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Art & Crafts

 

The Kazakh homeland and the hard but free way of life on its vast steppe have always been the fundamental subject for all forms of Kazakh art. For many centuries the art of steppe nomads and sedentary farmers and craftsmen was by and large functional in some way. It consisted of adornment, symbols of tribal adherence on implements such as clothing, carpets, yurts, horse bridles, furniture and tools, a constant accompaniment to daily life and popular festivities, serving to pass on knowledge and experience.

The separation of art and life's daily routine took place relatively recently, in the middle of the 19th Century. At this point, written Kazakh literature took shape, followed by Kazakh theatre, and soon schools of fine art and musical academies began to appear (music and story-telling through the spoken word had become embedded in nomadic culture centuries earlier). In all these artistic sectors, Kazakhstan has produced masters of the first rank within a relatively short period of time.

Kazakhs are also rediscovering their identity through contemporary art, which has gone through a rapid process of catching up with international trends such as performance and video art and installations. Wacky Rustam Khalfin is probably the leading avant-garde creator. The film Kazakhstan Swings (www.zczfilms.com) documents some of the wilder excesses of this movement. Meanwhile painters and graphic artists are producing lot of bright and very attractive work – check Almaty’s Tengri Umai gallery.

In pre-Soviet times the Kazakhs developed high skills in the crafts associated with nomadic life – brightly woven carpets and wall hangings for yurts, jewellery, ornate horse tackle and weaponry, and splendid costumes for special occasions. You can admire these in almost any museum in the country.

Hardly a single visitor leaves Kazakhstan without a felt, woven or sewn carpet, a saddle bottle, a horsewhip or a piece of white silver jewellery embellished with semiprecious stones. Many a tourist has already taken a dombra or a beautifully carved box home, while the number of travellers who have received a shapan (coat), kamsol or kalpak from a generous host must number in the thousands.

Traditionally, any object of utility is always adorned and decorated. Even if today this custom is practised mostly for the sake of tourism, and national clothing is only seen at festivals, the applied arts are still passed on to future generations. A good example of the will to maintain this cultural connection with the past is the "arts village" of Sheber Aul near Almaty, where fine-arts masters publicly display their workmanship as artisans, and teach apprentices eager to carry on the tradition. Walk round Almaty's galleries and you will find plenty of-mostly-tasteful crafts.

With the revival and strengthening of national consciousness, there has been a visible shift towards applied arts, which is oriented more towards traditional national culture and history. Elements of Sak rock paintings and ornamentation developed by the Turkic peoples have been taken up and synthesised with modern styles. Examples of this are fashion design and jewellery. In studios which have since become internationally known, fashion designer Balnur Asanova, jeweller Serzhan Bazhirov and the tapestry artist Aizhan Turbayeva in Almaty, all produce extravagant but eminently wearable clothing, jewellery or art worthy of great appreciation. Travellers who want to take home an exotic souvenir may strike it lucky if they take the time to see what's on offer.


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