Archive for Central Asia

What’s in a Vowel? Why We Should Care about Huns and Hans in Western China

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

Uighur silk textile fragment, Xinjiang, 10th-11th century (photo courtesy One Central Asia)

In hosting the Olympic Games, China has once again opened the proverbial kimono for inspection by the outside world, offering us a rare opportunity to gain insight into a country in the process of becoming a dominant world power. Harmony is an ancient component of the Chinese identity. Paradoxically, separatist conflict percolates throughout present-day China.

The Chinese “occupation” of Tibet has been well publicized for years, in part because the Dali Lama is able to travel and educate the world. Another, less publicized, ethnic conflict pits the minority Uighurs (pr: WEE-ger) against the majority Han Chinese in the far western province of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Uighur’s historic homeland. The conflict has simmered for centuries. It became an international news item in the beginning of August, when 16 Chinese paramilitary police officers were killed in Kashgar, alledgely by Uighur “terrorists” under the supervision of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  A string of “incidents” have been reported since then; many say the Chinese government is inflating the group’s importance, as an excuse to tighten control over the beleaguered peoples. 

Why should those of us who live half a world away care about the Uighurs, a poor and historically nomadic people? Their beautiful textile tradition is reason enough for me, the artist. The map below suggests a more compelling reason for the rest of us.

Xinjiang sits in already volatile region, which includes the sovereign nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. The well-documented conflict over Kashmir rages still after 50 years, the danger to the world heightened by Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities.  In Afghanistan, each superpower in turn has painfully relearned the difficulties of containment in a land of porous borders.  As part of the ancient Turkic (i.e. Hun) tribes that migrated over centuries from Mongolia to Central Asia, the Uighurs spill over Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We should know from history that tribal loyalties and animosities do not necessarily respect artificially-drawn national borders, so a conflict in Xinjiang eventually ripples outward.

Further, the march to modernization in this area necessitates that all these countries meld numerous tribal identities (not to mention Russians and Chinese) into singular national identities. Tricky business in places where tribal loyalties die slowly. Forcing “harmony,” while disenfranchising the native population, is certainly flirting with danger.

Xinjiang is an energy paradise—lots of sun, wind and, yes, oil. Something on the order of 60% of the province’s GNP is derived from oil and natural gas production. And this of course is the reason the rest of the world should really care about the Huns and the Hans in Western China.   

Need more?

Textiles in Oil Rich Countries

Analysis: August Incidents in Xinjiang

Der Spiegel on events in Xinjiang

Tarim Mummies

Fantastic grassland in Xinjiang province

Short history of the Huns

Uighurs—A Dying Race

High Noon in China’s Far West

Tomorrow’s Headlines?: Oil & Textiles in Daghestan

Posted in Book Review, Central Asia, Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2008 by Liz Hager

Kaitag Embroidery, Daghestan, 18th century, silk thread on cotton (photo courtesy Mehmet Çetinkaya Gallery)

I’m on a Central Asia kick these days and reading some first-rate contemporary “travel” writers who follow in the great 19th-century tradition of Westerners to the East.  Last month, I dove into another of Robert Kaplan’s always-rewarding books; his latest, Eastward to Tartary (Tartary being the Victorian identification of the Turkic lands east of the Caspian to the River Oxus, now the Amu Darya, and the longest river in Central Asia). It’s limiting to categorize Kaplan as a travel writer.   His insightful “reporting” on a variety of current events provoked by his travels belies the incredible historical and political education one gets as his reader.

On the surface, Tartary is the account of Kaplan’s 1998 journey throughthe many lands of the  Byzantium and, later, the Ottoman Empire. We know them as the former Soviet bloc countries—e.g. Hungary, Bulgaria, etc.—and Central Asian republics (the “stans”), as well as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel).  The book is anything but superficial. It is an eye-opening discourse on potential flashpoints across the region, where tribal peoples struggle to modernize into nation-states in the face of ancient animosities and a deficit of leadership. Until recently these places received little attention, but given their natural resources (we’re talking oil & gas here), their future might be, as Kaplan notes, “tomorrow’s news.”   This prescient observation, noted while the author was in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is worth quoting in its entirety:

“From what I learned over the next two weeks, I was left with the queasy apprehension that what Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century; an explosive region that draws in the Great Powers.” 

And this statement near the end of the book had me rechecking the copyright on the book (it is 2000); to my mind it couldn’t have summed up our problem in Iraq any better:

“While there is no hatred so ingrained that it cannot be sedated by prosperity (as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once told me), the building of a middle class from a nation of peasants requires strong and wily leadership more than it may require elections.”

