Patterned Reed Screens
of the Kirghiz
in the State Historical Museum,
Frunze Part II
by Stella Mateeva and Jon Thompson
Map: The Toguz-Toru - Naryn Region,
a Kirghiz land (large file)
From Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 12/1
The State Historical Museum of the Kirghiz S.S.R. in Frunze, founded in 1925, the oldest in Kirghizia, has 55 examples of wrapped-chii work. The oldest examples, which include some fragments and damaged pieces, may date from around the turn of the century (Illustration 1). These, to judge by eye, are made with natural dyes. The color palette includes a madder-type red, light and dark indigo blue, yellow, green, dyed-black, natural black and natural white.
Synthetic dyestuffs became commercially available in central Asia during the last decades of the l9th century, and Kirghiz weavers probably had access to them. The majority of examples in the Museum's collection (again by eye) are made with synthetic dyes which resemble those found in the better studied pile carpets of central Asia.
Illustration 1. Detail of a fragmentary reed screen.
A rather consistent feature of the design of wall and kitchen screens is a broad band of black along the top and bottom borders. This is clearly a practical arrangement intended to preserve the design of the decorated inner field intact. If part of the outer edge is broken off, which tends to happen in the stresses of everyday use, the principal design is unaffected.
The more detailed examination of reed screen designs lends itself to two different approaches. The makers and users of reed screens can be questioned about the designs in use; or the subject can be approached from the outsider's point of view by seeing how reed screen designs relate to the artistic traditions of the Kirghiz themselves and those of the neighboring peoples and cultures.
Illustration 2. Kitchen screen from the Issyk-Kul region made by S. Boyrichitova. Early 20th century. 153x310 cm.
Most of the work of recording the statements of local people about the designs they use has been published in Russian. The names used by the makers for their designs (such as crow's foot) have sometimes been misunderstood. The confusion is to equate nicknames with meaning. The names in use are simply for the purposes of daily conversation and describe familiar patterns in terms of everyday objects, just as we do. What we see as medallions they see as plates. Our latchhooks are their claws, yet the hooked forms they describe no more represent claws than they do latch-hooks. To avoid perpetuating the mistakes of the past, the "ram's-horn" and "crow's-claw" type of descriptive terminology for Kirghiz design has been omitted altogether. It should suffice to mention that Andreev (1928) and Ryndin (1948) have published detailed information on the repertoire of Kirghiz patterns and their local names.12
Passing on to the second approach, the vocabulary of Kirghiz reed-screen designs includes motifs which derive from several different sources. For example, the swastika-fret border (Illustration 2), a rare design in the art of the Kirghiz, has been current in the decorative arts of China and Chinese Turkestan for so long that it must be regarded as a loan-motif from the Chinese cultural sphere. Likewise the buta or boteh (Illustration 3) can also be regarded as a loan-motif. This design underwent a lengthy development in India and was introduced (some would say reintroduced) into Persia in the l9th century, whence it spread to the nearby territories of Azerbaijan, the east Caucasus, and Russian Turkestan. The boteh motif in all likelihood entered the vocabulary of Kirghiz art from urban carpets woven in the Emirate of Bukhara which have botehs with the same spiky outlines and stiff, angular form.
However the immediate source for the reed screens is likely to have been the knotted-pile weavings of the Kirghiz themselves. An undocumented carpetweaving tradition exists in the Osh Uzgen region where Kirghiz and Uzbek cultures come into close contact. The few published Kirghiz piled carpets with the same spiky botehs are probably from, or closely relate to this tradition.13
Illustration 3. Kitchen screen from the Toguz Torou district of the Tyan-Shan region made by A. Tarchaeva. Early 20th century. 150x225 cm.
The majority of screens bear designs which belong recognizably to the main vocabulary of Kirghiz art (Illustration 4). Kirghiz traditional art is imbued with a prevailing spirit characterized by a subtle concern with ambiguity. It delights in the enigmatic interplay of motif and background and has the power to challenge and fascinate simultaneously. The same focus is evident in the art of the Pazyryk burials and appears to be an ancient feature of the art of the steppes.
