leather articles have many similarities with those used on felt carpets, embroidery and metal works. Pattern form both borders and closed shapes such us rosettes. Borders are typically comprised of waves of scroll and horn-like patterns arranged in different ways. Sometimes the border is arranged as a line of almond-like shapes. Rosettes are sometimes made more sophisticated by having a cross-line shape with bifurcating ends that form double spirals and are branched with smaller scrolls, leaves and sprouts. Some of these shapes resemble vegetation. Some of these patterns date back to ancient times.

Different Kinds of Kyrgyz Leather Articles

There are many kinds of leather containers. They have different names, purposes and designs. Leather vessels used to make koumiss (ko'okor) are thoroughly decorated with bright colors. The most difficult vessel to make is a konok, a leather basket with a spot used as a milk-pail. These are made from camel's leather which is tough and strong, and keeps its shape after repeated uses. To make a konok, pieces of leather with precise shapes are cut with a knife and sewn together. Next, the sewn-together leather pieces are fit over a wooden frame shaped like a konok. A round hole is cut slightly more than half way up the side of the vessel. A curved spout is inserted in the hole and sewed into the vessel. When the sewing is complete, the leather is soaked in water and decorated with clay or earth. Finally the vessel is dried outdoors. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Chyny kup, a container for keeping and transporting pialas (bowls for drinking tea), is made from different materials including chiy, walnut, juniper, felt and leather. Chyny caps are made in cylindrical and semi-spherical shapes with flat and rounded covers. Semi-spherical chyny kups are made the following way: first, the cut four wedges from leather, then sew them together to make a cover and smoked it in a smoking-shed for a while. Then fit the cover over a frame made of wood or leather to fix the shape.

Leather trunks (jagdan) can be found in the yurts of wealthy people. Jagdan are considered to be decorative. They are placed on a wooden stand (takta) and used to store blankets. Saddles are covered with leather fixed to a wooden frame with tiny nails arranged in the pattern of a sheep's horn. Horse harnesses, particularly terdik, are greatly valued by Kyrgyz people. Craftsmen take extreme care and use all their knowledge and skill to create the best possible terdiks.

Wood Carving in Kyrgyzstan

Articles made of wood are still widely used by Kyrgyz people in everyday life. There is a stylistic connection between wooden works and other kinds of craftsmanship, particularly with items made of felt and leather. Carved and painted wooden articles, patterned felt works and mats, embroidery and Kyrgyz crafts perfectly fit the interior of the yurt. They make up the bulk of everyday household items but at the same time can be amazing pieces of art that reflect the history and lifestyle of the traditionally nomadic people that created them. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Wood is not only used in crafts found in yurts it is also it is also to make essential parts of the yurt. The frame, door and jams are made of wood. Many parts have traditionally been decorated. The frame of the yurt wasn't carved, but its lattice ("kerege"), and the bottom poles of the dome ("uuk") have traditionally been carved and painted with a blue or red color. Sometimes the door and doorframe are also carved and painted.

Among the wooden household articles and kitchen utensils that are carved and decoratively painted are: 1) juk stands, on which felt carpets and linen are stored; 2) small trunks for flat bread called ukok; 3) poled pegs for clothes; 4) harnesses for horses (ala bakan); 5) saddle pommels (aiyurmach); 6) containers of pialas (tea bowls) called chyny kup; 7) stirrers for koumiss called pishkek; 8) soup ladles (chomuch); and 9) wooden candle stands (chyrak paya), which are now hard to find as candles are not used so much any more.

Wooden articles have traditionally been made by male woodcraftsmen called djigach usta. Wood carving technique is very simple. Different species of trees — birch, poplar, willow, juniper and walnut — are chosen based on firmness and elasticity, with different qualities desired for different items. The aforementioned trees are generally easy and soft enough to carve with well-sharpened tools such as: 1) a small adze (kerki), used for working up boards and hollowing wood when making large patterns; 2) a cutter similar to a chisel; 3) a wooden hammer; and 4) a special knife with a curved edge. After the wood is trimmed, a craftsman has traditionally rubbed it with sheep's liver and soot. Then he would draw a pattern with chalk and carve it with a knife. The pattern is then painted with a red color made of red clay.

It is said skilled djigach usta used to work without any drawing or stencils. The patterns were passed down from generation to generation. Having learned the patterns in childhood craftsmen reproduced them by memory adding or varying details as they wished. However, some craftsmen used stencils made of horse leather. Natural materials are predominantly used for painting, particularly chalk and a clay of different colors. These materials gave the wooden works a softer and warmer look.

Patterns found on wooden articles are known for their laconic clearness and simplicity. They often feature precise and rhythmical repetition or interchanging separate or adjoining motifs, which are never interlaced or laid on each other. The carving is made based on the principle of looking-glass symmetry and the succession of specific elements of the pattern. The main pattern is a classical horn-like scroll.

The carved pattern on wooden bread containers (ukok) is very similar to the pattern on felt carpets and overhead bags (ayak kup). These patterns include an interchange of double horn-like scrolls (kochkor muyuz), with winding rosette in the centre. The rosettes serve as a charm to keep away bad luck. Ukok are located in the women’s part of the yurt, behind a pattern screen called the Ashkana chiy. In the kitchen one can see a rich collection of wooden articles made by Kyrgyz craftsmen including wooden dishes, plates and other kitchen utensils of various shapes and types.

Image Sources:

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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