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Suture / Anna Pronina

12 Mar 2024

Cataloguing Ornaments /
Transmitting Ornaments 

Suture / Anna Pronina

12 Mar 2024

Ornaments /


This short essay as well as a research display made for the exhibition focuses on the various historical attempts to catalogue Central Asian, mostly Uzbek, ornaments in architecture, in carpets, suzani, and other objects of applied arts. These attempts were made by late-Imperial and Soviet researchers, archaeologists, and restorers. Cataloguing, as a practice, always offers a particular way of ordering items and has a political dimension and consequences in the imperial context. Moreover, I’m interested in diverse modes of movement inherent in ornaments: body movement, chronological movement, geographical movement, and movement of imagination. As a scholar not native to the region and an amateur collector myself, I draw a connection between these movements and the desire to collect. To do this, I explore an akhta (in Uzbek, “axta”) – an object and a technique that is crucial for reproducing and creating the ornament. 


Where does ornament lead?

An ornament orders space and one’s trajectory within it. Ornaments can instruct our bodies how to move or, sometimes, not to move. As with architecture itself, ornaments implement a certain politics of the body: an eyeball moves uncontrollably as it sees and follows the ornamental lines, and other organs might follow too. One sees the ornament – their hand is reaching for the curves, and the corpse is moving ahead. The starting point of this chain of reactions is the affection caused by the ornament and its inner dynamic. Another dynamic quality of an ornament is that it is potentially reproductive as it contains the inner laws of its creation in itself, like a DNA fragment in a cell. In this sense, an ornament is never-ending, it always reproduces itself and can be continued from any point because its every dot is a point for a new departure. This characteristic deals with the reproductive power of an ornament. 

Another feature of ornaments is that, in the globalized world, we often tend to perceive and describe some of them as the most distinctive markers of belonging to a certain culture. To put it boldly, one might imagine something most likely absolutely chimerical under the label of the “Egyptian” or “Greek” ornament. This effect deals with the Orientalist worldview that gave birth to the architecture of historicism and eclectism in modern history. Another related process is the rise of national imaginations supported by cultural production. Thus, a special kind of attachment exists between “the ornament” and “the culture” (or we want it to exist), moreover, ornament often serves as the boldest marker of such belonging. This mechanism often played a cruel joke in architecture. From this perspective, ornament again shows its potential in ordering space but in a different sense: being used as an attribute, it can symbolically attach the space to the imagined signified. In such cases, ornaments perform more like masks or covers, for the viewer’s convenience and to produce a certain impression about the space.  This is a referential power of an ornament. 

Therefore, ornaments are all about movement:

  • body movement

  • movement in time: to the “ancestors’ age” and back

  • geographical movement: to all parts of the world  

  • flight of fantasy as a sort of movement of imagination: let’s pretend that we live, say, in Byzantium?


Collecting and cataloguing ornaments


I’m interested in various historical attempts to classify and catalogue Central Asian, including Uzbek, ornaments in architecture, but also carpets, suzani and other objects of applied arts. These attempts were made in colonial and postcolonial contexts by late-Imperial and Soviet researchers, archaeologists, and restorers of different backgrounds, with whose help Central Asian ornaments entered imperial knowledge. I think these inquiries dealt a lot with the four types of movements inherent in ornaments listed above; all of them tried to establish power over movement, curb it and direct it. Without question, numerous such attempts were made, only a few of which сaught my eye.
Cataloguing, as a practice, always offers a particular way of ordering items. Moreover, catalogues were always included in the systems of imperial governance. It contains and classifies knowledge, excludes other knowledge, and provides conditions to produce new knowledge. As Ann Stoler showed, archives must be seen as “monuments of states”, “sites of state ethnography”, a “supreme technology of the late nineteenth-century imperial state, a repository of codified beliefs that clustered (and bore witness to) connections between secrecy, the law, and power” (Stoler, 2002: 87). Thus, collecting and cataloging might be called a cultural technology of rule, colonial in its essence, to borrow the concept coined by Francine Hirsch in her study of Soviet ethnographers in Central Asia (Hirsch, 2005).

