New Trends in the Embroidery of Uzbekistan

Issue #2 • 912

This publication builds on the situation analysis of contemporary handmade embroidery and develops the theses proposed in the A. Khakimov’s article («Sanat», № 1, 2012) addressing trends in contemporary applied arts and crafts of Uzbekistan in the context of innovation and authenticity.

Background. By the 1990s, the economics and aesthetics of traditional crafts in Uzbekistan were in post-traumatic condition: the XIX and early XX century embroidery traditions were lost; factory-made textiles, cotton or synthetic yarns were used everywhere. As a result, demand for craftsmen’s products plummeted, and embroidery was essentially downgraded to the level of low quality souvenir goods. Back in the early 1920s, the liquidation of private property and individual enterprise undermined the economic foundation of applied arts and crafts. Social status of master-craftsmen suffered accordingly, as they lost their natural economic support. Individual craftsmen selling their products were prosecuted by tax authorities for engaging in illegal enterprise.

At the time of independence and the revival of traditional arts and crafts, a major economic objective has become the restoration of private property and transition to a market economy. The President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov issued a number of government documents and decrees aimed at upholding the status of traditional master and supporting traditional crafts. Expert community – scientists, specialists, and art historians – has played an important role in restoring the high quality of the product. Masters themselves sensed there was a need for change. In the early 1990s, Uzbekistan, as an independent subject of international law, joined such reputable organizations as the UNO and UNESCO. Tashkent City opened its doors to embassies, diplomatic missions, international organizations, banks and foundations. Uzbekistan started seeing an increasing inflow of foreign tourists showing keen interest in the specimens of traditional arts, which influenced the product quality assessment criteria. Thus, the international factor has played an important role in restoring the former glory of craft centres and reviving old technologies and ornaments. The whole range of political, socioeconomic and proper aesthetic factors and phenomena has defined a new phase in the development of traditional arts and crafts: particularly, the metamorphoses in traditional Uzbek embroidery occurring at the present stage.

Presently, traditional embroidery has been either preserved or restored in almost all regions of Uzbekistan, even in Khorezm where the craft had not been common (now the Ichan-Kala complex in Khiva has a centre where young women-embroiderers create original items based on sketches drawn from the books on architectural ornamentation of the Middle and Near East). At the same time, contemporary embroidery has development in such a specific way that is largely determined by purely market-driven factors and needs, rather than former local specificities of art schools. Currently, there co-exist two trends or two groups creating embroideries. One that can be conditionally referred to as ‘innovative’ aims to export, responding to a broad market demand; it has strong ‘auteur’ initiatives. The other (‘authentic’) that evolved in the second half of the XX century is localized and limited to a small area (village, district) where people use embroidered items, adhering to local traditions.

It is indicative that ‘innovative’ specimens of contemporary handmade embroidery are presented at crafts fairs intended primarily for foreign buyers, which have been organized since the mid-1990s in Tashkent hotels “Markaziy”, “Dedeman”, “Intercontinental”, “Radisson”, etc., and since mid-2000s also at similar fairs (Art-Bazar) run by the “Forum” Foundation at the National Arts Centre. With all the technological and artistic specificities, items created by this group of artists have much in common: they are embroidered on white or yellow textile base in silk or semi-silk yarns, using the designs of Nurata, Bukhara or Shakhrisabz schools.

The other group of embroidery centres includes areas that preserved the former household function of embroidered items; these areas are usually limited to a village or a local district. These are almost all districts of SurkhandaryaProvince, most of the KashkadaryaProvince districts (except Shakhrisabz-Kitab area), and some areas in Jizzakh and SyrdaryaProvinces. This group may also include some areas of the FerganaValley, which have preserved home-made embroidery tradition limited to the local area. The difference between embroidered items produced by these two groups is in the quality parameters that determine their different marketability. Certainly, items wrought by the first group craftsmen aspiring to revive the best traditions of the XIX century embroidery have an advantage.

The present article focuses on the product of the ‘innovative’ model of contemporary Uzbek embroidery. In this context, the notion of ‘innovative’ is conventional, as it reflects the masters’ desire to resolutely abandon the former embroidery tradition devalued by the twentieth century reforms. On the other hand, it also has features that are not characteristic of the XIX century embroidery, such as explicitly individualized style, the use of motifs and ornaments of different schools in one item, and the abandoning of local tradition. For instance, the Tashkent masters, rather than revive the traditions of the local Tashkent school, follow the market trends and turn to the traditions of other famous schools of Uzbek embroidery.

