Uzbekistan has long been famous for its handicrafts. The twentieth century posed great challenge to all forms of traditional culture, including crafts, many of which have virtually disappeared as a result of the propagated products of commercial-scale manufacturing. With the attainment of independence Uzbekistan has taken necessary measures to support comprehensive development of all types of arts and crafts. First and foremost, the government changed its position in relation to traditional art. This change reflects a new ideological policy of Uzbekistan, aimed at asserting the value of the national heritage. Priority given to traditional arts confirms the findings of cultural studies that the attainment of independence actualized ethno-cultural values in society, including the artistic experience of the past centuries, resulting in its new interpretation and galvanized development. The importance of supporting traditional cultural heritage today is well understood and proven by the experience of modern society evolution. In this regard, it should be noted that over the past 20 years the country gained considerable positive experience in reviving traditional art culture.
First of all, projects to support and revive traditional arts acquired the status of national programs in Uzbekistan. The government either reorganized or created new institutional structures and took serious actions to facilitate comprehensive development of traditional art forms.
The first traditional crafts fair held in 1995 in Tashkent started the chain of fairs, festivals, contests and sale exhibitions where contemporary masters presented their work. The fair was supported by the UN to mark the 50th anniversary of the Organization. The motto of the fair, “Usto – Shoghird” (Master to Student), was largely symbolic as it emphasized the relevance of verbal, practical communication of still surviving skills and the preservation of traditions through the system of mentors and apprentices. Subsequently, such UN-supported fairs become regular and acquired regional scale
The initiative was also taken up by local government authorities, which have become the primary sponsor of cultural events. The year 1996 saw the establishment of “Oltin Meros” International Charitable Foundation, its goals and objectives being to find, register, acquire and preserve unique items of historical and cultural heritage, and to inform and introduce global community to traditional culture and arts of Uzbekistan. In 1997 the Research and Manufacturing Centre “Musavvir”and the Republican Specialist Art Manufacturing Association “Usto” were created with an aim to restore extinct forms of crafts and applied arts, cater to the needs of artists and craftsmen, and to help young people learn and master artistic skills, that is, to take all measures to revive and develop traditional art forms. Through the effort of these organizations almost extinct crafts, such as textile print, miniature lacquer painting and carpet weaving have been revived. .
The most important document in a series of measures aimed at preserving the traditions of crafts has been the Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov as of March 31, 1997 “On measures of state support to the further development of traditional crafts and applied arts”. The Decree provided for practical support to craftsmen producing highly artistic items at home. In the way of economic support, artisans were granted a five year exemption from income tax and customs duties on export sale of traditional crafts; the title of Uzbekiston Respublikasi Khalq Ustasi was established. In line with the Decree, it was also decided to create an association of Uzbekistan’s traditional craftsmen “Hunarmand” under the “Musavvir” RMC. These institutions have ramified organizational network in all provinces of the country. Valuable contribution to the revival of crafts has been made by the Business Women’s Association of Uzbekistan (Tadbirkor Oila), which addresses the problem of employment for women, engaging them in handicraft manufacturing.
The annual republican contest “Tashabbus” that awards “Craftsman of The Year” title, and a number of other events and activities can be regarded as a kind of a government-level administration in relation to traditional arts. Measures taken by the government raise the social status of artists and craftsmen working in traditional art, and create economic benefits to support their activities.
Significant contribution to supporting traditional heritage is made by public organizations through their projects of different scale. Since its establishment, the Forum for Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation has been a leader in this area. Among its most prominent activities have been the annual (since 2007) Bazaar-Art exhibition fairs held at the National Arts Centre of the Forum Foundation, which convene artisans from all over the country, holding attention of local public and foreign guests. Master-craftsmen get an invaluable opportunity to communicate with each other and with potential buyers. These gatherings help identify creative potential in traditional art, facilitate marketing and introduction to the best achievements of contemporary masters, as well as the formation of new trends in traditional art forms. Today, keenly responsive to demand, hereditary masters are guided by the motto “From ancient technology to modern design
The tangible result of exhibitions organized by the Forum Foundation is the award of special grants to the artisans offering high-quality products to the market. In 2008 these grants went to the weavers from Margilan whose handmade silk fabrics with recognizable traditional ornament and colour are the vivid example of traditional items becoming popular in modern society: Margilan textiles are in great demand among domestic designers who create ethnic-style fashion; lightweight scarves that can transform the most ordinary look, are purchased even by those who have nothing to do with arts.