Fig. 1-2. Publication cover and carpet ornament, in Bogolyubov, Andrey. 1908. Kovrovye Izdeliya Sredney Azii. Saint Petersburg: Ekspeditsia Zagotovlenia Gosudarstvennykh Bumag.

A few examples of the urge to classify the ornaments and media were selected by me and shown in the display. The carpet map and pattern-book were made in 1909 by Andrey Bogolyubov, who was a military officer, collector and amateur ethnographer. Such a combination of interests proved to be very widespread in colonial contexts and underlines the colonial nature of collecting.  This map also constitutes a special reading of the cultural/ethnic/national classification of ornaments and, consequentially, of the peoples who produced the carpets.  Another example is the pattern-tables of Central Asian carpets created and described by photographer, archaeologist, and ethnographer Samuil Dudin, published in 1927 but based on many years of work before the revolution. Publications such as Boris Denike’s book Architectural Ornaments of Central Asia (1939) are artifacts that appeared on the basis of archaeologists’ and ethnographers' discoveries and they transmit the historical narrative and classification. The volumes from the series “Art of Folk Craftsmen” published in Tashkent in the early 1960s, often based on the real practice of selected craftsmen as representatives of a certain craft or a region, fixed the scheme of correspondence.

Fig. 3-4. Tables of carpet ornaments, in Dudin, Samuel. 1927. Kovrovye Izdeliya Sredney Azii. Leningrad.

What did all these people collect and catalogue? Firstly, this could help historians to reconstruct the visual vocabulary of cultures. Besides, some of the scholars literally collected the vocabulary that masters used to describe what they did and how they did it and, most importantly, to transfer their craft knowledge. The vocabulary includes the names of instruments, materials, techniques, actions, colours, and architectural details. An interesting artifact is the DIY-dictionary of architectural terms made by Boris Zasypkin (the 1930s) from the National Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan. It’s not a translation dictionary but rather an explanatory one. To create a dictionary means to possess the language, to find the key to the practice that cannot otherwise be comprehended, as there were almost no equivalent words in Russian. 

Fig. 5-6. Sketches of the ornaments and dictionary of architectural terms. O`z RMDA, fond of Boris Zasypkin.

Another artifact is a short Regulation on the study of folk architecture published by the Uzkomstaris, the state institution responsible for the protection of and research about historical monuments, written for internal use in 1934, paid special attention to the collection of all sorts of drawings, plans, and blueprints, including those related to ornaments (O`z RMDA,  f. 2296, op. 1, d. 224, ll. 3–6). In Central Asia, a special technique to transmit ornaments existed that was based on stencils. These stencils were another objects of researchers’ hunting and restorers’ dreams. Even though such a technique is not unique and might be found in other cultures, it caught my very tentative and curious attention.

Fig. 7. An ornament “Turunj”, in Zakhidov, Pulat. 1960. Ferganskaya Rospis’. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.

Such perforated stencil plates made of tracing or rice paper on a one-to-one scale were known as akhta (in Uzbek, “axta”). Firstly, a master would draw the ornament (or a half or a quarter) on the list, then perforate it tightly with a needle. Then he put a piece on the wall and tapped it with a special small bag with coal powder inside, in order to obtain an outline. These stencils were created for each specific pattern or building. They were usually kept afterwards for further usage, even passed between ustos (from Uzbek, “masters”) from generation to generation. Although famous masters had many ornamental schemes in their heads and could easily improvise, stencils were important tools to transfer knowledge and craft: they were used as learning material for pupils at the workshops. Also, akhta as a medium could transmit the designs across distance. In a way, akhta is the simplest version of a binary code whose earliest material embodiments existed in a form of punched cards as an information bearer. 

Fig. 8. An akhta with the ornament for a stool, in Avedova, Nina. 1961. Tashkentskaya Rez’ba po Derevu. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.

To possess such an object as an akhta means a lot: it gives one ultimate power over the ornament as it can be reproduced infinitely. Having an akhta, one can kick-start an ornament, not just continue the existing one. It is the power to beget the first rapport, reproducible and infinite. It is not surprising that the restorers and architects were in search of them, as they could help to restore monuments and create new projects. 