Items in this trend of contemporary embroidery target international markets, showing strong tendencies to integrate ornamental traditions of different Uzbek embroidery schools, to liberally employ designs from contiguous regions, revive the XIX and early XX century technology, use natural dyes, homespun fabrics, etc. These are embroideries intended to be competitive on domestic and foreign markets. The centres are located primarily in Tashkent, in Bukhara and Samarqand Provinces – Bukhara, Shafirkan, Gijduvan, Nur-Ata, Urgut (with the nearby Gus village), centres in Shakhrisabz and Kitab covering nearby villages, centres in Fergana region – Andijan and Namangan, and finally, the aforementioned embroidery centre in Khiva.

The ‘innovative’ embroidery centers and masters. The first steps in creating a new model of contemporary embroidery, based on the revival of its finest traditions, were taken in Tashkent. The development was prompted by the familiarity of the local expert community (art critics, managers, and master-craftsmen) with the specimens and manufacturing technology of old suzane wall-rugs, as well as awareness of demand and high prices for these items abroad – in Turkey, the UK, Germany, etc. It was also taken into account that items created after 1950 were not marketable on either local or foreign market due to poor workmanship and the use of synthetic fabrics and dyes.

In 1992, the Tashkent Museum of Applied Arts created an art team led by Ilkhom Davletov. The team took to the restoration of technology and materials used in manufacturing old textiles before the arrival of artificial dyes and factory-made fabrics from Russia. In 1991, during his visit to Turkey, Davletov, rheumatologist by profession, ran into the old specimens of Uzbek embroidery, which excited great interest among foreign tourists. After this trip, he decided to revive the forgotten technology of Uzbek embroidery. In 1991-1992 he studied the situation with embroidery art in Shakhrisabz, Nurata, and Bukhara, and met with the craftswomen. Together with his spouse Zulfia Faizullaeva, a specialist in textiles, he began to study the stitching technique of old embroideries: the seams and stitches, the type of fabrics and yarns. In 1992, in the “Yodgorlik” factory in Margilan he helped restore the manufacturing of adras, silk, and coarse calico fabrics for making embroidery on, as well as of natural silk yarn.

The next challenge was the dyeing of yarn in natural pigments. The most important and rare component was indigo produced only in India. The pigment used to be brought here before the XX c., then the import stopped, and the blue-black print that used indigo dye in the ornamentation was forgotten. In 1992 Uzbekistan received the first shipment of indigo. Red pigment extracted from rooyan herb Davletov obtained in Iran. Yellow, brown and green pigments were produced from local plants: onion peels, pomegranate skin, walnut shells, etc.

In 1992, the Museum of Applied Art set up an embroidery team called “Ustoz-shogird” that mostly consisted of Davletov’s family members and invited craftswomen. Fabrics and yarns for the first embroidery specimens were brought from Margilan. To expand the production, workshops were organized in other traditional embroidery centres where the skill still survived. For instance, in 1993 Davletov created such group in Nur-Ata: there was an embroiderers’ family of Amina Sharapova and her sister. Today, owing to the implemented reforms, most of the Nurata embroiderers moved to embroidering on homespun fabrics using silk yarn dyed in natural pigments. The first output in the form of small-size items is successfully marketed to foreign tourists through the art shop at the Museum of Applied Arts.

Davletov continues to expand the production by engaging craftswomen from other regions working at home. He provides them with material – yarn and fabrics, and drafts the sketches of ornamental compositions he finds in the publications on the old Uzbek embroidery. In 1993 Davletov trained a group of craftswomen from Gijduvan. In 1994 he organized home-based workshops in Urgench, where his sister Sharofat Davletova guided the women-masters. In 1996 he set up a group of embroiderers in Pakhtachi District of Samarqand Province; in 1997 he did it in Shakhrisabz. In 2000, following his initiative, a group of embroiderers was organized at the “Yodgorlik” factory in Margilan. This is how the first network of the so-called “book” suzane emerged: women-masters created the items, following old technology and Uzbek embroidery designs drawn from the publications on the old Uzbek embroidery.

Today, many craftswomen from these groups no longer work, or work and sell their products independently (Shakhrisabz, Gijduvan, Nur-Ata, Shafirkan, etc.). Still, understanding market demand and the method of reviving the ancient technique of Uzbek embroidery introduced by I. Davletov have become a growing new trend. He began to increase the range of embroidered products. Currently, he and his family actively explore the use of embroidery in modern apparel and accessories. New managers and masters have arrived to develop Davletov’s methods. Among them is Ismat Mahdum who in early 2000 opened a workshop in Tashkent that employed women-embroiderers from Tashkent and provinces. Some masters have preferred working independently. Thus, since 2007 Madina Kasymbaeva has delivered an individual ‘auteur’ embroidery art of high professional standard. Craftswomen in the regional centres have experienced the market effect of this approach and started creating their own embroidery, following the “book” suzane methodology (Muhabbat Kuchkarova from Shafirkan, Feruza Amonova from Nur-Ata, Lutfulla Sadriddinov from Namangan, Kubaro Tuhtaeva from Urgut, the Narzulaev family from Gijduvan, Mavlyuda Khamdamov from the village of Gus, Yulduz Mamadiyorova from Shakhrisabz, and many others).

