since plans for this trip to chiapas first began to take root some months back, one of the aspects i had been most eagerly anticipating was the opportunity to visit + spend time with the ladies from el camino de los altos - an association of 130 mayan weavers working together to preserve their ancestral art and to improve their social + economic conditions.
el camino de los altos is the realization of a seed first planted in 1996, when french textile designer véronique (véro) tesseraud began to work with women from different communities in the region, recruiting a cadre of long-time friends from home to pull forces with her on a volunteer basis, collaborating with the indigenous women around a collection of high-quality pieces based on pre-columbian textile traditions and techniques.
the association, which was born in 2009, is a cooperative formed of women from 5 local municipalities, each with their own distinct textile traditions. home base for the association is a new center here in san cristobal - a truly lovely space where the women can come to share ideas, learn new skills (both artistic and entrepreneurial), and participate in all aspects of the process of bringing their products to new markets.
the center/workshops feels very much like a place where magic happens. throughout the grounds, there is a sense of the real respect that the indian weavers and the french designers have for one another’s expertise. it’s not an easy balance to strike, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment, what the team + the mayan women are building together – a model of true collaboration. decisions are made collectively, and the women set the pricing for their pieces.
i’m super enthusiastic about developing l’aviva home’s relationship with el camino in the coming months. i’ll be writing more about the association, their position in the community, and the larger context of the evolving textile tradition in chiapas soon - there’s so very much to share.
time spent in chiapas thus far has been phenomenal - due, in no small part, to us having the super opportunity to spend time with the incredibly knowledgable and engaging chip morris. there may truly be no one as learned on - and passionate about - the local textile traditions and their ever-evolving place in the local culture.
chip’s brand new book, a textile guide to the highlands of chiapas, is only available here in mexico at this time. we’ve arranged, though, with the local publishers, to have a selection of the books available for purchase to u.s. customers via l’aviva home.
if you would like to receive a (signed!) copy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org no later than sunday eve, and we’ll respond with payment details. the price is $45 + $15 shipping.
(chip’s prior book, living maya, is also available for purchase via amazon).
something quite magical transpired this week in bishkek, and i am feeling both thrilled and touched to have been a part of it. in partnership with our friend dinara chochunbaeva, we organized and hosted an extended shyrdak pattern + storytelling workshop. for the workshop, we brought artisans and historians from all corners of kyrgyzstan together to engage in two days of activities structured around shared knowledge, collaboration + creativity.
dinara best explains the current status of storytelling as it relates to the tradition of shyrdak making - and our shared motivation behind organizing the workshop - in a recent interview with hand/eye magazine (excerpted below):
…Ornamental motifs were (and are) the main media of artistic expression by Kyrgyz masters. Ornamental forms have their roots in ancient times and reflect their creators’ aesthetic perception of their natural and social environments, as well as their cosmology. Many ornamental motifs had a sacred and protective function. In the past, Kyrgyz ornaments also had an informational, storytelling purpose.
Nowadays, though, there are very few artisans who can “read” our ornaments. Our unique traditional knowledge, which has been orally transferred from generation to generation for centuries and was never recorded, is on the verge of being lost. Artisans seldom know and use complete traditional craft techniques, and even less often know the rich range of historic Kyrgyz motifs. Most of them use synthetic raw materials, and copy from one another the ornamental motifs without understanding their meaning.
Custodians of our old ways (usually the eldest among us) can still be found in our more traditional communities. But as these elders gradually leave this world, they take with them their precious experience and knowledge, which is not recorded anywhere and not much in demand by modern society. Often our elders say they have no one to whom they can transfer their knowledge. Our most traditional ways have almost never been the subject of serious study. Now is the time to collect and record what is left for future generations of Kyrgyz people...
i find the storytelling aspect of shyrdak to be nothing short of entrancing. the goal of the workshop was to begin to articulate the richly layered meanings behind the designs we are working on in conjunction with our kyrgyz artisan partners as we define a catalog of patterns + sizes for our special collections.
the days spent were incredibly fruitful. the participants discussed traditional use of colors/color combinations and the associated symbolism, ‘translated’ our current collection of patterns, and created an entirely new collection of patterns especially for us, with a focus on themes such as prosperity, harmony with the environment, house warming, wedding + new baby…
in the coming weeks, we’ll have the stories - which are currently being translated from kyrgyz into english - and patterns to share. in the meantime, a few pictures from the workshop are attached below.
