Almajan Mambetova
Director, Public Women’s Organisation ‘Kyrgyz Heritage’

A group of experts in 2010 conducted a marketing study within the framework of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) project Rural Women’s Living Standards Improvement through the Development of the Craftwork Sector which revealed hidden processes of impoverishment and the disappearance of traditional Kyrgyz folk art items.

The main reasons for these processes are linked to the rapid changes taking place in the Kyrgyz society over the last few decades. They are: transition from nomadic way of life to a sedentary one, difficult transition period from a plan-based economy to market economy, poverty in the highlands, natural disasters, and harsh continental climate. All of this has led to the decline of indigenous tush-kyiz (wall carpet), which consists of rich embroidery that has also been applied to other traditional items. The richness and diversity of the symbols implemented in these traditional technologies are mostly lost.

A study revealed that such shortcomings due to an absence of appropriate attention by the Kyrgyz authorities contributes to problems of safeguarding, succession, and protection of this intangible cultural heritage due to a lack of funds, the inability raise awareness to the public, and establish state structures to the craft sector.

A marketing study in certain regions reaffirmed a process of devaluation of traditional values among the population and even among craftsmen who made these items. Attitude towards traditional items that were formerly of pride by every craftswoman and family has changed as well as their loss of glory, devalue, and are old-fashioned. People began to sell them, exchange them, and so on.

Throughout the study, preserved patterns on items of folk art revealed that the condition of the tush-kyizshyrdakterme (lint-free weaving), ashkana chiy (screen) to partition the kitchen part of the yourta were of some items in an awful state due to improper handling. Unfortunately, the best patterns were bought by representatives of Bishkek and neighboring Kazakhstan antique shops.

Embroidery and ornaments of Kyrgyz folk art reflected different historical stages of the Kyrgyz ethnos formation. This ornamental art is typical for nomadic peoples, including elements of beast style, solar signs, zoomorphism, anthropomorphism, plant motives, petroglyphs as well as signs and symbols conveying different states of the surrounding world. They contained information on the status of owners, tribal belonging, calendar data, and served as a talisman; they were made especially for rituals and had ornamental and color peculiarities.

Some new tendencies in the craft sector were found out during the expedition. So, instead of rich hand-made embroidery of tush-kyiz demanding intensive work and time we saw modern tush-kyiz implementing in the kurak (patchwork) technique with the usage of shiny and sticky Chinese materials. There are so called Chinese-type shyrdaks; in some houses of one of the northern regions bordering China we saw Chinese carpets and tray ornaments on traditional Kyrgyz felt shyrdak. It may be explained by the fact that older Kyrgyz masters are passing away as well as traditions of the creation of these items and the younger generations have no patterns or visual methodological literature on traditional ornamental art.

Another disappointment was that so called modern creative groups (cooperatives, NGOs, etc.) specialize mostly on felt items (souvenirs, shyrdaks, carpet strips, etc.). Unfortunately, these groups manufactured items which are identical but facilitated with limited color to economize time and sell items quickly. One of the results of the expedition was to elaborate on recommendations for the necessity to adopt an individual Law on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage for the country, publish methodological literature on Kyrgyz ornamental art basics, semantics of symbols, manufacturing technology, and introduce educational programs into the teaching curricula of schools. With the aim of traditional knowledge and technologies of intangible cultural heritage safeguarding and continuity, we recommended to some regions and villages a ‘national zone’ which holds special status and governmental support for the purpose of reviving different types of embroidery, woven items as well as items made of felt.

Currently, measures taking place by the working group on problems analysis and ways of their solution are getting started. Work has initiated to prepare a draft Law on State Support of Artistic Crafts under the auspices of the Ministry for Economic Development of KR with the participation of economists, lawyers, etc. Problems connected to the threat and disappearance of cultural heritage of the country due to an absence of the Law on State Support of Artistic Crafts:

  • Absence of appropriate status, stimulus and motivation for those who made traditional items according to the best old traditions directed towards the country’s cultural heritage safeguarding and continuity in the field of artistic crafts as well as for those who develop and produce best patterns meeting modern standards.
  • Absence of educational and methodological literature on traditional knowledge and intangible cultural heritage: information on rituals and sacred functions of applied items made for specific rituals; national ornamentation, on tamga tribe differences, regional ornamental and color preferences, traditional technologies and best principles of folk applied art, materials, etc.
  • Modern artistic applied arts are being unified: unite (the same ornamentation and color) and commercialize for time economy and rapid sell; they have no traditional distinctions, principles, and variability typical for Kyrgyz ethnos. Owing to this traditional knowledge, items could be more varied and competitive.
  • Absence of the Kyrgyz brand, logos, and symbols; as a result, items are produced simply and quickly in neighboring countries and presented as their goods.

The attention decrement to the problems of people leads to the degeneration of their arts, as folk art disappears due to a break in its succession. While it is natural for outmoded ways of life to fall by the wayside with the inevitability of innovation, national artistic traditions informed by folk origins must not become things of the past. It is with these traditions that we should concentrate our efforts:

  • to cultivate a new generation of researchers and aspirants to preserve the disappearing folk arts in their richest forms, including decorative and ornamental Kyrgyz embroidery, which were made for sacral-ritual purposes with many amulets and tamga (signs of tribal assignment)
  • to incorporate a focus on arts education at all levels including program development, textbook publishing, and introduction into the educational process
  • to create a Museum of Folk Arts