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Discovery Uzbekistan Travel Guide #14/2010

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Uzbek arts and crafts

The arts and crafts of Uzbekistan have enjoyed a well-earned fame for centuries. The pre-eminence of the applied art here can be attributed to historical conditions shaping the cultural development of the Uzbek people. Uzbeks have developed their technical and artistic traditions over centuries. The applied art reflects everyday life; its main attribute is the close connection between artistic creativity and daily material necessity.

The social nature of decorative art lies in its collectivity. Art is the heritage of many generations; it represents a series of consecutive layers, which reflect a people's culture through the ages. The skills and knowledge imparted by the various ethnic groups that eventually came together to constitute the Uzbek nation created this diversity of artistic traditions that is the distinguishing feature in works of art of all genres.

Architectural-decorative art holds a prominent place in the arts and crafts of Uzbekistan. Principles of ornamental construction and profound knowledge of the plastic and artistic properties of local building materials that were well-known throughout the Middle East, such as ghanch (a sort of alabaster), wood, stone, ceramics, constitute the time-tested fundamentals of this ancient art. The world famous architectural monuments of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, and other cities of Uzbekistan testify to the professional mastery of mediaeval artists and architects, ornamental designers and calligraphers, engravers and ceramists.

In Uzbekistan, wall painting and sculptural carving as well as ornamental carving and painting have been practised since ancient and early mediaeval periods. The 9th and 10th centuries saw a period of particularly intensive development of ornamental, floral-vegetal polychromatic paintings and relief carving. The ever more elaborate use of ornamental forms and compositions formed the basis for principles approved by experts through the ages and are observed and adhered to even nowadays.

Nakkoshi - Masters of ornamental painting usually practiced ghanch and wood architectural painting simultaneously. The most noted masters of wall painting were the Bukhara nakkoshi of the last century. The art of masters from Samarkand, Tashkent, Khiva, and other cities of Uzbekistan is renowned. Today too the work of Saidmakhmud Narkuziev, an outstanding master of Fergana painting based in Kokand, is much admired, and his sons and grandsons continue his work.

Carved wood played a considerable role in the architectural decor in Uzbekistan, and was also much used in the production of household goods: props, chests for blankets, drawers, caskets, pencil-boxes, elegant little ottomans, national musical instruments, and decorative many-sided little tables or bedside tables that were very popular among urban Europeans in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century. In ornamental flat-relief carving, with all its richness and diversity, masters distinguish between three main compositional groups: baghdadi, islimi, and pargori.

Each is characterized by particular ornamental motifs and compositional constructions, as well as by carving techniques and effects of patterned relief.

The best varieties of local wood are used: walnut, chinara (plane), karagach (a sort of elm), archa (juniper), mulberry, poplar, apricot, and others. Modern masters also use some imported varieties, primarily beech, oak, pine.

Nowadays Uzbek masters of wood-painting produce mostly decorative goods: polygonal and round tables, stools, screens, cabinets, frames, caskets.

Production of papier mache and lacquer painting on papier mache thrived in Samarkand at the beginning of 15th century, as testified by genuine ornamental papier mache medallions found miraculously preserved set into the interior of Gur-Emir and in the Bibi-Khanym mosque. Of special interest is the completely restored golden-blue dome in the interior of the main hall of Gur-Emir, composed of 998 papier mache elements, of which 112 are original and have since been the object of painstaking restoration. There are reasonable grounds for conjecture that it was Samarkand artists who introduced this skill to North India in 15th century, where it has developed and is nowadays flourishing. Papier mache articles: pencil-boxes of various sizes, expensive book-covers, chess, caskets, boxes of different sorts, vases, and other small items, were decorated with miniature vegetative patterns. Inscriptions were often incorporated into the ornamentation on pencil-boxes. The paint was applied with thin brushes on a base made of gold or bronze powder, sheet gold and bronze on an apricot and cherry glue. The preparation of lacquers and colours for papier mache was a sophisticated and highly skilled process.

The production of different vessels and other household articles out of pumpkin, often with original ornamental decoration, exists in many nations of the world. In Uzbekistan, pumpkin is a popular material for various articles, but the most popular are snuffboxes made from pumpkins specially cultivated for this purpose. Uzbek snuffboxes vary in shape, size, and decoration. Their production involves a sophisticated process of painting, patterned toning and polishing, finishing with noble metal and coloured jewels.

