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Art from Uzbekistan’s Mixing Bowl

The people of the Baysun mountain gorge have woven disparate strands into a cultural tapestry like no other.

by Dengiz Uralov 14 March 2014

In southern Uzbekistan’s Surxondaryo region, there is a mountain gorge called Baysun. Narrow as a bottleneck, it has for centuries been a meeting ground of various cultures.


Representatives of almost all of the world’s dominant cultures have left a trail in Baysun. Neanderthals lived here. Later, Mesolithic people drew their petroglyphs on rocks. Much later came Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Chinese Buddhists, Mongols, Turks, and Russians. The art of the gorge’s people – their music, dances, costumes, and customs – is distinct from that of any other ethnic group in Central Asia.


Playing the kushnai, a traditional Uzbek instrument, and the kovuz, also known as a jew's harp


The people of Baysun carry the blood of 20 nationalities in their veins, according to Akbar Khakimov, a member of Uzbekistan’s Academy of Arts and Sciences.


“The characteristic features of the appearance of the Baysun inhabitants are clear blue eyes that distinguish them from the typical black-haired and dark-eyed people of Central Asia,” he wrote in the Baysun Atlas of Arts and Crafts, published in 2006.


Baysun girls and their handiwork


The Baysun’s people exist in a delicate balance with a civilization that began to mount an active attack on them in the 20th century. At first they were yoked into communism, like all the citizens of Uzbekistan, and struggled to preserve their religion and identity. These days it’s globalization that threatens to erase their unique traditions and environment.


To protect the “cultural space” of the Baysun district, UNESCO included it in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, and the Uzbek government has proclaimed the region a “cultural reserve.”


A bakhshi singer performs folk songs with a two-stringed dutar.


A few years ago, Tashkent artist Alexander Barkovsky, known for his Gypsy Madonnas photo series, found a way into the world of Baysun, with a mission of showing it to the rest of us.


Living in various kishlaks – small mountain villages – he took photos that became a new series titled Surxondaryo, which debuted in Tashkent 1 March.


Barkovsky said the idea for this series was inspired by a chance encounter with a friend from Baysun, with whom he had worked years ago in a government-sponsored artists’ studio.


A dutar craftsman


“He convinced me that I should go to his home to create a new project. I didn't know anything about Baysun but soon discovered a brand new world,” Barkovsky says.


This wasn’t the first overlooked culture Barkovsky chronicled. But unlike the Gypsy Madonnas project, for which he spent years trying to gain the trust of Tashkent’s shunned Mugat community, the people in Baysun welcomed him with open arms.


“For the first time I felt what Eastern hospitality is. Until then I thought it was a myth. There are no fences between houses. They say, ‘Why would we need one? We know all our neighbors. Our ancestors lived together in peace and harmony. And we don’t need to spend extra money on a fence; better to build a house than a fence,’ ” Barkovsky says.


Baysun folk dancers


The photographer’s old friend, who agreed to serve as his guide in Baysun, assured him there was no crime there. “Then he looked at me and he seemed to think I was disappointed, that I was waiting for some stories. He remembered: ‘Yes, yes, we have one bandit! One man from a neighboring village – a very, very scary man! When he was 15 he made his way to the mountains and stole a sheep from a flock, and for three days he ate that sheep!’ ”


The art of the people of Baysun is multifaceted. They are famous for embroidery, pottery, blacksmithing, music, and dance. Their art is closely connected with daily life and rituals such as weddings, circumcisions, holidays, the arrival of spring, and the death of a family member.


Researchers studying Baysun culture continue to make discoveries, so diverse is the art of this region.


Khakimov writes that studies done only within the past decade turned up healing rituals from Sufi traditions, similar to the practice of shamans, that include singing and dancing.


“Basically, they are used to treat the mentally ill,” he writes. “Also, in some villages during treatment of children, rites of fire and lightning were observed, which probably is a direct legacy of Zoroastrian culture.”


As in most marginalized communities, Barkovsky says, it is typically the elders of Baysun who are most concerned about preserving the local traditions. In each house he visited, the older people sang their songs for him.


Some researchers believe Alpamysh, a famous Turkic epic with echoes of Homer’s Odyssey, originated in Baysun. Its action takes place among the Kungrat tribe, one of the precursors of the Baysun people.


Shooting Baysun culture on camera, Barkovsky was moved by how cordial his subjects were, unlike those in his home city.


“Being a photographer in Tashkent – it's a very big challenge. You go out with a camera and immediately become a target of police officers, who can detain and interrogate you. Often even passers-by go to the police and say, ‘There’s a man with a camera! It’s probably a spy!’ Tashkent is filled with fear and paranoia.”


By contrast, in Baysun “they’ll happily tell you their life stories,” Barkovsky says. “When you say goodbye they give you gifts, bags with apples and pears, kiss you, call you brother and son, invite you to come and stay anytime.


“They say they understand that art is a sacred thing, and they respect an artist. Before you take a photo, the oldest family member prays to God for the photograph’s success. Everyone prays, and only then can you start to take photos.”


There are 30 images in this series, each hand-printed and -colored via Barkovsky’s own process, using green tea. One of the photos, titled “Woman in Dzhilak” (head scarf), was chosen by Sotheby’s for its Central Asia art auction to take place later this year.


Barkovsky says when his friend from Baysun called the home of the woman in the picture with the good news, he was treated to another of the community’s customs: offering a gift to the bearer of good tidings – in this case, an invitation to a meal of pilaf.


“Of course, he couldn’t explain to them what Sotheby’s is, ‘but they were very, very happy!’ he told me.”

Dengiz Uralov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent. Photos by Alexander Barkovsky.


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