Metamorphoses in the Ceramics of Uzbekistan: Individuality and Tradition

Issue #3 • 2550

The objective of this article is to describe the art practiced by contemporary ceramists of Uzbekistan in terms of balance between traditions and innovations they introduce individually to their products.

Ceramic is one of the most ancient artistic craft in Uzbekistan. As for its manufacturing technique, it is divided into glazed and unglazed.

The most conservative type of manufacturing that preserved authentic technological and artistic techniques is unglazed ceramics. Today it is represented by large-size utensils used by rural population in their households. Among these items are hums, tandyr ovens, and jars made in selected centres across Uzbekistan.

One of these few places is Kasbi – a centre known from the past for its unglazed and glazed ceramics. The place is home to the Ochilovs – a successful dynasty of ceramics; their industry is based in three or four houses located along the road. One can stop by, visit their place, and order or buy an item one likes. Not many of such workshops survived, where potters uphold ancient traditions, since the demand for household goods is met by cheaper and longer-lasting commercial products made of metal and plastic, whereas here tradition is preserved in its authentic form. Changes in technology and shape are minimal, and decorative ornamentation can hardly be found. Demand for these items comes only from the local population. Summer season is the best time to sell hum – large pots for keeping food and water, and oftoba water jugs; guldona flower vases sell better in spring; while the most popular tandyr ovens for baking bread are in demand all year round.

Certainly, unglazed ceramics intended for exhibitions or gifts is created by renowned ceramists, too, but such instances are rare.

One example is the art of a Samarqand master Sharif Asimov (born in 1954), one of the students of the famous master Umar Jurakulov. He creates expressive, mostly elongated unglazed ceramics, such as large hum pots, vases, pitchers, etc., which represent unique and artful pieces of pottery. Unglazed items are manufactured by almost all ceramists in Rishtan, Gijduvan, Khiva, Tashkent and other pottery centres; however, many of them focus primarily on glazed ceramics. Only Sharif Asimov makes the manufacturing of unglazed ceramics a self-sufficient creative pursuit, still using all traditional tools and techniques of the process technology; he introduces his own solutions in ornamentation only. This goes for both shapes, and ornamental designs – the latter are mostly engraved or stamped, always naturally fitting the shape of the item. Once in a while Asimov uses glaze, too, covering his jars and vases with expressive colour spots.

Painted clay toys also belong to unglazed ceramics. However, as we discovered during our field trip to Uba village in spring 2012, the place has essentially lost its ancient tradition of making clay whistle-toys – it disappeared with Jabbor Rakhimov (the son of Hamro-bibi Rakhimova) who passed away, leaving no apprentices behind. Kubaro Babaeva, the only toy-maker in Uba, having abandoned clay as material for toys, switched to making large sculptural gypsum figures with the help of kalyb moulds, which has devalued the old tradition and resulted in kitsch. Earlier, disappeared the famous Kasbi toy shaped as a bird or animal on wheels, which used to be made by Ambar-opa Sattarova. Today, toys are made by masters in other centres: the Narzullaev family in Gijduvan, and the Muhtarovs in Samarqand.

Traditions of the Samarqand terracotta toy are continued by the woman-master Dilorom Mukhtarova (b. 1967) who learned the craft from her father-in-law – a renowned master Abdurakhim Mukhtarov, the founder of the Samarqand school of terracotta toys established in 1960s. In 1980s and 1990s, Mukhtarov’s sons, Zarif and Islam, rather enthusiastically created fairy-tale dragons and folklore characters, but today only Dilorom Mukhtarova makes terracotta compositions inspired by folklore themes. She makes more than a hundred kinds of clay toys, introducing different zoomorphic shapes and fabulous creatures, as well as fairy-tale and folklore characters into her compositions. The master sources her raw material locally, also adding fatty clay. She puts the mix in a special gypsum basin and soaks it in water. Gypsum absorbs excess moisture, giving the mix the right consistency; then the mix is homogenized (kneaded) and placed in a plastic bag to keep it from drying. Clay thus prepared is used by Mukhtarova to model her figurines, which she then bakes in a kiln at the temperature of 1000 degrees centigrade. For finishing, she uses traditional toolkit: modelling stick, spatula, knife, tube, and brushes of different sizes.

Since 2012, Firdaus Yusupov, the son of the Rishtan master Sh. Yusupov, has been making unpainted terracotta toys. His fairy-tale characters, 10-15 cm high, resemble large-size fantasy images (20-40 cm) embodied in the toys created by the Ura-Tube master Gafur Khalilov at the end of the 20th century – those were covered by lime paint in white, red, and blue colours. However, the Rishtan experience of reproducing toys that originate from other centres essentially represents a form of a professional auteur approach.