An important role in the process of renewing embroidery tradition in Uzbekistan was played by an exhibition project, “Heirs of the Silk Road”, organized in 1995 by the StuttgartLindenMuseum. The exhibition was held in several European countries and resulted in the publication of a catalogue showing selected specimens of Uzbek embroidery and presenting comprehensive analytical publications. Subsequently, the Museum organized an exhibition and sale of contemporary Uzbek embroideries. A particular commercial success came to large-size suzane rugs with a diamond-shaped medallion in the centre: pictures of the original specimens dating to the XIX century were published in the aforementioned catalogue. The experience of reproducing old suzane rugs was actively explored, and in the early 2000 such suzane were sold in large numbers at exhibition fairs in Tashkent and in the arts and crafts markets of Bukhara and Samarqand – the tourist centres of Uzbekistan.

Material and embroidery technique. Traditional hand-woven white matte fabric called buz or adras started being used as basis for making embroidery. Sometimes it was coloured in different shades of yellow and grey. For embroidery, mostly locally made silk yarn dyed in natural pigments was used; sometimes it was locally produced silk yarn treated in Turkey. The main stitching techniques are bosma and ilma, or needle and crochet, as well as a special technique called iroki, which is used primarily in Kitab-Shakhrisabz region. Also, there is a variety of the bosma technique. The specificity of embroidery made with a crochet is its filigree texture achieved through the painstaking and fine embroidery work. The technique is laborious and time-consuming, but these embroideries are in high demand.

This technique is employed by Madina Kasymbaeva from Tashkent, whose products experts evaluate as the highest quality in terms of technology and artistry. Feruza Amonova from Nur-Ata makes her pieces in the bosma (needle) technique, believing that crochet embroidery is inefficient – takes a lot of effort and consumes a lot of yarn. Buston Chorshanbieva from Shakhrisabz embroiders in the iroki technique that is typical for the region; she modernizes it with new methods of preparing embroidery designs: using a specially prepared glass, she applies the patterns on the surface of a white cloth and then makes the embroidery. The iroki technique is used to make a long longitudinal stitch, and then the thread line is kind of tied around with short transverse filaments. This lends a special texture to the embroidery surface.

Despite the different techniques, a common feature characteristic of all the embroideries is their fine and dense silk yarn stitching that gives compositions clear outlines, thorough finishing and immaculate texture. This is something that is missing in the ornamentation of the other group of contemporary Uzbek embroidery represented by masters from Kashkadarya and SurkhandaryaProvinces, where bosma stitching is the prevalent technique, and mainly cotton yarn coloured with aniline dyes is used. The texture of these embroideries often looks rough, and few items are thoroughly finished; masters predominantly use cotton textiles of red, brown, orange, green and deep-blue colours.

Ornamentation. Along with the colour palette, ornament is an important criterion to identify locality-specific features of embroidery. Here we have seen a new emerging trend. The arsenal of masters representing the ‘innovative’ embroidery group has a mixture of ornamental motifs and images from different schools of traditional XIX and early XX century embroidery of Uzbekistan. There is a range, too. Mixing styles and ornaments of different schools is more characteristic of those masters who do not come from a dynasty. They give preference to the ornamentation of elite specimens of Nurata, Shakhrisabz and Bukhara embroidery schools, which are in great demand in overseas markets. Standing out are pieces created by embroidery masters from Tashkent – represented by the artist teams led by I. Davletov, I. Mahdum, M. Kasymbaeva and designer L. Sadriddinov who works in Namangan. Their collection does not have the ornament of traditional Tashkent embroidery. Therefore, despite the fact that they are based in Tashkent, in terms of academic classification they can not be identified as masters of the Tashkent school of traditional embroidery.