From the numerous genres of applied arts in Uzbekistan, the decorative ceramic stands out. The first samples found in the Republic by archaeologists date back to ancient times. Throughout the ages the unique expressiveness and restrained elegance of the best of Uzbek ceramics have revealed the genuine creative genius of the nation. There are dishes, lyagans, spheric cups, pials, and kyosas, vases, jugs, pots, khums large and small, convenient for use and, at the same time, refined in form. For many centuries and even now, there has been a demand for pottery from across the broad mass of the population. The works are distinguished by skilled workmanship, beauty of form, enchanting ornamental forms, richly imaginative designs, and a deep sense of the harmony of colour. There are two kinds of decorative ceramics in Uzbekistan: baked terracotta and slip glaze ceramics. The last 100-150 years has seen clearly defined ceramic centres establish themselves in Uzbekistan: Ghizhduvan, Shakhrisabz, Samarkand, Tashkent, Rishtan, Khorezm. Over the last few decades, the works of ceramists of Gurumsarai, Denau, and Chimbai in Kara-Kalpakstan have also gained in popularity.

The ceramics produced in these centres may be differentiated by their two colour groups: blue-white-green and green-brown-yellow. This is mostly due to technical reasons. In the Fergana valley and Khorezm, where the alkaline glaze ishkor is used, blue-white-green paintings are predominant, because yellow and red colours decompose under the ishkor glaze, whereas the blue and green colours give a set of fine bright and gentle tints. In the areas where lead glaze is used as in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, all shades of yellow-red-brown gamma are very popular. The ceramic paintings in these districts are defined by their deep, glowing colour range, and at the same time their surprisingly delicate beauty.

The smaller ceramics that you see in Uzbekistan are mostly the traditional toys of legendary-zoomorphic themes, statuettes, genre souvenirs that are popular with Uzbeks and tourists alike. Once seen, these ceramic toys are hard to forget. And whether it be a traditional crimson-yellow pennywhistle by Khamro Rakhimova from hamlet Uba, or bright ethnographic, humorous statuettes by A. Mukhtarov from Samarkand, each of them embodies the love of the Uzbek people for bright cheerful decorative styles.

Copper-embossed articles have been popular among the local population since olden times. Alongside their utilitarian function, they are much valued as decorative items. Embossed copperware is often exhibited on shelves as part of the decorative furniture of the house.

Over time local styles of this ancient art of embossing have developed, characterized by specific forms, and technical and artistic methods. The Uzbek embossing incorporates different engraving techniques. The deeper engraving is called kandakori, the less deep, straight engraving chizma. Along with embossing, Uzbek masters use punching - shabaka.

Best known are the works of the Bukhara and Khiva embossers, distinguished by beauty and plasticity of forms, strict accuracy and harmony of ornamental motifs, and depth of embossing.

A less prominent though important branch of metal-working in Uzbekistan is the art of knife-making. The knives are highly sharpened and kept in leather sheaths decorated with metallic plates, embroidery, applique, or painting. Such knives are called ghuldor pichok, meaning 'elegant, decorated knife'. The forms are various. The blades differ according to where they are made: narrow or wide, straight or curved, as do the hafts: single-piece or composite, wooden or bone, encrusted or painted. Of the ancient centres of artistic knife-making there remain prominent schools in Chust in the Fergana valley and Khiva in Khorezm.

Fabric design in Uzbekistan is an outstanding example of folk art. In it past and present are wonderfully combined - the traditions of ancient folk art woven together with the knowledge and understanding of modern times. The art of decorative fabric acts as a kind of history book, reflecting its centuries-old development, and embodying the creative work of many thousands of talented masters and artists. In the second half of 19th century, in many cities and settlements (Marghilan, Namangan, Bukhara, Andizhan, Samarkand, Kitab, Gizhduvan, Urghut, Besharyk), miscellaneous plain and patterned hand-made cotton, silk, half-silk fabrics of simple and complex texture were developed. They were used for clothes and house decoration. Thick, cotton and silk, nap velvet - bakhmal, moire repp - adras, bekasab, and banoras, the finest and lightest silk shawls - kalgai, rustling and chatoyant shokhs - kanauses; uniquely picturesque, original in their contrast range and harmony of colour, satins, yakruya, khan-atlases; Fergana and Samarkand coverlets with their misty and gentle patterns were particularly famous. The ornamentation on these fabrics consisted primarily of stripes and patterns, noted for their indistinct, fuzzy outlines. This technique in Central Asia is called abrbandi, and the fabrics abr.