In terms of artistic solutions, the most interesting is glazed ceramics, with its complex historical evolution and continued existence in the pieces wrought by masters from Gijduvan, Urgut, Rishtan, Andijan, Denau, Khiva, and Tashkent. The problem of tradition and innovation is most relevant here. Changing social environment has, naturally, transformed traditional crafts in Uzbekistan, including ceramics. Transition from utilitarian domain to souvenir production, which began in the mid-twentieth century, continued into the new millennium. Many traditional forms are gone, while lagan platter is still popular, offering plenty of space for ornamentation and retaining its utilitarian function. At the same time, we can observe an experimental searching for new ornamental solutions.

Main glazed ceramics schools in Uzbekistan evolved in the XIX century. In terms of ornamentation style, modelling and technological features one can identify three major schools: Northeastern (Fergana); Central (Bukhara-Samarqand); and Southwestern (Khorezm). Depending on glaze, the products of these schools differ in colour. Blue ceramics represents Fergana and Khorezm schools that use alkaline ishkor glazing. Bukhara-Samarqand centres are known for their yellow-brown ceramics and more extensive use of lead glaze. As early as in the middle of the twentieth century, in the markets of Samarqand, Shakhrisabz, Kattakurgan, Rishtan, Kokand, Jizak, Khiva, and Urgench one could buy different kinds of glazed ceramic crockery or painted clay whistle-toys.

Towards the end of the 1960s, as an overall trend, unique centres of traditional ceramics began to disappear – largely for socio-economic reasons. Unfortunately, to date, the tradition of Samarqand, Kattakurgan, Shakhrisabz, Kitab, Denau, and Tashkent ceramics has been mostly lost: some centres no longer function, and only rare museum exhibits evidence the advanced development of this industry in the past. In the 1960s-1980s, not only did the market for traditional ceramics shrink, but also the number of potters staying in operating went down significantly. Many famous masters passed away, while others, failing to find students or support themselves economically, abandoned the now unprofitable trade. Products of traditional craft could not compete with the mass production of porcelain, metal or plastic items.

Essentially, by mid 1970s and 1980s, traditional ceramics of Samarqand (U. Jurakulov, S. Rakova, A. Mukhtarov) and Tashkent (M. Rakhimov) was completely reinvented. An entirely new Samarqand school of small-form terracotta modelling emerged. The establishment of the Tashkent experimental arts-and-crafts factory (since 1984 named after M. Rakhimov) that produced experimental and unique items in small numbers and became the centre for new monumental architectural and landscape ceramic, has fail to provide basis for further consistent development of the traditional Tashkent pottery craft.

With the attainment of independence the situation with glazed ceramics began to change in a positive way. Government resolutions elevated the status of traditional craftsman, and a number of Uzbekistan’s ceramists received the title of Academician of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan. Among them are: master from Tashkent Akbar Rakhimov; from Rishtan – Sharafiddin Yusupov; from Gijduvan – Alisher Narzullaev; from Samarqand – Sharif Azimov.

However, for various reasons, a number of once famous centres of traditional glazed ceramics could not be saved. For instance, today it is practically impossible to restore the traditions of Shakhrisabz ceramics. Rustam Muzafarov, the seventh generation ceramist from Shakhrisabz, is learning the trade, but his products yield in quality to the traditional products of this centre. With the demise of Umar Jurakulov, Samarqand glazed ceramics also became forgotten, while the newly created school of Samarqand terracotta toys is a completely different art – though inspired by folk tales, it is based on individual author’s ideas. In Denau the situation is lamentable: master Zuhur Rasulov still works there, but he is of a venerable age, with no students or followers of his trade. The tradition of Baysun glazed ceramics could not be adequately revived either, although UNESCO Office in Uzbekistan put a major effort to this end: workshop and kiln of the local craftsmanI. Eshankulov were restored, and his grandson was trained, supported by grant funds; however, the project did not develop any further.

Andijan is better off: ceramist Mirzabahrom Abduvakhabov continues to work there. In recent years, there have been many followers of the Rishtan ceramics traditions, but the technology and ornamental aesthetics of their products is wanting. There are several masters who work productively, while maintaining the high traditions of the Rishtan ceramics; among them are Sharofiddin Yusupov and Bakhtiyor Nazirov. The Gurumsarai ceramics tradition is consistently developed by Vahobjon Buvaev, student of the famous master Masud Turapov. Generational change has been relatively painless in Gijduvan and Urgut. In Gizhduvan, the traditional craft of Ibodulo Narzullaev has been taken up by his sons Alisher and Abdullo. In Urgut, the pottery art of Makhkam Ablakulov is developed by his son Nu’mon Ablakulov. In Khiva, local ceramics tradition is carried on by the children of Khiva’s famous potters: Odilbek Matchanov from Madyr village, and Bakhodir Atadjanov from neighboring Kattabag.