In theory any design can be reproduced in the wrapped reed technique if sufficient care is given to its planning and execution. As evidence that the reed screen can be used as a medium for expressing artistic ideas of the highest order, the Museum storage houses a reed-screen portrait of Lenin together with a toothy rendering of Yuri Gagarin (Illustration 5). The Museum also contains examples of work by Kirghiz artists who have attempted to turn the technique into a national art form. Much of this type of work is permeated with socialist realism, though some contemporary screen-makers have sought to incorporate traditional motifs (Illustration 6), The precise rendering of studio designs in wrapped-reed technique is achieved by the use of an accurate scale drawing on squared paper.
Illustration 4. Kitchen screen from the Chui valley, Kalinin district. 1950s. 178x472 cm.
In practice the nomadic artist's designs are constrained by the natural limitations of the medium, since squared paper cartoons were not part of her equipment. In structure a reed screen can be compared to a weft-ikat in that the wrapped reeds (equivalent to the predyed wefts) have to be accurately lined up, otherwise the outlines to the designs become blurred. On the other hand a reed wrapped with one color followed by a reed wrapped in another produces a clear line of demarcation between the two colors (Illustration 7). We can therefore expect reed screen designs to show a tendency to avoid the technical difficulties of large curving motifs in favor of more easily accomplished designs which follow the lines of the reeds.
Illustration 5. Portrait of Y.A. Gagarin by A. V. Biyushkina, Frunze, 1984. 96x58 cm.
Illustration 6. On a theme of Chingiz Aitmatov's "The White Steamer." Panel by Sh. Mambetaipova, Frunze, 1975
Illustration 7. Wall screen made by A. Sakeeva, Frunze. 140x400 cm.
The majority of reed screen designs do indeed consist of straight lines and angles and have a marked stress parallel to the direction of the reeds. It is not difficult to see, however, that many motifs in use are similar to those found in woodwork, leatherwork, embroidery and metalwork, but with the curves straightened out. The grid of the reeds, it seems, impedes the execution of curvilinear forms and assists their transformation into an angular equivalent by acting as a gauge and guide to control the width of pattern elements and their change of direction. Some large-scale curvilinear designs have been attempted. For example the design of Illustration 8 transcends the lines of the reeds altogether; the result is less than satisfactory.
A few screens have classical Kirghiz motifs which have been copied from designs executed in other media. For example the design of Illustration 9 is copied from the art of felt mosaic work. The assertion that the reed-screen pattern is derived from the felt pattern is based on an understanding of the constraints imposed on the detailed form of the design by the different media used for its expression. Felt mosaic is a specific technique distinct from applique, though often confused with it. Magnificent examples survive from the Pazyryk finds and there is evidence that it was practiced by the Sarmatians and the Alans. Today it is known to the Ossetes, Kumyks and some other wool producing peoples, but it is among the Kirghiz and Kazakh that the technique is most highly developed. Their technique requires two sheets of felt of different color. An identical pattern is cut out from each. The two differently colored cut-out pieces are exchanged and then sewn back in place, edge to edge. The technique of cutting out and changing places has led to an art of smoothly curving lines with sharply defined areas of contrasting color locked in a fascinating ambiguity between motif and background. The shapes and forms generated by this technique are so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable.
Illustration 8. Wall screen from the Issyk-Kul Region made by K. Botalieva. 1960s. 150x900 cm.
The other way of making colored designs in felt is to lay colored wools into the required pattern before the felt is rolled. This technique is widespread among the felt-tent nomads (except the Mongols), the northern black-tent nomads, and throughout the wool producing zones of middle and western Asia. "Laid-in" feltwork lends itself to rather large-scale swirling patterns with indistinct outlines. Kirghiz felts of this type show the typical Kirghiz preference for reciprocal designs but they take on forms quite distinct from those generated by the mosaic technique. The resulting difference between the two techniques is mirrored in the differences between Illustrations 8 and 9.