we spent time today with sofia, who invited us to her house in el alto (a city perched atop of la paz) to see (and pillage!) her unbelievable collection of the bolivian blankets, called frasadas, traditionally used by the aymaras to fortify themselves against the andean cold.
sofia’s collection of these entirely handwoven - and increasingly rare - vintage pieces is absolutely remarkable (she has a store in the sagarnaga section of la paz, but keeps her personal favorites at her home, which we were lucky enough to visit).
i have long been in love with the bold, colorful stripey patterns of the frasadas made from sheeps’ wool - and we found some truly gorgeous ones today. this trip also yielded a completely new find for me: a super special collection of 100% alpaca pieces in natural colors. all have a beautiful heft to them.
a day of phenomenal finds. we sorted through hundreds. and our favorites are already en route back to the studio in nyc. so very satisfying!
this friday, i will be leaving for what is sure to be an altogether too-short visit to bolivia. it’s a trip which i am hugely excited about; i’m looking foward to finding new inspriation in the people, the markets, and the landscapes.
while there, we’ll spend time in la paz, visit the floating islands on lake titikaka, and go to santa cruz, sucre, and their surrounding areas. all along the way, we’ll be visiting and spending time with artisans, and scouting vintage andean textiles.
of the many, many conversations we engaged in around the social + political structure of kyrgyzstan during the course of our visit (the majority spurred, of course, by the revolution), none came close to approaching the poignancy of those we had with our new friend nurilya barakanova, who spoke to us at length about the tragic phenomenon of bride-kidnapping - a phenomenon which is shockingly, and rapidly, on the rise.
it’s a heart-wrenching situation - and an amazingly complex one; an issue which illustrates the incredibly tangled social fabric of the kyrgyz nation, and draws focus to the juncture at which ancient traditions, the soviet legacy, and the challenges of modern times come together (and often collide) within the country.
visiting aidai, our designer friend in bishkek (who i talked about in an early entry), we learned that one of the women in her studio had been recently abducted and forced to marry against her will - bringing the issue all that much closer to home for us.
i’m looking forward to nurilya’s visit to the states in july - and to our continued conversations about possible ideas of what can be done to abate the tide of kidnappings. i’ll certainly be posting more about it.
in the meantime, through nurilya, i was introduced to the work of jackie dewe mathews - a young british photographer who spent time in kyrgyzstan last year documenting the phenomenon. i’ve attached a few photos, along with her very eloquent summary of the situation, below.
‘Ala Kachuu’, Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan by Jackie Dewe Mathews
A third of all marriages in modern Kyrgyzstan are non-consensual kidnaps. The Kyrgyz words ‘ala kachuu’ mean to grab and run. Typically a man abducts his bride by force or deception, enlisting his family to break her resistance, through hours of persuasion. If successful, the following morning the bride will be sitting quietly in a curtained off area wearing the traditional white wedding headscarf and an imam will be called in to marry them.
Some brides are kidnapped by total strangers while others by men they know. Some escape after violent ordeals, but most are persuaded to stay by tradition and lore and with their virginity and purity in question after a night at a man’s house, they accept what they believe is their fate.
Ala kachuu was outlawed during the Soviet era and remains illegal under the Kyrgyz criminal code although kidnappers are rarely prosecuted. Since the Kyrgyz declaration of independence in 1991 incidents of ala kachuu have surged for a number of reasons: it is seen as part of a national identity that was denied by Soviet rule, little social structure for sexes to mix exists but parental pressure on a man to take a wife at a certain age remains strong and compared to the expense of ritualistic weddings and the custom of gift exchanges between the families it is considered a cheaper alternative.
Although the practice is said to have its have its roots in nomadic customs, the tradition has been corrupted and remains at odds with modern day Kyrgyzstan.
the incredible adventure that is this trip continues… uzbekistan has been unbelievable. hugely compelling, amazing artisans - multiple collaborations taking root (many posts detailing all in the coming days, looking forward to sharing). in limbo, now, here in tashkent, uzbekistan - flight options thrwarted by both revolution + ash cloud. so taking a detour - flying in to istanbul thursday morning, and staying there for a few days. not a bad consolation prize, truth be told! more to come…
i am really happy to be able to share these very special pieces from janyl with you. if you are interesting in purchasing one, and would like pricing information, please email us at email@example.com…
*this shyrdak, unfortunately, photographed very flat. it is beautiful, truly -
susan has posted a powerful photo montage of bishkek city shots, both in the days immediately preceding the coup, and in those immediately following. i encourage you to take a peek: www.found-log.tumblr.com.
