Past and Future Suzani

In search of suzani from memories and books

Spurred on by her father’s words, “Why don’t you revive 18th and 19th century suzani?”—Zarina Kendjaeva charted her life work.  Zarina’s father, Uzbek master dyer Fatullo Kendjaev, has long scrutinized 14th and 15th century miniature paintings from Central Asia, in search of old carpet designs to inspire his 21st century carpets.  Challenging his 16-year- old daughter, already an expert embroiderer, to join him in looking back in time as led to a flourishing father-daughter mentorship.  Today, Zarina leads a busy life as suzani designer, teacher, university post-graduate student, businesswoman, wife, and mother.  Amazingly, she is only 25 years old.  Zarina says, “For me it is so interesting when you see an old design, you don’t know what the meaning was or why this color was used.  When you try to find out, it becomes more interesting day by day.  My father and I, we work together to find the old designs and then I work on the deep history of the meaning.”

The word suzani comes from the Persian word for needle and refers to a range of embroidered textiles used in households and during rites of passage.  Craft production, including textiles, prospered in Bukhara and Samarkand, trading centers on the fabled Silk Road from CE 600 to 1200.   Over time, suzani motifs, colors, and composition acquired regional association.  Suzani produced in Bukhara displayed flowers, fruits, and leaves arranged in a well-coordinated central ground surrounded by borders.  Women, who began embroidering at age 8, applied chain and bosma stitches (long threads secured with small slanted couching stitches) on hand-woven white or soft yellow pomegranate dyed cotton or silk.  Suzani proliferated in the domestic sphere as large decorative wall hangings, table and bed covers, small bags for tea and spices, and trims on clothing. 

In the 20th century, Communist rulers in Uzbekistan equated handcrafts with a feudal past.  Handcrafts, associated by the Soviets with individual creativity and private production, served no purpose in a unified and mechanized future.  Craft production was forbidden or forced underground as the workers turned to mass production.  With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbek artisans began the long process of reviving their centuries-old craft traditions and transforming them in new directions for domestic, tourist, and international markets.  For Zarina Kenjaeva, only 6 years old in 1991, the times were propitious for her emergence as a suzani embroiderer.

Today, Zarina’s signature suzani exhibit rich, natural colors from silk yarns dyed in her family’s UNESCO supported Carpet Weaving Training School in Bukhara.  Master dyer Fatullo asks vegetable sellers to save their yellow onion skins, orders walnut hulls to be collected in the mountains, obtains madder root in Afghanistan, and purchases indigo and cochineal from India.  Achieving consistent colors between dye baths challenges Fatullo’s expertise.  Pomegranate skins and apple, grape, and mulberry leaves yield different colors as soil, sun, and temperature conditions change across the seasons.  Dyes mixed in large copper pots are used twice, first for dyeing the intense colors needed for carpets and second for the softer colors in suzani.  To avoid Uzbekistan’s scorching summers and chilling winters, dyeing takes place in the spring and autumn. 

As with many of the world’s textile artisans, Zarina describes suzani tradition as encompassing both process and product.  Passing on cultural norms of how a textile is dyed, woven, or embroidered is as important to artisans as transmitting details of the product’s colors, motifs, or forms.  Suzani production has long brought friends together for embroidering the three to five lengths of fabric needed for a large suzani.  After a specialist draws the design across the fabric strips, each girl works on a length while she talks, relaxes, and listens to music with her friends.  Embroidery colors often convey the embroiderer’s mood.  Zarina says, “Sometimes in a big suzani you can see one dark embroidered part and you can understand that on that day the girl had bad feelings.  Maybe she is a mother and is concerned about her baby.” 

Not unexpectedly, collaborative production leads to inconsistencies in stitching and color choices when the pieces are assembled into the final suzani.  Foreign customers often misinterpret these inconsistencies as evidence that suzani tradition is in decline.  At Zarina’s retail shop, customers tell her, “Oh, it’s not well done, it’s not the same stitching all over.”  Zarina tries to explain that suzani is handmade in the traditional way by five girls.  Zarina says, “Some of the customers really understand that how it is made is part of our tradition, but others say that we are trying to cover up something that the customer sees as not good.”  For Zarina, suzani tradition clearly incorporates both how the product is embroidered as well as the suzani’s final aesthetics.

As a Master’s degree student in the Faculty of Arts at Bukhara State University, Zarina looks both to the past and future for aesthetic direction to her work.  To revive previous designs, she turns to old women. She says, “For now I try to ask the old women because I know in the future I can look for ideas in books.  Books will stay but not the lives of the old women.”  The old women enthusiastically reminisce about how as young girls they produced dowries of fifteen suzani to decorate their new homes.  Women explain details of old designs such as a suzani featuring eight centrally positioned circles.  During each month of pregnancy, the woman embroidered a circle to wish happiness for her unborn baby.  When asked why there was not a ninth circle, the women laugh that by the final month the woman was too large to sit on the floor and embroider.  For these older women who lived through the Soviet period, teaching handcrafts to their children was discouraged or forbidden.  Telling stories to Zarina is like skipping a generation to impart suzani lore with a grandchild.

As Zarina applies what she has learned from elders, her personal vision pushes suzani designs in new directions.  Drawing the design for a big suzani can take up to one week.  As she draws, Zarina looks at the old designs but says, “It will never be exactly the same.  It is all free-hand.  You just sit and your hands will draw it.  I try to bring these designs in a new life.  I try to make for them even a better life.”  With her many daily responsibilities, Zarina only has time to embroider one suzani a year, often taking three to four months to completion.  For other suzani, she draws the design and then gives the fabric and natural dyed yarns to girls she has trained at her family’s school.  The suzani embroidered by Zarina are quickly snapped up by collectors, mostly from Europe and the United States, who value a piece produced by a single artisan—a process Zarina describes as a newer option now existing along with the older mode of collaborative production.

Zarina’s suzani were awarded the UNESCO Seal of Excellence in 2004.  A year later, she competed against 700 women in Bukhara under age 25 to receive the top Zulfinya Award, a state medal for her achievements in handcrafts.  As a master artisan, Zarina exhibits widely and has marketed her suzani at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market each year since its inception in 2005.  Given Zarina’s growing reputation, other Uzbek artisans have begun to copy her work.  When asked how she feels about copying, Zarina provides a thought-provoking reply to global discussion on protection of artisan work as intellectual property.  She says, “I am very happy when I see someone has copied by work.  My designs will continue.  People will not know me but they will know my designs. Even in the future, in 100 or 200 years, maybe a design will again come to light. Someone then will do my design.  It will not be forgotten.”

Because HAND/EYE is the first publication to write about Zarina Kendjaeva, there are no books or website to which we can send readers for more information. Author Mary Littrell is Head of the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University where she does research on artisan enterprise sustainability.  Her next book, Artisans and Fair Trade: Crafting Development, was published by Kumarian Press in October, 2010.

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