Among the most vivid and memorable events run by the Forum Foundation is the first traditional culture festival “Asrlar Sadosi” (The Voice of the Centuries) held on 3-4 May 2008 in Kaynar mountain area in Kitab District of Kashkadarya Province. Traditional arts exhibition and fair held during the festival was yet another step in promoting national heritage and the centuries-old experience of traditional craftsmen eager to make people’s lives more colourful and bright through the magical power of handicraft items. The attention the country gives to folk music groups, craftsmen and artists working in traditional arts can not but encourage further development of artistic heritage and its adaptation to the changing society. In 2009 the “Asrlar Sadosi”festival was held in May (1-3) in Akkurgan (near Kanka and Shahruhiya ancient settlement cities) and Bostanlik districts of Tashkent Province. In 2011 the festival was hosted by the time-honoured and ever young city of Bukhara.
The enhanced status of craftsmen is evidenced by the fact that the most prominent of them have been awarded the title of Academicians of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan. Among them are ceramists Sh. Azimov, H. Hakberdiev (Samarqand), Sh. Yusupov (Rishtan), B. Boltaev (Khiva), A. Narzullaev (Gijduvan), A. Rakhimov (Tashkent), and miniature artists N. Holmatov and Sh. Mukhamejanov.
Thus, today the country has legislative mechanisms, as well as a number of government and public organizations and creative unions tasked to regulate the work on maintaining centuries-old traditions of the national art.
The cause of reviving traditional crafts still actively engages international foundations and organizations interested in developing tourism and supporting the economy of the young post-soviet nations. Their activity now has somewhat different scale and specific, targeted approach: the main focus is on certain types of crafts or certain art centres that had been famous in the past but now failing. For instance, in 1990s Uzbekistan ran UN-supported “Cultural Tourism and Handicrafts Development” project and “Supporting Artisans” project implemented with the assistance from Counterpart Consortium (US). They organized various seminars and traditional art exhibitions, invited foreign experts to train local craftsmen in traditional technologies and the use of natural dyes etc, provided financial support to projects related to well-known local craft centres. In recent years, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, UNESCO Office in Uzbekistan and the National Commission for UNESCO have been holding the most active position with regard to these matters.
One of the most significant actions taken with UNESCO support has been the proclamation of Baysun, a district in Surkhandarya Province, the Masterpiece of the Oral Tradition and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (2002). The recognition of the uniqueness of this area where authentic forms of traditional culture, including handicrafts, have survived till present day has become a powerful incentive for its further development. This event started a set of measures designed to support arts and crafts in the area (the annual international folklore festival “Baysun Bahori”, the setup of a comprehensive field research team to study the region’s traditional culture, etc.). During field work in Boysun, scholars identified, among other things, previously unknown centre of ceramic production and new types of embroidery designs and carpets. The field work resulted in the rise of crafts in the area, the set up of the Crafts Centre in Baysun district centre, and the participation of local artists in the UNESCO Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts Programme covering the countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), and East Asia (China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea and South Korea). As an outcome, handicraft products from the area have been recognized internationally. In 2006, janda textiles and okenli carpets were awarded the UNESCO Seal of Excellence and their pictures were posted on the websites of UNESCO Offices in Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi and Almaty along with other holders of the Seal.
