National Traditions in the Karakalpakstan Sculpture

Issue #2 • 1426

Tamara Urazimova,
Art Critic

Every generation of people, undoubtedly, dwells on the culture created by their predecessors.  The sculpture of Karakalpakstan, in the first place, represents a certain world view aspect and the language of artistic expression that reflect the nation’s own perception of things happening in the world around.  It is characterized by monumentality and artistic diversity, including a tendency toward generalization and an aspiration for deep content.  These key aspects can be found in the works of renowned Karakalpak sculptors such as J. Kuttymuratov, D. Toreniyazov A. Atabaev, D. Tajimuratov, and A. Seitimbetov.

The Karakalpakstan sculpture is typified by objective art akin to applied arts and crafts, particularly woodcarving. This shows in the works by Toreniyazov, such as “Bird” (1967), “The Sirin Bird” (1971), “Fantasy-Bird” (1971), and numerous masks by Atabaev. Departure from nature-like depiction makes the sculpture pieces more universal, not encumbered by particulars.
Sculpture in Karakalpakstan began to evolve in the early 1960s, the years marked by searching for themes, subjects, the national type, and means of plastic expression at the same time. Right from the start, sculptors began to develop their own technique, signature style and voice in applied art founded in traditions with their festive colourfulness and rational practical utility. Masters find the subject for their works is in folklore imagery and characters.
The sculpture art of Karakalpakstan naturally develops both the constructivism of a yurt and household items, and sculpturally expressive shapes of musical instruments and jewellery, where the laws of artistic harmony, imaginative outlines, ornamentation and colour have been respected and honoured for centuries. Therefore, aesthetic notions and the method of morphogenesis, having changed little over time, naturally and holistically blended with the new art form previously unknown in Karakalpakstan.
Centuries-old national traditions also had an immediate influence on the ethical and aesthetic perceptions of the nation, which evolved in the process of historical development. The original element that unites them is the pronounced plasticity in modern sculpture style, the indoor quality of works, the inner balance in the character set, the structural plasticity of shapes, the restrained integrity of rhythms, as well as generalized image and character. A special role belongs to the nation-specific interpretation of the life-drawn material, which affects plastic solutions, technique, and manner. In search of expression Karakalpak sculptors turned not only to woodcarving, but also to the embroidery, carpet weaving, folk poetry, and, most importantly, to the rich folklore strata.
Reference to the national traditions in the Karakalpakstan sculpture is two-sided. First, it is the direct employment of selected applied art motifs – for instance, portraying an ornament by cutting or inserting, imitation of jewellery on the attire and the like (“The Big Bride” (1965-1967), and “Olma” (1966) by J. Kuttymuratov), as well as plastic solution of the characters. Turning to the applied arts of the Karakalpak, sculptors developed their own individual language of expression. Generalized interpretation of characters, unique soft plasticity defined by the texture and specificity of wood – the primary material used, volume structuring, and light and shade modelling have become characteristic of their works. Second, it is the artists’ reference to the Karakalpak oral tradition, which results in the search for the national hero type that would be in harmony with the characters of numerous epic tales and dastan (“Forty Maidens”, “Alpamys” etc.). Besides, one should note a peculiar regularity in art introduced by smoothly flowing Karakalpak melodies (“Sprout” (Kuttymuratov, 1970), “The Old Man in a Big Shugurma” (Toreniyazov, 1975), “Bride” (Atabaev, 1979)). Noteworthy is the sculptors’ special attitude to space as a morphogenetic factor that lends a composition its volume and suggestiveness. Hence, perhaps, that philosophically generalized image that is associatively perceived internally rather than externally.
Any outward expression or energetic movement is alien to the Karakalpakstan sculpture: it tends to be abstract, seeking to convey evolution in time and space. The masters’ works share the features of broad image generalization interpreted in the context of history. The most typical ones are the highly expressive silhouette and its relative sufficiency with the seemingly frozen forms. This is particularly evident in different masks created by Atabaev. Interestingly, once the point of view is changed the expression of the silhouette changes, too.
Silhouette in sculpture is closely linked with decorativeness, where the special role is given to the traditional design, the use of which in sculpture is not confined to the ornamentation alone. It does indeed function as ornamentation, like any design on the surface of an applied arts object; and besides, due to the specific distinctions of sculpture from applied arts, an ornament becomes an active component contributing to highlight plasticity, rhythm, expression and content of sculptural forms. We use the term ‘ornament’ for want of a more accurate definition, although in many cases it appears as a series of expressive lines drawn on the surface of the sculpture without following any particular regularity of structuring a design. In the Karakalpakstan sculpture the role of an ornament is to highlight the national peculiarity. Ornament can also resort to metaphor that tends to represent man’s notion of nature and harmony with it, and of the natural freedom, which essentially suggests moral and ethical ideal. Quest for expressive techniques and synthesis of different categories have brought about interesting results in the Karakalpakstan sculpture, where psychology of a character goes side by side with decorativeness, ethnography is combined with symbolism, and realism – with allegory.
Specific understanding of nature and the observation of its morphogenesis have also influenced the structuring of a plastic shape that is close to the natural one. Sculpture in Karakalpakstan emerged as a kind of organic structure, having absorbed the patterns of its rhythm and proportions of whole and part. Wood and stone came as a natural material to create characters suggested by nature and epic tales. With a long history of using wood in their nomadic life, the Karakalpak people developed their own woodworking techniques based on an understanding of its natural beauty and ornamental properties. Working on a piece, artists keep the organic structure of a tree, its trunk and branches. Sculptors relate the development of a form to the multidimensional understanding of its national character and the manifestation of spiritual essence of a contemporary man. While preserving the natural qualities of wood – its weight and density, suppleness and firmness, a master humanizes them, lending his character a plastic movement of a human hand and its warmth. Sculptors never polish the wood surface completely. Evenly cleaned smoothly curving parts of the material are sometimes combined with semi-treated ones. Preserving the natural beauty of wood and its decorativeness, masters skilfully emphasize its noble matt sheen, golden shade and intricate texture.
Continuity of traditions is reborn in the understanding of the universe, in man’s relation to the outside world and perception of its forms and structural specificity that constitutes one of the aspects of the nation’s artistic mind. There is a peculiar synthesis of a round sculpture and the popular understanding of beauty in the works by Kuttymuratov. Sculptures wrought by Toreniyazov, Tadjimuratov and Seytimbetov keep the origins of traditional woodcarving art and architectonics of a yurt. The art of Atabaev is known for the similarity of his form, volume and rhythm to the eastern (particularly Central Asian) motifs in traditional sculpture. Whereas the works by Kuttymuratov, Toreniyazov and Tadjimuratov are characterized by inherent softness, roundness and smoothness of shapes, volume and rhythm, the plastic art of Atabaev stands out for a clearer, sometimes edgy and somewhat constructivist rhythm, while featuring an element of monumentality inherent in indoor sculpture.
A person’s spiritual self-cognition and one’s linkages to history and modernity are the fundamental qualities in the art of the Karakalpakstan sculptors, which has no declared agenda. Free and independent in their quest, masters have greater responsibility for their choices and delivery. Themes and characters for their works they find in the tales, songs and legends of the Karakalpak people. Such are the ornamental masks created by Atabaev, symbolically interpreted image of nature in the works of Kuttymuratov, folklore characters of Toreniyazov and akin to them yet more “contemporary” interpretations of Tajimuratov. The works of the Karakalpak masters have distinctly simple solutions yet high inner intensity at once. At that the masters give preference to more “balanced” options that combine the clarity of sculptural forms and the environment.

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