Folk decorative applied art of Uzbekistan has been the object of study of many researchers, but traditional crafts of Tashkent have not yet been covered comprehensively. Meanwhile, for many centuries Tashkent has been and still remains a major centre of artistic craft.
In our view, the reasons are manifold. First, it is the uneasy fortune of traditional art in the 20th century, which was treated as anachronism; the specificity of its imagery was not understood during the soviet period, particularly in 1920s-1960s. Second, certain standardization and unification of culture during the aforementioned period contributed to the levelling of local peculiarities that existed in different centres of traditional culture. And third, it was a purely psychological factor: usually we do not value what we possess. As a result, the research was focused on remoter centres such as Bukhara, Khiva, Samarqand, Surkhandarya, etc.
Nowadays there is no longer a need to convince anyone that traditional arts and crafts are not only a historical and artistic heritage, but also part of contemporary spiritual culture that lives and evolves according to its own laws. Despite the fact that traditional culture presently is at the centre of cultural policy pursued by the young independent country, we actually just begin to comprehend its richest artistic experience. We learn about the life-path of our national culture, its spiritual origins and roots. This enables comparison to other nations and raises awareness of one’s ethnic identity in the sphere of cultural tradition. The study of artistic crafts enables one to assess how traditional culture fit into contemporary lifestyle, how strongly it is connected with the local environment, its legends and tales, way of life, customs and traditions, rituals and holidays.
For me, the ten years of research in the domain of traditional culture of Uzbekistan have revealed a unique and poetic world conveying the philosophy of good and wisdom, the source of ideas and images that feeds other arts. Traditional art is a specifically historical phenomenon. Its distinctive feature is that it always bears the signature of a particular historical period. It accompanied man from the moment of his birth till his dying day. Traditional art as integral part of culture was concerned with everything that concerned it. Artistic crafts of Tashkent also evolved following these common laws of traditional culture.
Tashkent was one of the largest centres of craft, trade and culture in the East. Early medieval capital Chach was situated on the rim of agricultural oasis and bordered on boundless expanses of steppe. Economic, political and cultural contacts between nomadic herdsmen and sedentary farmers contributed to the fact that the specificity of urban cottage industry was determined not only by own requirements, but also by the needs of the inhabitants of steppe. According to some sources, during Antiquity and Middle Ages Tashkent figured as a centre producing ceramics, arms, metal-ware, glassware, jewelry, woven items and carpets. However, certain limitation of factual material makes it impossible to fully trace the evolution of traditional crafts in Tashkent during earlier historical periods.
During the 18th and the first half of the 19th century artistic crafts of Tashkent retain the continuity of traditions and their local peculiarity as a result of complex ethnic history of Central Asia and specificity of evolution of selected schools.
Late 19th and early 20th centuries in the history of artistic crafts of Uzbekistan in general and Tashkent in particular represent a very complex and controversial period. On the one hand, there was a competition with cheap factory-made goods that flooded the local market, affecting the situation of local cottage industries, which resulted in the deterioration of quality of artistic items. It has to be noted however, that the first Russian entrepreneurs who brought manufactory to Turkestan in 1860s were bitterly disappointed: there was no demand for their goods; so they started learning about «local» taste and, in a sense, adjusting to it. On the other hand, Turkestan participated in international exhibitions where there were sections dedicated to cottage trades: in Vienna (1873), Paris (1878), Copenhagen (1888), Chicago (1893), Stockholm (1897), Milan (1906), Berlin (1914) and London (1914).
Starting from that period Tashkent is not only the centre of craft, but also a centre guiding exhibition activity of various institutions engaged in traditional artistic crafts.
In 1876 the first museum was opened in Tashkent. In view of a growing decline of crafts, a number of actions were taken in order to preserve them. For instance, 1914-1917 saw a failed attempt at organizing a school of ceramics in Tashkent. In 1915 the Turkestan Committee for Cottage Industries was founded in Tashkent with the task of carrying out careful study of selected trades in order to find ways to support and further develop them.
During that period Tashkent becomes a major and unique centre of traditional embroidery, wood and plaster carving, wood painting, artistic chasing, jewellery and ceramics. Nowadays the splendid specimens of Tashkent artistic craft of the 19th-20th centuries are the pride of many museum and private collections, particularly the collection of the State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
Historical paradigms of the 20th century introduced their own adjustments to the destiny of traditional artistic crafts. Due to known reasons, the soviet period was the time when Uzbek traditional culture was unified with the cultures of other «brotherly soviet republics»; there was also a clear trend of a certain contraposition to the previous experience of its development.