The manufacture of printed fabrics was widespread among the nations living in what is now Uzbekistan. Printed tablecloths, curtains, blankets, shawls, high-quality fabrics for women's dresses, different coverlets including horsecloths, even funeral shrouds, and other printed articles had both practical functions and served as household decoration. Bukhara and adjacent settlements were famed for this art. The finest works were produced by masters of Urghut, Shakhrisabz, Samarkand, Katta-Kurghan, Fergana, Tashkent; printed fabrics from Khorezm were notable for their originality.

Embroidered articles would be used alongside other architectural-decorative arts, such as ghanch and wood-engraving and painting, to decorate the house and smaller household goods. Embroidery was widely used in national costume, both festive and everyday. At the height of their production, local styles developed. In 19th century the large centres of art embroidery, Bukhara, Nurata, Shakhrisabz, Samarkand, Dzhizak, Tashkent, Pskent, and Fergana stood out from others. It was done exclusively by women.

Gold and silver threads were used to embroider men's robes (turbans, skull-caps, trousers, footwear) and women's clothes (dresses, dressing gowns, headbands - peshanabands, shawls, boots, shoes). Golden embroidery incorporating gems and small metallic dome-like elements, (kubbas), was used to decorate palace interiors, as well as horsecloths and shabracks. The art of golden embroidery in the middle of 19th century reached a new peak of perfection in composition, integrity of patterns and workmanship. The patterns were drawn on kidskin or karghon, then cut out, attached to the fabric stretched on embroidery frame, and sewn in with golden or silver threads. For each decorated item, a covering technique was used: complete zaminduzi, along the outline of a drawing on a plain background - ghulduzi. Each part of a pattern was embroidered with special stitches, over thirty of which were known at that time.

Traditions of Uzbek carpet-weaving go back a long way, evolving over generations of hard work and creative research. Carpets created by experts - women working from home mostly in rural areas of Uzbekistan - are perfect both in workmanship and artistic design. The women professionals take care to observe and develop the fine art traditions of carpet-weaving.

Uzbek carpets are divided into three kinds: short-nap carpets (ghilyam), long-nap carpets (dzhulkhirs), and napless palases.

Decorative leather working in Uzbekistan was highly developed in the past, when natural leather goods such as clothes, footwear, articles of military, hunting, and horse outfit and equipment, home utensils, travelling accessories, were everyday necessities for farmers, townsmen, soldiers, or nomads.

Leather-dressers were skilled in the different top quality methods of dressing, and mastered the secrets of natural vegetative tanning and colouring, which is why they produced such beautiful supple leather. From the skins of donkeys and horses, Bukhara and Samarkand masters made the famous turquoise-green shagreen; from goat and sheepskin, thin colour morocco's; from cowhide thick colour tuft; from sheepskin various types of rawhide, such as suede.

Stamping is the most complicated and impressive type of leatherwork, associated with morocco and yuft. A wide range of articles was produced from these kinds of leather, from purses and belts to large chests and suitcases. Cold leather stamping was used in the making of suitcases and chests.

One of the most developed genres of folk art that deserves special mention is the jeweller's art. Its rich traditions rooted in antiquity, it is nonetheless alive and as popular as ever today and evolving constantly under modern masters. Jewellery is the main artistic accessory to clothes, especially for women, and it is interesting to note how ancient examples of the art show a harmony with the shape and lines of clothes, and combine with them in colour, form, and functionality.

Masters or zaghars mostly created pieces from silver, less often from gold, combining noble metals with various jewels: precious, sparkling, such as ruby, emerald, sapphire; semiprecious, matt, opaque, but of bright and rich colours, such as pearls, turquoise, cornelian, jasper, corals, as well as multicoloured sparkling glass pieces, and mastic beads that came into common use from the second half of 19th century.

Discovery Uzbekistan #2

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