Ornament as a sign, a symbol, or a graphic representation of common laws of the Universe has existed for many millennia. Its first appearance dates back to upper paleolith (15-10 thousand years B.C.).
Ornament builds on rhythmic alternation or repetition of geometric or representational elements. It can be pictorial or sculptural, deriving its shapes from real objects by means of generalization, or conventionally abstract. It is used predominantly in decorative and applied art; it is commonly employed in architecture constituting an integral and often the most essential part of decorative compositions, and in book drawing (1, p. 92). Being more or less closely associated with the shape of an object it decorates, ornament is never completely dictated by it, neither does it get lost in applied art as one of its numerous means of expression. It remains an independent kind of art with its rules and compositional principles (2, p. 120).
The first specimens of ornament (oyu-ornek in Kazakh, derived from words oyu – template, and ornek – pattern; masters skilled in ornament are known as oyush) in the history of Kazakhstan’s art are clay pottery: these are rows of dents, zigzags, herring-bones and plaits. Quite common were horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, as well as geometric shapes such as circle, semicircle, oval, square, rhomb, triangle, spiral and cross. Ancient man assigned certain symbolic meaning to the patterns, thus communicating his understanding of how the universe worked.
For instance, triangle symbolized mountains, whereas circle was for the Sun, square for earth, swastika for Sun’s movement, spiral for development and motion, etc. Also common were broad bands hatched across, chessboard grid, comb, axe, mouse tracks, star, broken horn, paired rings, camel calf’s eye, vertebra, etc.
Usually people ornamented vessel bottoms, back sides of protective jewellery, and parts of objects hidden from the eye. Apparently, at first, the patterns did not have decorative properties.
Kazakh people absorbed many-years-old traditions of their multi-tribal predecessors whose ornamental art that was to become a lead form of fine arts, developed, due to mobile lifestyle, in a way that communicated the content in a conventionally-abstracted form, rather than in a way of specific representation of real objects. As a rule, images were not pictured as complete, but with the help of some detail, based on the principle of substituting a whole with its most essential part. One of the prerequisites for the appearance of ornament was a need to mark the objects of a family, kin or tribe with distinguishing signs. Gradually, these symbol-signs acquired an ornamental expressivity of a design that was now considered from aesthetic, ethno-symbolic, magical and cult points of view.
The key elements in an ornamental composition are highlighted by size, bright colour and central positioning. Secondary elements, complementing the key ones and emphasizing their lead role and significance, are fluently united into a wholesome organism. Careful selection of colour in Kazakh applied art serves the purpose of creating such a decorative specimen that could immediately invoke pleasant emotions and associations.
When admiring nature, man had long since noticed its infinite variety of curious, intricate forms and colour shades. Nature became the source of original ornamental compositions. Kazakh people developed great skill in stylizing natural shapes, having transformed the real shape of objects into a simplified and conventional one. The selection of every motif in an ornament, including colour solutions, is a creative work of traditional masters. The colour of the ornament is linked with the master’s fantasy and his artistic taste. The Kazakhs chose background colour very carefully, as the proper choice significantly amplified the sound of the entire design.
Among the geometric motifs, triangle is most prevalent. It has long since been considered a powerful guard, a universal symbol that is also popular nowadays. Amulets or guards against evil eye had triangular shape. Amulet was put on the neck of animals and given to children to be worn as talisman. There were several guard-amulets, including:
Bes tanba – a cross, a conventional representation of a compass, is used in the ornament of fleece-free rugs – alasha, and woven ribbons – baskur; it also adorns wooden articles, such as chests and beds. Colours: red and black.
Zhilinshek – a bone, is used to decorate fleece-free rugs – alasha, felt bags – tys-kap, and patterned ribbons. It is coloured in red, black, vinous, brown and green shades; contrasted background is also permitted, such as black pattern on a white background.
Balta – an axe. The motif resembles an axe in shape and is associated with the wellbeing of a household and home’s hearth. Colours: red, brown, deep-blue and black.
Baldaq – a spike. This is a symbol of support; in compositions it usually frames a central field and is predominantly wrought in brown, deep-blue, green and red colours. Sometimes it is outlined with additional line of a different colour, which gives it greater boldness and festivity.
Irek, su – a zigzag or water – an element with powerful protective property. In the minds of the Kazakhs it is also associated with a snake, the underworld and water. It is reproduced in different variations: as a wavy line, a coiled spiral, and sometimes as fish scales. It is common in carpet weaving and embroidery. Main colours: blue, deep-blue and violet.
Taraq – a comb – a motif with a charming beauty of its rhythm. It can be found on patterned woven ribbons, Kazakh, and fleece-free alasha rugs. Dominant colours are yellow, brown, red, deep-blue and black.
Qanqa – a backbone. This motif adorns woven articles, such as alasha, baskur and embroideries. It is mainly performed in yellow, green, red and black colours.
Dengelek – a circle – the ornamental representation of the Sun; according to the Kazakh beliefs, the picture of the life-giving Sun spread protective, purifying and good power through its imaginary beams. The pattern adorns tekemet, syrmak and traditional clothing. Predominant colours are white, yellow, red, vinous and black.
In Kazakh ornament the most significant role is given to zoomorphic motifs, which often represent an animal following the principle of replacing a whole with its part. Sometimes one image can combine parts of different animals.
Predominant artistic motif is muyiz, the ram’s horns. It was associated with wealth, multiplying livestock and protective functions. A horn adorns tekemet, syrmak, alasha, and also architectural structures. Colours: brick-red, yellow, deep-blue, green, brown and black.
