In 2019, the British Council introduced the Crafting Futures programme to Central Asia. The programme began with a visit to Kazakhstan by British experts Peter Oakley (Royal College of Art) and Martin Quinn (Leicester University). On their initial visit, Dr. Oakley and Dr. Quinn met with craftspeople from Almaty, Shymkent and Turkestan to learn more about Kazakh national handicraft: not only its various design elements, but also how artisans crafted their products and made a living doing so. Aizhan Bekkulova, a prominent expert of handicraft arts and the intangible cultural heritage of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, prepared an itinerary and led the tour. Bekkulova has devoted the last 25 years of her life to the development of crafts in Kazakhstan. Since 2012, she serves as the chairman of the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan as well as the vice president of the Asia-Pacific division of the World Craft Council for Central Asia.
Thanks to Bekkulova, Dr. Oakley and Dr. Quinn were able to access the inner sanctums of every artisan – their workshops and studios. Over the course of several days, experts from Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom travelled to four cities and visited 14 workshops. They saw with their own eyes how artisans create unique products by hand, from traditional Kazakh musical instruments and ceramics to patchwork quilts and masterpieces of nomadic jewellery. Along with Bekkulova, so many of the best jewellers, wood carvers, potters, embroiderers and felt craftswomen have been doing a tremendous job over the years to preserve and revive folk arts and crafts in Kazakhstan.
In her youth, Bekkulova worked as a junior researcher. A little later, she radically changed her life’s direction and began working as a producer at the Kazakhfilm film studio. She amassed an impressive portfolio of projects with prominent Kazakh, Russian and Soviet film directors. Since the 1990s, Bekkulova has been spending her boundless energy on promoting the intangible heritage of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, and on reviving traditional handicraft.
In December 2019, Bekkulova was awarded the Kurmet Order (Order of Honour) and the National Tourism Award for her unprecedented contribution to the development of handicraft and the preservation of the intangible heritage of Kazakhstan.
This is the story of Aizhan Bekkulova, in her words.
My family always told me that my maternal grandfather was the best tailor of Alma-Ata. He had a large sewing workshop. By the time I was born, my grandfather had already unfortunately passed away. Mama said that my grandfather sewed nearly everything, from women's underwear to fur coats. Knitting, embroidery, and sewing were part of my family’s daily routine since childhood. Mama sewed blankets for our entire family, and we helped her with washing and pulling wool. I helped my mother to sew clothes with great pleasure. No matter how modest we lived, we always had new things for every holiday. And not just new, but special as well, with embroidery and garments made from the most beautiful fabrics. This is how, since childhood, my mother instilled in me interest and love for needlework. That is my family’s story.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
I always wanted to do something with my hands, and I wanted to do it on a serious, professional level. Since I was knitting and embroidering constantly, I did it well, and at a certain point I decided to enroll in the theatre and art institute. Before my studies commenced, I read several tapestry books, studying the art both in theory and in practice, so by the time I arrived I already knew how to weave tapestries. At first, I went to the institute just to learn some basics. I did not expect to become an artist. But when I arrived, I realised that tapestries are my calling. Painting is not for me, although I tried it. I can’t mix the paints and oils. When I weave, I combine different threads, seeing and feeling what colour will appear in the finished product. I do not feel this same intuition in painting.
When I started weaving tapestries, I discovered felt. Previously, felt was common; it was in almost every home. But in the city, felt tekemets* were no longer used. They have been replaced by factory-made carpets.
*Tekemet is a traditional Kazakh felt rug, usually decorated with ornaments
My interest in intangible cultural heritage awoke within me over time. I began to collect, read, seek out information. In the ‘90s, I created a series of dolls and made my first item out of felt. Back then it was not possible to get clean wool, as it is now, so I washed it myself. No one at that time respected felt at all. Artists and sculptors with whom I was acquainted considered applied art to be secondary, an afterthought.
Many seem to hold craftspeople in disdain. But without craft it is impossible to achieve success in any profession. Until you have mastered your craft, you cannot truly soar.
In the early ‘90s, we had an organisation called the Women's League of Creative Initiative. We believed that any profession could be creative if you were creative in your approach. We brought together women of completely different professions. The Soviet Union had collapsed, we were in a period of perestroika, there was hunger, a complete lack of provisions. During this period, it was necessary to do something – it was impossible to just vegetate.
In 1995, we held an exhibition at the Kasteyev Museum which has since become iconic. It was called Women: East and West. This was our first major event, and it marked the beginning of a very active period for our organisation. A bit later, men began to say: “Why don’t you include us in your projects?” So, we created the organisation Bridge. Bridge, as in a connection between Europe and Asia, between past and future, between generations and different cultures.
In 1999, at the advice of my sister, I opened my salon in my parents’ apartment and created an informal organisation: Women’s Hands. There, I helped craftswomen, giving suggestions about the design of their products, and so forth. This was all informal, just to help them begin to produce something.
Later I created the public organisation Our Heritage. At the time of creation, it had almost the same goals and objectives as the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan has today: the development of crafts throughout Kazakhstan. I began to travel a lot throughout the country.
Thus, since 1995, I have been supporting artisans at various levels and stages. In 2000, I also started conducting training.