For an illustrative example one may also refer to the projects of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation such as the revival of Denau ceramics (Surkhandarya, 2003) and the embroidery of Nurata, a well-known centre in the past (curator Sh. Abdullaeva). Although the results of the first project have been considered unsatisfactory by the experts, the second project has solved two problems: it started the revival of traditional Nurata embroidery, and also trained and provided jobs for a group of young women-masters. One output of the project has been a published instruction manual on embroidery in the Uzbek language, which will definitely be of great help to women who decide to engage in traditional embroidery independently.
Positive dynamics in the revival and further development of traditional artistic heritage is evident; it is upheld by both government policy aimed at making traditional cultural values relevant, and support from the general public, international foundations and organizations.
One of the most important tasks directly related to the development of traditional heritage is the revival of extinct local schools and handicrafts centres and further development of the surviving ones. Equally important is the issue of product quality. Today, all handicraft products are divided into two groups: items made for household needs (mostly in rural areas), and those made for the market and exhibitions. The latter dominates by virtue of the fact that handicrafts are now becoming a factor in economic development. Unfortunately, however, in both groups one can observe a deteriorating product quality. In the first instance it is related to the gradual undermining of traditional norms of behaviour – a natural process in the twentieth century, while in the second case, oddly enough, it is the market influence that negatively affects the quality of items and the notion of “school”.
When we say quality, we mean the quality of both handicraft and artistic tradition. As for the handicraft tradition, masters who work for the market and participate in the exhibition process pay a lot more attention to quality. This manifests itself in an effort to use only traditional techniques and natural materials and dyes, and that is why these “environmental” products are invariably in high demand nowadays. In turn, the artistic tradition is increasingly undermined, as can be illustrated by a few examples to be discussed further. Often, however, the masters are not too concerned with the “loss” of school: deep in their hearts they are confident that the tradition will continue. Nevertheless, one should never rely on self-development of traditional art forms related to collective rather than individual artist’s experience. Some steps are definitely need to be taken, such as, primarily, the establishment of handicrafts associations, which would exercise control over product quality and maintain local specificity.
On the background of the fairly optimistic picture of living artistic heritage one can also notice some deficiencies and problems. For instance, purely commercial projects are often disguised as the revival of traditions. International foundations often miscalculate, giving rise to many questions on whether the problem was approached correctly. Examples include a setup of silk carpets production in Bukhara (UNESCO) or the manufacturing of large-size embroidered suzane wall-rugs in Khiva (“Hunarmand” regional association of traditional crafts; an international charity organization “Operation Mercy”, with financial support from the British Council). These programs were implemented without regard to the local crafts specificity of the area: silk carpets with the currently proposed design have never been woven in Bukhara; and Khiva has never been a suzane centre.
Some public organizations also overlook things: sometimes their programs train women not in the types of crafts that are historically intrinsic to the area, but in those for which there is a consistent demand. This results in the disruption of the local centres’ structure. For example, in Jizak Province that used to have a wonderful tradition of making long-fleece julhirs carpets women are trained in gold embroidery.
Participation of public organizations and international foundations in the revival of forgotten arts and crafts, as well as the joint effort of international and local experts in the field of culture and art, help resolve financial problems to a great extent. However, this work requires careful coordination that would take into account historical development of traditional art forms in a particular area.In light of the foregoing, the problem of traditional art’s “ecology” acquires a particular importance. Preserving the “purity” of art and the specificity of local schools is one of the most relevant problems of today that can be most effectively addressed through the involvement of professional criticism. Unfortunately, the current practice is such that master craftsmen and art critics operate without any communication with one another. As a result, the master is on his own, relying exclusively on his personal experience and taste, while the critic often does with complementary, superficially-descriptive comments and articles, without going into the substance of issues. In the meantime, today some actively developing centres and types of crafts such as Rishtan ceramics, Surkhandarya embroidery, gold embroidery, lacquer miniature and others do require critical evaluation.
