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A Tashkent photographer penetrates the secretive world of Central Asia’s last nomads.by Dengiz Uralov 24 January 2013
TASHKENT | In Uzbekistan, the Mugat are outcasts, at best ignored, at worst reviled. A distinct ethnic group that has remained nomadic even as modernity took root in the region, they are widely called “gypsies” here, as they are in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Wandering through cities and villages, scraping a living from fortune-telling, seasonal work, recycling bottles, or begging, they are considered dirty or cursed.
Their way of life is in some ways similar to that of European Roma, but the groups share no ties, other than the possibility that both emigrated out of India centuries ago. According to anthropologists, there is considerable evidence of an Indian origin for the Mugat – for example, they have preserved a caste system. But outsiders know little about day-to-day life among the Mugat. Also known among themselves as Lyuli, they maintain a rigidly closed society.
That is fine with most Uzbeks. People try to avoid Mugat on the street, and even discussing their existence is taboo. For most of his life, Alexander Barkovsky, a photographer and videographer in Tashkent, shared his compatriots’ trepidation, but eventually his fear was overcome by curiosity. He decided to try to get to know the Mugat and understand their world.
For two years, Barkovsky worked to gain the confidence of Mugat in the Uzbek capital and to take their pictures. The result is Gypsy Madonnas, a series of stylized lithographs depicting Mugat mothers and children. Barkovsky is now at work on a first documentary film about the group. He talked to TOL about how the project came about and his experiences inside this secretive community.
How did you win the Mugat’s trust?
BARKOVSKY: A few years ago I was afraid of the Mugat and I always avoided meeting them. One day I asked myself the questions: Who are they? Why do they have this way of life? Where do they live? What do they eat? Do they celebrate the New Year, and where do they bury their dead? I watched them from a distance through the camera. Then I came home and looked at the pictures, trying to find answers. I got closer and closer until I fell into a mysterious, cruel, and beautiful world, like Alice in Wonderland. Now, whenever I'm in town, I meet Mugat at the markets and at least one person comes up to me and says, “Brother, where are my photos? Do you remember me?”
To gain their trust – and it is very difficult to do – I came up with a rather tricky but very effective method. Photography was the instrument of communication. It became a bridge between me and the world of the Mugat. Taking and distributing photos for free made me a very popular person among them. In Bukhara, I received an offer to stay with them, and they promised to find a wife for me. I have not seen such grateful and happy owners of photos in all my life. An old woman of 80 received a packet of photos from me, with trembling hands, and she cried and kissed the pictures of her family. She explained to me, “This is my daughter, and those are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” She has 72 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Ordinary people believe that Mugat are dirty and try to avoid contact with them. How did you get rid of these prejudices while working with them?
The Mugat’s living conditions can seem very unsanitary to a civilized person. But as I found out, they do not think of dirt as we do. Once, when I was photographing some children, one of them grabbed my camera, sliding his fingers over the lens. On his hands were traces of mayonnaise, ice cream he’d eaten three days ago, chocolate he had begged for in a candy store, and he was covered with dust after playing with friends. Horrified, I snatched the camera out of his little baby hands, shouting, “What are you doing, with your dirty hands!" The surprised child recoiled from me and started to look at his hands, muttering, “Dirty? Dirty?” And then I had a revelation: there’s no such thing as “dirty”! I'm sure that if all the supermarkets suddenly closed, people like me would die from starvation, but the Mugat would survive, because they are able to live in any environment.
The Mugat’s life is not a comfortable topic for discussion in Uzbekistan. Did you have any problems with the authorities when you were working with them?
Most people believe that Mugat have magical powers. One day, this “magic” saved me from the police. I was detained along with two Mugat women near a subway station. A police officer tried to take away my camera, and he wanted to take me and the women to the police station. I was practically foaming at the mouth, trying to explain to him that there was no crime, but to no avail. When the Mugat bothered to look at us, they said a few “abracadabra” words and the police officer froze. He was shouting in a cold sweat, “Get away from me!” Then he ran away, very fast. I asked the Mugat what they had said to him. They smiled and said, “The curse.”
Here it is, I thought: the great power of the “Mugat curse.” And the strength of this ethnic group really is great. I have never seen despair in their faces, or sadness and fear. They believe in their uniqueness. They believe in their divinity. And even when they beg, they don't feel humiliated and offended – they just do what they have to do. They have turned begging into a way of life. These Mugat beggars with their kids in their arms became the heroes of my [lithograph] series Gypsy Madonnas – like the Virgin Mary in Raphael’s paintings, each of them holding a baby.
Tell me more about how you created the Gypsy Madonna series
Using a collage technique, I invented a fictional world, “Lyuliandia” – the land of the Mugat. On the photographic prints Mugat are surrounded by their holy places, the architectural monuments of Samarkand and Bukhara. Their bodies are intertwined with ornaments of buildings. They are like ghosts, shadows, or phantoms living in the walls of the ancient city. Their poses are traditional – the poses of begging. I was interested in echoing the Italian Renaissance and Russian icons, so on several prints the “Madonna” is holding a book, although most Mugat can’t write and read. I did not use the traditional technique of printing photos on plain paper; I decided to print images using a photolithographic process on white paper tinted with green tea – the Mugat mainly drink green tea.
The frames are full of meanings and values. I selected materials based on the “gypsy” lifestyle and cult objects. The wooden frames were made in the style of beshik, children’s cradles. In my view this reinforces the connection between mother and baby in the picture. The corners of the frames are capped with embossed metal, designed in the style of wedding chests. These chests are part a girl’s dowry when she goes to her husband. Mugat families are often polygamous, and the number of chests [a man has] indicates the number of wives. The passepartout is done in the style of traditional Bukhara gold embroidery, which is used in wedding and childbirth ceremonies.
I decided to add a video installation based on Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Gypsy Madonnas was exhibited in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Italy, and several pieces were selected for auction by Sotheby’s, a great achievement for an artist from Uzbekistan.
The next part of the project will be a documentary film, Mugat. It is in the production stage. At the Russian ArtDocFest Pitching Session in December [at which filmmakers presented projects in hopes of making sales to distributors and television stations], Mugat received the grand prize [from festival judges], but we didn’t get any money for production. The Russian TV and movie people think Central Asia is not of interest to viewers, many of whom have a negative attitude about the region due to the large number of migrants. The film will be included in the Dragon Forum [part of the Warsaw-based Academy of Documentary Arts’ development program] in May 2013 in Krakow, and we are hoping to find sponsors among European television and film producers.