our visit with master shyrdak maker janyl was magical – i feel nothing short of in awe of the experience. janyl, who is in her early 70s, is widely recognized as the best shyrdak artisan in kyrgyzstan. beyond being an amazing tradition keeper and artist, janyl is an incredibly soulful and joyous woman. we were all completely entranced by her.
we ascended upon the remote mountain town of at bashy to visit janyl in her home. we were grateful that she was feeling well enough to receive us; she has been ill and communication with her has been somewhat challenging, both because of the remoteness of the area in which she lives, and the fact that she speaks only kyrgyz (while russian is spoken by the great majority of kyrgyz, those from the older generations living in mountain towns and villages do not speak any russian at all).
so with mairam’s charming son urmat in tow as our interpreter, we spent several hours with her – drinking cup after cup of tea and discussing the tradition.
janyl’s shyrdak are by far the most beautifully crafted shyrdaks that we’ve ever seen; the artistry on them is simply stunning.
for those interested, i will be posting five of her pieces on this blog tomorrow. please let me know if you are interested in having one of these gorgeous pieces once they are up by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
the initial impetus for this trip to kyrgyzstan came in the form of an invitation from master shyrdak artisan mairam omurzakova, who invited us (via the wonderful organization vista 360 - www.vista360.org) to spend a couple of days with her and her daughter nurjan at their home in kochkor.
our days were an intensive course in all things shyrdak. mairam and family led us through shyrdak making step-by-step. the process is a strikingly intensive one; a tremendous artistic feat of turning sheared wool into beautiful felted rugs of color and pattern. as witness to it all, i fell in love with these pieces completely anew.
mairam radiates strength, and is a huge source of inspiration. she has played a seminal role in preserving the tradition of shyrdak and helping women and families in the region. in 1995, she co-founded a woman’s cooperative for shyrdak makers (which grew to over 500 members) as an initiative against the economic hardship that followed after the collapse of the soviet union.
mairam is also a wealth of information. she shared details about the history of the tradition, and the story telling aspects of each piece. we discussed the challenges facing shyrdak makers today (including limited access to quality dyes) and talked through ways to begin to face them.
i could not possibly have left those couple days spent with mairam and nurjan feeling more energized and inspired. i feel hugely honored to be collaborating with them.
this past week has been nothing short of wholly momentous – full of indescribably rich experiences and discoveries and inspirations, while at the same time plagued by tremendous political turmoil and resulting revolution. it feels beyond overwhelming to even begin to reconcile it all.
this is a trip i have long fantasized about: traveling the ancient silk road, immersing myself in a sampling of the phenomenal artistic traditions of central asia. accompanying me on this journey are my dad, and friend susan easton. for this first leg, we have also been joined (and nutured and guided) by my wondrous friend polina, a kyrgyz-native.
a former soviet republic, kyrgyzstan has been challenged by a tangled political and social history which has been much exacerbated since the collapse of the soviet union in 1991. with only a vague familiarity of some of the complexities, we certainly had no idea that we were entering into a country that was - literally - on the eve of a revolution. (though it must be said, neither did the kyrgyz people).
here in kyrgyzstan, the awe-inspiring mountains and landscapes contrast deeply with the eerily post-soviet cities and villages. nothing, however, speaks more loudly to the soul of the country than the warmth of the people and the richness of their deeply rooted traditions.
i am writing now from our hotel in bishkek, where we returned yesterday after having spent the last week in small towns and villages high in the mountains of kyrgyzstan. we were in the town of naryn when the events surrounding the overthrow of the kyrgyz government started to transpire. ensconced in a small guest house there, we felt entirely safe but also quite isolated. back in bishkek, international flights seem to have now resumed, and we are awaiting a flight out to uzbekistan later in the afternoon.
there is so very much i am wanting to share from these last days – many posts to follow, documenting our past days in kyrgyzstan, and those to come in uzbekistan.
pictured below: the central square in downtown bishkek, bedecked in decorations commemorating narooz, the holiday marking the new year and the arrival of spring. these pictures were taken the day we arrived in the country, only days before the uprising.