In 2007, together with our partners — Chevron, Eurasia Foundation, and UNESCO, we held our first major craft conference. It was attended by more than 100 people from all over the country. Through extensive discussion, it became clear that artisans needed a professional organisation, their own creative union. I already had my own organisation at that time, but I thought maybe someone else would want to create a new alliance or association. But everyone was silent. It’s a risky business. What kind of prospects would such a union face? Would there be support? These were big questions.
When we gathered once again in Shymkent as Our Heritage, everyone said: we’re sorry, but there is nobody else to do this besides you. No one dared to take responsibility onto themselves. For that reason, in 2012, I registered an organisation – the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan. Now the Union has eight representative offices in the regional centres of our Republic.
Over the years, we have taken our exhibitions on the road with us all over Kazakhstan, Russia, Germany, China, India, the USA, and other countries of the world. Our masters participate in many fairs and festivals.
The main benefit that artisans receive when joining the Union is becoming part of a community. Everyone makes a contribution; only together can we accomplish something meaningful. One person attended a festival in America, yet another went to Turkey, someone else’s works were featured in a catalog, I made postcards for others, someone received a video film, and another individual took part in training.
It is now obvious what activities the Union should engage in. But at the time of its creation it was not, and we had no competitors. It is only now that we have changed the situation and the attitude of society and the state in relation to us. Before, everything was different.
Too many bureaucrats have thought: Why does one need handicraft, if it is not in demand? After all, it’s cheaper and easier to buy, say, a manufactured coat, especially in our time. Now, our world is filled with overabundance and overproduction — and this will get even worse further down the road. But when you pick up a well-crafted handmade product and a counterpart made in a factory, the sensations you feel will be different. The two items have a completely different energy.
When we decide where to dine, we choose a Georgian or Italian restaurant. We strive to choose a place where we can experience a certain cultural aesthetic, because in this way we will learn a little more about the world, and this carries some kind of emotional charge. We choose Viennese coffee, because we understand that this is something special that carries both a special meaning as well as a special taste. It’s the same with things: when we finally have had enough of factory-made assembly line stuff, the desire strikes us to be individual — to stand out from the crowd a bit. Most products are 60-70% manual labour. And this is energy: a person who crafts with his hands cannot be irritated or in a bad mood. When I start to work with felt, even if I’m exhausted, I calm down within five minutes, because otherwise I would not be able to continue. A master should be emotionally free and happy. This happiness is transmitted to his products.
The fact that we all wear the same suits represents the sameness of our mindsets. For me personally, the popularity of a thing does not cause me to feel more positively towards it. I do not buy suits in sets with predetermined pairs of tops and bottoms. For me this is boring, even if the suits are made by a major company, because I myself did not think of that pairing. I have to add some element of my own. This applies not only to clothing; if everything in my house is standard issue, then nothing in my home will impart any emotional energy.
I am glad that many people now want to hang kiiz* in their home. They are now in demand, because when a person looks at one, they feel its energy. If, as soon as you wake up, you stand, barefoot, on a felt carpet, you will have a completely different outlook on your whole day. All this is energy.
*Kiiz is a traditional Kazakh embroidered wall hanging
What makes us interesting in the eyes of the world? Oil came, and oil will go. We humans can be interesting only for our uniqueness, for our authenticity.
For example, we are delighted with how Dimash Kudaibergen sang, yes, but also by the fact that he sang Kazakh songs in New York, thereby introducing the world to our music. We frequently feel this way when big, important concerts are held — we have to prove that we are not monkeys and that we can even play Oginsky’s Polonaise. But in fact, there are other things that make us interesting to the world — for example, the traditional singing of our zhyrshy. This is something completely different, this is our national code. And in order for the zhyrshys or our Dimash to successfully play the dombra, the dombra must be well-made, so it sounds good.
Or take carpets: they are produced all over the world. In Iran, in Tabriz alone, more than 800,000 people are engaged in carpet weaving. Turkmens have multiple different schools of carpet weaving, and they weave chic rugs. The Kyrgyz have also revived their carpet weaving. Bukharians, Samarkandis, Indians, Chinese, Azerbaijanis – it would seem, with such an abundance of carpets, who needs ours? Our carpets are the simplest: they are not dense, neither are they rich in colours. Often, half a rug is painted in one colour and the other half in another. Kazakh rugs are very different from all these other professional schools. But they are needed if only because I personally hold our Kazakh carpets dear. They have uneven colouring, they are much thicker, but this is because they were traditionally woven quickly, so that they could be finished before our nomad ancestors made their next move. This is one of the main reasons why the Kazakh carpet’s production is so “fast”. In addition, they were not made for a market. They were always made for a particular family or for the craftperson themselves. This is their value – this carpet was made by your grandmother, mother, or you, and therefore it carries your family code.
Kazakh carpets have principles and canons: there should be a centre field, there should be a border, there should be colourful accents along the edge of the carpet (called ala zhip) symbolising protection and a protective amulet — they should enclose the carpet along the edge to protect its interior.
In Uzbekistan, you can go to the bazaar and buy an already-drawn pattern or stencil. But here, the craftswoman sits and creates the drawing herself — and this, it seems to me, is closer to art. People who are free and think outside the box have this need for self-expression.
If we do not turn to folk art, then we will wander in circles, always assuming that we have just discovered something new. People have already discovered and created a great many things. We need to preserve past creations and lift them to a higher level.