Dynasty craftswomen from other regions – A. Sharapova, G. Oralova, F. Amonova from Nur-Ata, M. Kuchkarova from Shafirkan, B. Chorshanbieva and embroiderers from the artist team of Y. Mamadiyorova from Shakhrisabz, K. Tuhtaeva from Urgut, and M. Khamdamova from the village of Gus also employ the “book” suzane techniques and often turn to the ornamental motifs of other schools, while giving preference to the designs of local schools. Primary ornamental motifs include pomegranate, pepper or almond (bodom-gul), kordi-osh (kitchen knife), doira-gul rosettes, lola-gul tulip, and bush-like designs; a diamond shape is introduced to the central field (the experiment of I. Davletov to reproduce a suzane with a diamond-like medallion in the centre).

Colour palette. An important indicator of changes in the appearance of contemporary embroidery is the colour of textiles on which embroidery is made, as well as the colour of embroidery itself, which depends on the yarn. Modern embroidery of the first group is distinguished by one common feature: the predominant use of white or yellowish hand-woven fabrics: shoyi silks; semi-silk adras; buz or calico cottons. This was the beginning of the process of reviving old Uzbek embroidery. Later on, Davletov and his followers started dyeing the white textiles in different colours – deep-blue, red, green, brown, and then in black – to reproduce the fine embroidery of Lokai. But in general, this ‘innovative’ or “book” suzane group is known for its light colouring. In the meantime, to lend a “historical patina” to their embroideries, some craftswomen boil the white base fabric with pomegranate peels that give it a shade of grey. This technique is extensively used by Feruza Amonova, a master from Nurata.

As for the designs, “book” suzane masters embroider them mostly with silk yarn dyed in natural pigments that make them shiny and eye-catching. The colour palette of the embroidered designs is similar to that of the XIX and early XX century embroideries, with prevalent red, green, deep-blue, and yellow. Due to common colouristic and ornamental properties of the so-called “book” suzane it is difficult to identify who made a particular embroidery, as their universal features prevail.

There are some surprising innovations here, too. Since the end of 2011 the embroidery market started seeing suzane rugs with designs in deep-blue, which were first made by Feruza Amonova (Nur-Ata), and then became popular with other women-masters of the centre. The first items appeared in Samarqand at the beginning of April 2012 in the shops of the local branch of the “Hunarmand” Craftsmen Association. The same year in May, F. Amonova and G. Oralova from Nur-Ata were selling these blue and deep-blue embroideries at the arts and crafts fair running at the “Intercontinental” hotel in Tashkent. The design motifs – pomegranate flowers and fruits, almond fruits, pepper, and flower shoots – all retained their traditional shapes, but the only colours used were blue of different shades, and black for the outlines, which made these embroideries resemble traditional Uzbek blue-and-black indigo printed textiles. Red, yellow, and green colours typical for Nurata embroidery disappeared from these pieces, distinguishing them from traditional Uzbek embroidery. Feruza Amonova explained the arrival of the blue embroidery by an order from a foreign tourist who visited the 2011 traditional arts and crafts fair in Tashkent. According to the craftswomen, blue suzane are very popular among foreigners. The masters claim that yarn is coloured by the natural indigo dye; Davletov, however, believes that artificial dyes were used instead, as it is not cost-effective to embroider large items with indigo yarn only, and the masters would be unlikely to do it. Be it as it may, the arrival of these embroideries, including both small-size items such as table-cloths, and large suzane wall-rugs, perplexes art critics. Meanwhile, there is no way to stop the masters from introducing innovations prompted by market demand.

In summary, here are some of the outcomes of the relatively new processes in contemporary hand-made embroidery in Uzbekistan:

  1. Over the period of independence the country developed legal framework for private enterprise – the most important economic foundation of traditional arts and crafts, including embroidery.
  2. Today, two embroidery trends exist in Uzbekistan. One is to meet local consumer demand in a limited area – district or mahalla (this kind of embroidery is mostly found in Kashkadarya and SurkhandaryaProvinces); it maintains traditions of the second half of the XX century. The other, targeting a wider range of consumers, revives or reconstructs earlier traditions of Uzbek embroidery developed in its heyday in the XIX and early XX century. This other trend has emerged in response to market demand; quite pronounced is the personality of the artist who tends to become more of a designer guided by marketing principles.
  3. Local specificities in this group are somewhat levelled, which creates a kind of a pan-national embroidery school that has absorbed the peculiarities of ornamentation and techniques of different local schools from all over Uzbekistan.
  4. Masters pursuing the ‘innovative’ trend try to adapt to modern requirements by broadening the functional range of embroidery: along with household decorative items, notably suzane wall-rugs, they use embroidery to create apparel and accessories featuring a “nationwide” ornamentation.
  5. Sometimes, to respond to consumer tastes and preferences, masters come up with surprising solutions with no analogy in traditional Uzbek embroidery; artistic value of these items can be questioned (blue and deep-blue suzane by Nur-Ata masters).
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