Theses master and centres represent a contemporary trend that can be called authentic, that is, retaining the features of a local school, its technology and ornamentation. It is characteristic that all of them are dynasty masters trained only in the framework of usto-shogird [master-to-student] system (except Firdaus, the son Sharafiddin Yusupov, who holds a graduate degree in art, and the author’s origin comes to the fore in his works). In this instance, renewal is evolutionary: technological traditions remain unchanged (clay, tools, treatment methods, pigments, glaze, etc.), while ornamentation becomes different. Yet, again, the renewal is not driven by the introduction of completely new motifs (which is rare), but rather by a new combination of already known designs, traditional for the particular school or centre.

An innovative trend in contemporary glazed ceramics is represented by the Tashkent masters Akbar Rakhimov and his son Alisher Rakhimov, who continue traditions started by Mukhit Rakhimov, the founder of the style. In the early 1960s, M. Rakhimov, who engaged in the restoration of ancient Kushan ceramics (I-II cc. AD) and glazed ceramics of Afrasiab (IX-XI cc.), created new exhibition items, based on the reconstruction of the old specimens. This tradition set the foundation for his subsequent work, when the author started making his own rendition of ceramic specimens dating to other historical periods. For instance, Temurid ceramics was used as an object of his creative interpretation. Later on, this trend was continued and enriched in the art of his son Akbar and grandson Alisher Rakhimovs, who combined traditional technology with new ornamental experiments. Innovation is also pursued by the young ceramist from Bukhara Abduvakhid Karimov who restores the traditions of Afrasiab deep- and light-blue ceramics of the XVII century Bukhara and presents them as auteur items. These masters follow traditional technology, while introducing author’s innovations into design, and using ornamental elements of different historical periods with greater liberty. Notably, all of them have a university degree in ceramics and are, in fact, professional artists.

Thus, in terms of retaining authentic elements in ceramics and the emergence of innovative trends and inquiries, the situation with glazed ceramics in Uzbekistan is similar to the one with embroidery. One can also identify two trends here. The first one is traditional glazed ceramics originating primarily from local traditions of local schools and centres – it includes items created by masters from Rishtan, Andijan, Gurumsarai, Urgut, Gijduvan, and Khiva. These masters remain true to traditional techniques and forms, while innovations mainly concern different interpretation of selected ornamental elements and item shapes. In the regions, local tradition has greater import, and traditions develop evolutionarily. The art of some Rishtan masters may appear more dynamic as they bring innovations into their designs more boldly (Rustam Usmanov, Firdaus Yusupov, Alisher and Bakhtiar Nazirovs), yet it stays in the mainstream of the Rishtan ceramics traditions.

The second trend is innovative items, in which the artist’s individually and initiative are more manifest; there is a greater range of techniques and ornamental designs not associated with a particular local tradition. This trend is represented by the earlier mentioned names: Akbar and Alisher Rakhimovs from Tashkent, and Abduvahid Karimov from Bukhara.

As Uzbek ceramics adapts to the market environment, there are many points that cause concern. Looking for market, many masters adjust to the unsophisticated tastes of tourists, which often results in the loss of fundamental traditions and specificities of style. Equally complex problem is the apprenticeship. The old usto-shogird system has now become simplified and distorted. While formerly, a master would accept students, bring them up to a certain level of skill, examine and give his blessing as a kind of training certificate, nowadays, regrettably, this practice does not exist anymore. Without an opportunity to study longer, a young master, having gone through accelerated two- or three-months training, starts selling artistically poor product in the market. It results in a situation, when market corrupts the traditional system of training skilled ceramists, leading to a decline in the overall quality of ceramics manufactured in a famed centre. Leading masters making high-quality items, try to sell them at a price that matches quality, while their students offer their products cheaply. Line products have flooded shops, galleries, and markets in the tourist centres of Bukhara, Samarqand and Tashkent. The younger generation of ceramists, on the one hand, being guided by the market and their customer, seek to set up an accelerated – thus lower quality – production, while being aware of the need to follow the original traditions, on the other.

Today, an issue most relevant for the development of ceramics in Uzbekistan is the preservation of its uniqueness, original ornamentation and purity of designs and imagery. Despite the art- and organization-related problems, positive developments that have taken place since independence are apparent. A traditional ceramist-master enjoys higher social status; interest in the traditions of ceramics in Uzbekistan and beyond has grown markedly; many artists have travelled to other countries for field work and research, and started holding their solo exhibitions abroad.

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