So, what does all of this have to do with embroidered panels from Daghestan? Maybe nothing or maybe a lot.

Daghestan is one of the former Soviet republics; now part of the Russian Federation. It sits on the Caspian Sea just north of Azerbaijan and east of Chechnya. It’s a mountainous country with southern flatlands but like a lot of its “stan” cousins, it’s extremely arid. Crops can only be cultivated through irrigation; thus, prior to the modern era, like most of the other Central Asian countries, Daghestan was populated principally by nomadic tribes, who mostly raised livestock. As was true of tribal peoples in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the Daghestani ethnicities developed their own textile traditions. The Kaitegs (sometimes referred to as Kaytaks) were among the most prominent of tribes and it is their brightly-colored embroideries with anthropomorphic and primal shapes that gained favor among collectors in the West. Unlike the Uzbeki pieces, Kaitags use the embroideries only for ritual occasions—birth, marriage, death.

Based on the country’s strategic location, one can imagine that ethnically diverse peoples tramped through Daghestan; thus similaries in the embroidery can be drawn to the traditions of Persia, China, Turkey.

These beautiful works are in their own contradictory way both serene and fiercely alive. They belie the fact that post-break up Daghestan has had its fair share of troubles. It too struggles in ways not unlike the countries Kaplan visited. (For more detail, I refer you to the linkages below.)

Oh, and I forgot to mention that Daghestan has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.

Kaitag Embroidery, East Caucasus, 18th Century, silk threads on cotton ground (photo courtesy Sotheby’s).

Kaitag Resources:

J. Barry O’Connell spongobongo.com

Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan

Daghestan Resources:

Central Asia-Caucus Institute

All Academic

The Jamestown Foundation

 

Part II to follow: my thoughts on Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia.

My Own Piece of Paradise: Uzbeki Suzanis

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , on June 16, 2008 by Liz Hager

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

When the de Young Museum reopened in its new building in October 2005, a stunning 19th century suzani greeted visitors from a prominent hanging spot in the textile galleries. It was beguiling, and since then I have returned to that suzani time and again, alternately smiling as the electric oranges and reds of its poppy design wash over me and marveling at the intricate and extensive needle work. 

Inspired to learn more about this tribal art form, a whole new world opened up to me, one with a rich marker in history Alexander’s armies, Silk Route caravan camel drivers, Sufi dervishes, Khans, Russian Generals and nomadic warring tribes—the Uzbeks, the Turkomans, the Khazahks, the Kyrgyz—all vying for control of what amounts to a few choice oases in a vast desert. 

Suzani is the common term for embroidered dowry pieces (coverlets for the bridal bed, but also for made to decorate horses, tables, walls) that have been produced for hundreds of years by women in the central Asian countries, the various “-stans,” formerly known as Soviet Republics, but Uzbekistan is generally considered to be the birthplace of the suzani. 

The word derives from ancient Persian word for needle, no doubt a story in itself about the influence of ancient Persian culture in this area. According to tribal custom, a suzani was started when a girl was born. Panels of cloth were hand-woven (most often left uncolored, but sometimes hand-dyed). Each female family member took up embroidery of a separate panel, traditionally using hand-spun silk thread stitched in chain, satin & buttonhole styles. As soon as the bride-to-be was old enough (which turned out to be pretty young), she too took up the work. Each suzani has its own distinctive pattern, because patterns are the bride-to-be’s unique communication to the world. A tree of life, a fanciful garden, the designs are liberally sprinkled with stylized pomegranates, tulips (native to Turkey), and carnations, suggesting a little bit of paradise in the desert.  Often the various motifs carry secret messages, sentiments like “my mother-in-law is a witch” or “my groom’s a wealthy man.” Once the panels were complete, they were sewn together to make the larger bedcover.  Conventional wisdom has it that the quality of the work was a predictor of a girl’s potential value as a wife. However, in all good suzanis you will always find a intentional “mistake” or two. Since only God is perfect, no bride-to-be would tempt the Fates with perfect work.  If you look carefully at the detail below, you will find the error in my indigo suzani.

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

In our world of machine-made, this hand-made form survives for now in Central Asia. I feel lucky to own a few suzanis of my own. Although the cloth is no longer hand-woven, authentic suzanis are still hand-stitched. Uzbekistan is still a fairly desolate and rural country, but in the last decade there has been pressure to modernize. I wouldn’t begrudge any country the opportunity to improve its standard of living, but in the face of the relentless pace of globalization, I am already mourning what seems likely to be the inevitable disappearance of this sweet and honest folk art.

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