These are the main problems in the development of arts and crafts at the present stage. Some optimism comes from the fact that these are the problems of growth rather than decline. In one way or another, it all rests on administration, i.e. matters of managing the system that, in a sense, has gone out of control in the presence of a strong creative potential in the country, its wonderful traditions and favourable environment for development. In these circumstances, the only thing necessary is the coordinated action of all entities whom the future of applied arts depends upon: artists, critics, managers, sponsors and mass media.
Identifying and targeting locally relevant projects to revive traditional crafts should also be combined with the formulation of the arts and crafts development strategy: primarily, maintaining the balance between authentic form and the transformations introduced into the handicraft items by the market (the problem of “tradition and innovation”). There is no doubt that new products facilitate adaptation of traditions to the requirements of modern reality; however one must not forget about the canons, as “folk art asserts itself not through its novelty or the author’s originality in its individual expression, but through its universality, historicity, nationality and generic qualities of the collective” (M. Nekrasova).
Effectiveness of projects aimed at supporting and developing traditional crafts has an ultimate purpose: to meet the demand of consumers, the potential buyers of handicrafts wrought by folk masters. Whoever and however produces the handicraft items, the most important is to sell them on the market. Contemporary artistic process shows that handicraft items no longer remain the objects intended for museum collections: they gradually acquire functional value in our everyday life.
It should be noted that the main consumers of handicraft products are still mostly foreigners, as well as part of intelligentsia who are connected, in one way or another, with the world of traditional culture through their professional activity. This, naturally, has a certain advantage. Low consumption capacity of the local market encourages masters and their sales representatives to explore overseas markets and export handicraft items, primarily ceramics and textiles, to Kazakhstan, Russia and European countries, thus promoting not only their craft but also the culture of Uzbekistan in general. Nevertheless, stimulating domestic market is one global problem that requires solution that rests on essential PR, advertising and educating public taste.
Market has always been a sensitive indicator helping to monitor the processes of handicrafts development. Today the market for handicraft items has great demand for textiles (embroidery, rugs, fabrics, traditional costumes such as gold-embroidered robes, skullcaps, and the like) and ceramics, as well as modern hand-made items manufactured with the employment of traditional technology: handbags, purses, vanity bags, cases for sofa cushions with traditional hand embroidery or made of traditional handmade fabrics, designer clothing made of handmade textiles, and Margilan silk scarves. A new product that has become popular with the country’s artisans is batik – a kind of synthesis between traditional silk, mostly from Margilan, and designer painting.
The UNESCO Seal of Excellence Programme proposed six basic criteria to be met by contemporary handicraft products: high quality, innovation, environmental friendliness, meeting the market requirements and compliance with labour code.
Handicrafts have always been a reflection of the gender imbalance in the Muslim society: men worked in the market, while women took care of the family needs. Some crafts were exclusively men’s prerogative: ceramics, chasing, jewellery, textile manufacturing and tailoring in special workshops, gold embroidery, carving and painting on wood and plaster. Women’s crafts were mostly artistic textile: embroidery, carpet weaving and felting. Women also engaged in manufacturing low-value cotton textiles, as well as making inexpensive ceramics (toys, crockery). In the twentieth century the traditional lifestyle has changed completely. Women living in urban areas began to forget their handicraft skills, and women from the periphery remained the keepers of the handicraft traditions. A new radical change in the domain of traditional crafts followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Women began to actively re-engage in handicraft manufacturing, which was rather a compelled move. Economic collapse throughout the former USSR necessitated finding a new job. In a situation of economic instability turning to traditional crafts was a logical way out of crisis. There occurred a revolutionary change – craftswomen won the market.
Overall, women’s activity in handicraft industry is extremely high. This process is supported at the government level, by international foundations and women’s organizations called to help women to adapt to new economic environment. Its main objective is not only to raise women’s income and social status, but also to revive traditional art.
The future of traditional art ultimately depends on every one of us, its potential consumers. Handicraft items have an unquestionable cpacity to animate our mundane space and fill it with beauty. Owing to traditional applied arts contemporary culture retains its unique identity, so valuable in the age of globalization processes.