Ethnic Avant Garde

Turning history into talismans for the future

Fire, sun, earth and water. Drawing inspiration from these natural elements, Kazakh silversmith Serzhan Bashirov is reinventing a jewelry tradition that spans literally millennia to the Iron and Bronze Ages, when man first began experimenting with metal. Steeped in the imagery of prehistoric life, Bashirov’s pieces bring a modern sensibility to the iconography of ancient civilizations.

The foundation of modern Kazakhstan was built on the ruins of the Mongol empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Traditionally a nomadic culture, like their neighbors the Kyrgyz, the Kazakhs have used metal as expressions of personal adornment, talismans against evil, and yurt decoration for generations. Jewelers would craft elaborate metal buttons the size of ping pong balls. Men would wear intricately crafted belt buckles. And a women’s dowry was routinely composed of elaborate rings, bracelets, buckles breastplates and hair ornaments.

Silver was traditionally the preferred metal as its glitter and color were associated with the moon, and silver was thought to have cleansing and protective properties. Rings played a role of particular importance. Women would wear several rings as they were thought to protect the children they bathed and cleanse the food they prepared. Older women often wore massive rings for special occasions, including a ring worn on two fingers, which was often given to the mother of a groom by the mother of a bride. It symbolized the coming together of two families and new beginnings. And rings in the shape of birds’ beaks were given to men leaving for battle as a talisman to deliver them safely back home to the “nest” with the bird’s beak representing freedom, happiness and general welfare.

The symbols used in Bashirov’s pieces originate from these ancient ways of life; however, Bashirov’s interpretation of them is unmistakably modern. Working from a home studio in Almaty, Bashirov draws on technical skills learned from his father who Bashirov would watch as a child as he worked with metal in their garage workshop. Bashirov went on to train formally as a sculptor, studying at Gogol Art College in Almaty before turning to jewelry. Now using tools originally belonging to his father, Bashirov clearly brings his sculptural training into the forms he creates often combining silver with bone and stone.

Referring to his work as “ethnic avant garde,” Bashirov commonly references ancient symbols such as the cross and spiral in his work signifying the sun, fire and earth. A cross with four points represents the four directions — north, south, east and west. These four elements are found encircled by a globe representing the sun, a radiant source of life. The spiral motif, dating back to the Zoroastrian period, conveys eternity and the unending movement of the universe. The spirals always move in a clockwise direction following the sun’s path. This movement is also the same direction that nomads would traditionally move around their yurts for to tread in the opposite direction was thought to create chaos.

The yurt itself figures prominently in Bashirov’s pieces, specifically references to the cross-hatch pattern called the “shanyrak,” which is the opening at the crown of the yurt through which light enters and smoke escapes. In the Kazakh tradition, a the walls of a yurt would often be repaired and replaced over a lifetime, but the shanyrak would remain as it was and would then be passed down in the family from father to son upon the father’s death. The degree to which the shanyrak was stained from the generations of smoke that passed through it became a measure of the family’s heritage and lineage.

Ram’s horns, another common motif among the nomadic Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, represent strength, prosperity and fertility. Bashirov also crafts modern-day talismans with pieces that contain holes, which, according to the Kazakh tradition, are places through which evil can exit thus protecting the wearer.

Bashirov is currently a professor of applied arts at the State University of Almaty. He sells his work locally through galleries in Almaty and throughout the region. The recipient of a Seal of Excellence for Handicraft Products from Central Asia from UNESCO for three consecutive years, Bashirov has exhibited his work at the Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show in Tucson and in July 2010 will be participating in the Santa Fe Folk Art Market for the first time.

Author Beth Gottschling Huber has worked with artisans throughout Central Asia for more than a decade consulting with UNESCO, Aid to Artisans and numerous other organizations. She recently traveled to Kazakhstan to lead a seminar for artisans as part of a marketing effort organized by Our Heritage Foundation in Almaty.

For more information about Serzhan Bashirov, please see



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