A Weaver's Campaign to Save Carpet Tradition

Whether bright red, soft orange, or muted brown, Kazak carpets are an expression of the country's soul and a weaving tradition dating back some 7,000 years. The carpets - each with its own sacred meaning and motifs - have been family heirlooms made by mothers for their children.

But today, the age-old tradition is being endangered by commercialization. Small carpet factories are being set up, and what is being produced has little relation to traditional Kazak patterns or colors.

"Handmade carpets were connected to a certain way of life, and this style of life was in turn reflected in the patterns of the carpet," explains Alibek Malayev, a Kazak carpet designer and collector. "Now there are machines to make carpets, and this is killing the handmade tradition."

Few women are knotting carpets anymore. Many cannot afford the materials, suffering the effects of an economy in transition. Others have forgotten how to do it, or simply never learned how.

Avid buyers of Kazak carpets are finding the market for high-quality pieces shrinking as carpets sell off at a quick rate, and what is left is not always of the best quality.

Fighting this decline is Mr. Malayev, the eldest son of eight children and a graduate of the Literary Institute of Moscow.

He is trying to continue the ancient art form by melding it with newer techniques, insisting there is a need "to use the same symbols but give them renewed meaning."

The carpets were originally made for home use, a tribal decoration of nomadic peoples. Some were woven specifically to cover the floor or the doorway, for guests to sit on, or for weddings, funerals, or prayer.

Many of the wool carpets have the name and date of the maker and that of the person to whom it was given woven into the piece.

Meaning behind woven symbols

"Carpets contain specific symbols, a specific space for Asiatic peoples," Malayev says. "Previously these carpets were never for sale. It would be like selling your soul."

In Moscow, working on literary translations, Malayev became fascinated with ethnic symbolism in prose - a fascination that spread into the visual arts, specifically carpets.

"Design is like a language," he explains. "You may or you may not know and understand its roots. Carpet symbols are like letters which must be strung together to form the words that speak the mythology of each carpet."

Kazak culture, mythology, and art were determined by three main factors: an enormous harsh territory of steppe surrounded by semideserts and deserts; livestock-breeding nomadic tribal life; and Islam, which was introduced in the 8th century and banned images of animals or humans in art.

Using motifs from ancient totemistic beliefs, astral legend, and geometric designs, women worked in wool and camel hair, felting and weaving objects for their yurts that were both useful and decorative. The most common symbols seen from that time include the ram's horn, camel's footprint, raven's foot, roosters, and the color red - for fire and for blood often shed in Kazak rituals.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Kazak carpetry is the "surmak," carpets and wall hangings made of felt pressed on felt, with stark designs based on strict symmetry. The foreground and background are of equal importance. This, Malayev says, reflects the nomadic psyche, where both subject and the world he lives in are of equal importance and in harmony.

Malayev has been studying this psyche for 15 years now, digging deeper and deeper into his people's history and roots. The result: a workshop in a village some 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside Almaty where women knot carpets he designs based on his understanding of this ancient tradition.

Lengthy design process

It takes years for Malayev to design a carpet but perhaps only a few days to execute the design. It then takes two workers as long as three months to knot the carpet. Malayev's pieces range from the usual eight feet by 15 feet to much larger works and include new colors like sky blue and moss green.

To traditionalists, this may be Kazak, but it is no longer the Kazak of old. In deference to these beliefs, Malayev also makes traditional carpets, but in a tighter, Turkish double knot that is longer lasting and of higher quality than typical Kazak work.

"If you don't speak a language, the language will die. I do old carpets to hold on to the tradition and not let it die, and I make new carpets because I love to make them. Any art has to develop," he explains.

Malayev maintains that his carpets are the development of art in Kazakstan as well as the sum of his own experiences and that of society around him. His creations, he says, result from his dual life: a European education in Moscow and a nomadic culture deep within.

"Just as jazz is the synthesis of North and South of the African-American experience in the West, so are my carpets. We are making avant-garde jazz in carpets - using original elements to create a totally new music," he says.

So while some people fear the end of an ancient tradition, Malayev is convinced Kazak culture and art are too deeply embedded to completely disappear. Indeed, Kazak culture and art are being reborn in his work.

"My carpets are much more than just a philosophy. They are the conclusion of our myths, our archetypes," he says. "My carpets are visual illustrations of Kazak mythology."

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