Synar muyiz – a single horn. One of the most common Kazakh ornaments that usually adorns felt articles – tekemet, syrmak. Rhythmical order of the motif frames the outline of a composition. Most commonly used colours are red and black.
Synyq muyiz – a broken horn. Craftsmen used this motif to decorate carpets, mats, baskur, alasha, and bags. The main colours are red, vinous, green, brown and black.
Omyrtqa – a spine; it is found in different combinations: in framings and in the centre of ornamental compositions. It looks showy when coloured in deep-blue, vinous, red, brown and black.
Tyshqan iz – mouse tracks; it is used to decorate carpets, korzhyn, ayak-kap… this motif is given a framing, borderline role in a composition; its colours are predominantly red, brown, vinous and black.
Botaghoz – camel-calf’s eye. The Kazakhs have a notion that a rhomb represents fertility and protects childbearing functions. It is a magical design with guarding property. It is believed that the eye, just as the word, possesses magical power that can be destructive. This element can be found in the centre of a composition, as well as in the borderline at the rim of an article. Traditional colours are red, brown, black and deep-blue.
It kuyryq – dog’s tail; along with its protective functions, it was a symbol of friendship and well-wishing. Due to its guarding function, it decorated yurt doors, face-boards of beds, and sometimes felt articles. Colours: brown, vinous, deep-blue.
Tuye taban – camel tracks; it represented wealth and growing number of livestock, and encouraged producing power and various goods. It adorned various items of traditional crafts, and was used in woodcarving, incrustation, embroidery, and in felt articles. Main colours: brown, vinous, black.
Qainar – spring, a symbol of watering place as a source of life, the symbol of green pastures and animal husbandry. Colours: blue, deep-blue, violet.
Vegetable ornament is also popular in Kazakh applied art – images of flowers, leaves, trees, fruits and seeds. Many of these motifs go back to very ancient times. The image of a tree is connected to the ideas of growth, fertility and power of life. From the image of the Universal Tree the traditional mind derives the Tree of Life, and then a family tree and the genealogy, thus reflecting the process of transition from global symbols to particular ones. Also common is the representation of a bush, a shoot with curling foliage, a trefoil, and a multi-petal flower.
Gul – a flower; the motif had different variations, including: bud, tulip, lotus, palmette, and aster. Flower was associated with the ideas of fertility, perpetual renewal and rebirth, and bounty. Usually these motifs adorn household items, such as wall-rugs and towels. Colours: preferable red, yellow, orange and vinous.
The rich store of Kazakh ornamental motifs has also cosmogonical ones.
Ai – a crescent moon, paired with a star. Celestial objects are believed to have a purifying power and good energy; they are guards and conductors of various goods.
Zhuldyz – a star; in Kazakh traditional consciousness this motif is identified with human soul. Celestial luminaries were always thought to have purifying power. The motif adorns carpet centerpieces. Primary colours: red, deep-blue, vinous.
Being a nomad means a way of life near animals, which provided man virtually with everything. All things that surrounded an ancient nomad – plants, animals, natural phenomena, rain and snow – all this he subjected to a kind of idealization (3).
Each of the ornamental groups – vegetable, animal, geometric and cosmogonical – contains a particular meaning. Any element in an ornament has certain significance. Graceful leaves and marvellous petals of a vegetable ornament decorate outer clothing and young girls’ dresses. Zoomorphic designs and ornaments in the shape of an arrowhead or an eagle adorn boys’ clothes. Certain elements were used in the decoration of head-dresses, outer clothing and trousers. For instance, patterns such as camel tracks, mouse tracks, or dog’s tail were never used to decorate head-dresses.
Ornament “reading” is a peculiar universal key that unravels the richness of traditional culture. Colour symbolism in the Kazakh ornament is just as interesting. White colour in the background of an article and in the main design is a symbol of a clear way, truth and happiness. Red is fire, a burning energy of the Sun, and love; black is for power, majesty and might, as well as purpose and wellbeing.
In the Kazakh ornament the combination of red and deep-blue colours is a reminder of natural riches of the sunny land and the expression of people’s dream of happiness (it is no accident that the designs sometimes feature Tao-tye, the god of good fortune and bounty, and tightly curved animal horns – the symbol of success is livestock farming).
Pale colours are the sign of sad times, blues and anxiety. Green symbolizes the renewal of the earth, springtime and youth; blue is a symbol of sky and Tengri deity; and yellow represents mind and intellect.
M. Semyonova wrote: “An ornament that in its configuration approximates a complex branching of ram’s horns as it spans large space in the composition, also acquires monumental features; a personal element gets increasingly mixed with an epic one, and motion is perceived as perpetual, uninterrupted and also static in its infinity. It offers a powerful concept of the world in the most general categories of space and time, which acquire monumentality.” (4, p. 37). One may add that the aforementioned categories are only possible in the context with the ornament’s colour range.
Based on the listed colour preferences in the Kazakh ornament, one can notice that red colour always came first, black (dark-brown) – second, white – third, to be followed by other colours: vinous, yellow, green, deep-blue, orange and blue. The colour frame that consists of the red-black-white triad originates from ancient times, which can be confirmed by colours of Kazakhstan’s petroglyphs and ceramics dating to neolith and bronze ages.
1. Соловьев С.А. Декоративное оформление. М., 1987.
2. Лебедева Е.В., Черемных Р.М. Искусство художника-оформителя. М., 1981.
3. Баримбеков Ж. Казахский орнамент. Алма-Ата, 1986.
4. Семенова М.Т. Народное искусство и его проблемы. М., 1977.