Illustration 9. Wall screen made by A. Sakeeva, Frunze. 1978. 140x400 cm.
The relative age of reed screen designs compared to those in other media such as carpets, kilims, and felts is a matter of intense interest. It could be argued that the archaic character of the reed screen loom is an argument for the reed screen's antiquity. Here we must separate screen making from screen decoration. Screen-making could easily antedate the development of weaving, whereas screen decoration would have had to await the availability of a ready supply of wool. Once the wooly fleece had been developed, felt making and screen decoration could have developed soon afterwards. According to prevailing ideas of weaving history, kilim and carpet-weaving would have appeared later.14 This is not an argument in favor of the transfer of designs from decorated screens to kilims.
If the argument is to be sustained that reed screens have been the source of designs found in other media, then the motifs which are original to the wrapped-reed medium must first be identified. This is difficult because reed screens, like carpets and kilims, bear designs of varying source and age. (Felt designs in contrast seem to owe little or nothing to outside influences.) Identifying the designs which "belong" to the medium is, in the present state of knowledge, a matter of informed intuition. One pattern which seems especially appropriate to the reed screen is the so-called "Memling" design which appears on screens in the Fine Art Museum, Frunze (not shown here). Another which fits well is the rectangular grid filled with octagons (Illustration 10). The apparent relationship of this design to the well-known carpet-patterns of the Turkmen is probably not a matter of borrowing; the likely connection is that both patterns follow the logic of drawloom-woven textiles and are thus of no great age.15 One is still faced with the problem of deciding whether any given motif originated in the wrapped-reed medium or was adapted to it from the general vocabulary of Kirghiz ornament.
Simple observation suggests that motifs with the longest life in the wrapped-reed medium are likely to have a rectilinear form.
Illustration 10. Detail of a kitchen screen from the Kalinin district made by Chopurova. Early 20th century.
The Kirghiz express their artistic skills in the decoration of the tent. They give special attention to needlework, patterned felt, woven bands and decorated reed screens. Reed screens are functional objects made from perishable materials and were never items of trade; very few examples of any age have been preserved. The technique of their construction is of special interest. They are made on a type of loom which can be considered an archaic relative of the ancient warp-weighted loom. Reed screen designs include loan-motifs from the art of neighboring peoples, patterns adapted from the artistic vocabulary of the Kirghiz themselves, and designs transferred from other media; whether or not there are designs "native" to the reed screen requires further study.
Go to Part I of this Article
12. M.S. Andreev, Ornament gornykh tadzhikov verkhovev Amu Darri i kirgizov Pamira [Patterns of the Mountain Tajiks of the Upper Amu-Darya and the Pamir Kirghiz], (Tashkent: 1928). M.V. Ryndin, Kirgizskii natsionalnyi uzor, [The Kirghiz Native Pattern], (Leningrad-Frunze: 1948).
13. A.A. Bogolyubov, Kovri Srednei Azii, (St. Petersburg: 1908) pl. 43-5, or A.A. Bogolubov, Carpets of Central Asia, Ramsdell: pl. 57. D.T. Umetalieva, Kirgizskii vorsovyi kover [The Kirghiz Piled Carpet], (Frunze: 1966) pl. XV. Hali, 33, (1987), p. 104.
14. See E.J.W. Barber, Prehistoric Textiles (Princeton University Press: 1991).
15. The influence of draw-loom-woven textile designs on the design of Middle Eastern carpets is an important one which has not yet received adequate treatment. While the resmblance between, say, Tang silks and some Turkmen carpet designs is obvious and has been pointed out many times, attempts to trace Turkmen designs to that source have so far been unsatisfactory because the nature of the relationship between the two designs has not been understood.
Go to Part I of this Article
Jon Thompson at the Vienna ICOC, 1986
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