The lot of traditional art in Tashkent, like in the rest of Uzbekistan, turned out not to be easy. It has survived everything: being treated as anachronism, the prophecy of its downfall, contamination of its aesthetic character with alien elements, and persistent «care» on the part of artistic factories and mills eventually leading to its destruction. The main principle of folk art was sometimes forgotten: the ambivalence of its nature — a hand-made craft and high art at the same time. Yet the traditional art survived and lived on in the turbulent 20th century, following its own laws, owing to the efforts of prominent folk masters and their students. We remember the names of many usto from Tashkent, now gone: A. Kasymjanov. Y. Raufov, T. Miraliev, S. Khojaev, M. Kasymov, N. Ziyakariev, T. Arslankulov, A. Tursunbaev, M. Rakhimov, M. Usmanov and many others. Every one of them was a personality who has remained a legend for the next generations. Through their art, endless love for the trade they chose and by being true to traditions these masters preserved a unique peculiarity of the Tashkent schools of wood carving and painting, plaster carving (ganch) and traditional ceramics.
The traditions of the Tashkent wood carving style are maintained in the art of contemporary masters O. Faizullaev, A. Azlarov, G. Yuldashev, S. Rakhmatullaev, Kh. Adylov, A. Abdurakhmanov, A. Ashirov, B. Ganiev and Z. Isamukhamedov. Their works are distinguished by the combination of a background wood carving and flat-raised design, which requires great technical skill and professional excellence. Ornamental designs in their works, according to the tradition, are carved on two or three levels, with the background of medium depth. The masters use vegetable and geometrical ornamental motives, such as islimi, gulli girikh, etc.; they employ all techniques of decorating pardoz. Their works also feature a distinctive peculiarity of the Tashkent school of wood carving such as tinting the relief surface, and also covering it with varnish.
The Tashkent school of ornamental murals also retains its uniqueness. One of its current representatives is master A. Ilkhamov. At the beginning he was trained by a well-known usto from Tashkent M. Turaev, and eventually became a student at the department of ornamental wall-painting in the Republican College of Arts, learning from the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan D. Khakimov. Since 1968 A. Ilkhamov was member of master teams led by Y. Raufov and D. Khakimov, performing work to decorate various architectural structures. An important aspect in Ilkhamov’s creative work is an organic and refined introduction of traditional ornamental painting into modern architectural interiors. The achievements of the master are developed by his disciples T. Khusanov, S. Khakimov, R. Shayakubov and others.
The traditions of the Tashkent school of plaster carving and painting live in the work of Z. Yusupov and U. Takhirov, and those of the Tashkent school of ceramics — in the work of a well-known master A. Rakhimov.
Traditional craft such as jeweller’s art shows a reverse trend. Contemporary Tashkent jewelry masters F. Dadamukhamedov, G. Yuldasheva, G. Tasheva and others explore and learn from artistic experience of not only Tashkent school, but also of other local schools. In the work of the young jewelers artistic tradition no longer manifests itself merely as aggregate of consistent technical and artistic devices, but rather as philosophy of the essence of human being, which embodies the world of origins of cosmological order, the meaning of knowledge of our distant ancestors who, through the pieces of jewellery, told about the laws that created the universe.
Today artistic chasing of Tashkent is represented by the work of dynasty masters from Margelan Madalievs brothers; hence it is no chance that it clearly reveals the traditions of creative metal of Fergana Valley.
As some experts note, there are several forms in which traditional art can exist, including its spontaneous form. Presently, folk art in its spontaneous form is represented by Tashkent-style embroidery, manufacturing of chests, ornamental decoration of beshiks (cradles) and manufacturing of wood-ware. All these goods meet high demand from buyers, but we, expert art historians, would like to see, for example, the contemporary Tashkent embroidery reaching the standard of museum specimens of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As of today, the Association of Traditional Craftsmen «Khunarmand» has about 900 craftsmen from Tashkent, many of whom actively participate in different exhibitions and fairs. Their names and wonderful work are known far beyond the country. Their finest pieces reflect the peculiarity of the Tashkent school of traditional crafts. We would also like to mention the contests among Tashkent craftsmen organized by the municipal Chamber of Trade and Industry. Owing to the Best Craftsman of the Year nomination — the title that has been awarded for the last ten years — we have known about Tashkent masters such as U. Kasymov (chest making), A. Azlarov (wood carving), S. Rakhmatullaev (wood carving), Sh. Shorakhmedov (lacquered miniature) and others. There is no doubt that these contests encourage traditional artists and create incentive for their work, thus helping to enliven the art life of the city.
Contemporary masters from Tashkent revive traditional crafts by keenly exploring and developing them. They attempt to master artistic traditions of not only the 19th and 20th centuries, but of earlier stages in the development of traditional culture. Getting familiar with museum collections and working with source study literature enrich the masters’ artistic thinking and drive their new creative search.