These objects are semitransparent and weightless, they are rarely exhibited at museums but tell the hidden material and technical side of architectural and art history. I’m thinking about an akhta as a piece of information and the bearer of information: in such an object there is no distinction between these two sides, and the medium is indeed the message. To a certain extent, an akhta is a punched card for visual messages, available for copying and transmitting information over time and space. An akhta often represents only one ornamental element, which can be then combined with others to create a large, unique constellation for each spatial project. Thus, a collection of akhta would constitute a visual alphabet.  

Fig. 9-10. Two stencils from Khiva, usually called ulgi in Khorezm, begining of the XX century, Collection of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg.

Instrumentalization of Ornaments in Soviet Uzbekistan

Since the beginning of the 1930s and another turn of Soviet national policy, the maxim “national in form, socialist in content” became the official guiding principle in the sphere of art and architecture. However, what exactly “national” meant in practical terms was not clear. Generally, it was understood as the task of selecting the “developed” forms of “national arts” and combining them with the universally accepted achievements of “classical art”, but in practice, it produced a wide range of solutions. The ornament played a majorrole in this search for a new canon, most often as a bargaining chip to prove the needed level of “nationality” of a project at the meetings of the Union of Soviet Architects. “Just add an ornament” became the simplest recipe to turn national.

Uzbek ornament became the visual language that was most commonly appropriated and instrumentalized in architectural projects commissioned and made in the Soviet era since the 1920s. One important caveat: this is not to say that all architectural production during the Soviet times was made in this framework. There was space for architecture and masters who were working on another basis (for instance, vernacular); however, I’m interested in what we might call official architectural discourse that existed and was produced within the Soviet institutions. 

Architectural ornament as a part of architectural knowledge was gathered and catalogued (in expeditions, interviews, field trips, and measurements) in order to be further used. For this, ornaments were detached from their original contexts and the system to which they belonged. This process can be articulated by Farshid Moussavi’s differentiation of “ornaments” from “decorations”. As he puts it, ornament “is the figure that emerges from the material substrate, the expression of embedded forces through processes of construction, assembly and growth. It is through ornament that material transmits affects. Ornament is therefore necessary and inseparable from the object” (Moussavi & Kubo 2006). In many Soviet architectural projects, the old patterns were saturated with the symbols of the new epoch, for instance, stars, and became separated from the traditional spatial scheme of decoration with the laws of horizontal and vertical division, orderliness and compatibility of elements specific for every region of Uzbekistan. These laws were broken because of the new proportions of buildings, new functions and new visuality. 

Fig. 11. Traditional ordering of awall decoration, in Notkin, Iosif. 1961. Bukharskaya Rez’ba po Ganchu. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.

One extreme of how ornaments were implemented was labeled eclectic even by its contemporaneous discussants. Some architects (who usually were external to the local context) copied architectural ornaments and mixed them with their newly-invented patterns for their projects. For example, Stephan Polupanov was heavily criticized for such non-critical use of national heritage and eclectism. The same reproaches were addressed to A. Pavlov who invented the new “Uzbek architectural order” with the cotton crop as the column capital and to many other architects. In this context, the commission of the book of Uzbek architectural details that was initiated in the late 1930s is very telling. The architect Mitkhat Bulatov was responsible for this project, the initial goal of which was “to offer to the architects of the republic systematically selected material for further usage in today’s praxis as the usage of the national heritage is a political goal". Unfortunately, this album, which would make life easier for so many architects of the following generations and which inherited so much from the albums of architectural details of the late XIX century, was never published. (O`z RMDA,  f. 2532, op. 1, d. 41, ll. 43)

Fig. 12. Polupanov’s sketch of the Khiva ornament. in. O`z RMDA, fond of Stephan Polupanov.

Some architectural projects became rather collaborative spaces where local craftsmen were invited not only to produce the ornaments according to the existing blueprints but to offer their skills of imagining and designing the ornaments. The extent of their freedom was different from project to project. Sometimes, the general scheme of the space was already decided by the architect (as with the Navoi theater in Tashkent) but the masters could decide on everything else: the compositions of panels and borders, preferred patterns and techniques of carving. In other cases, they were responsible for smaller-scale decisions. Regardless of the level of their involvement in the project, masters tended to find themselves in the dependent position.
The referential power of ornament that can create links via time and space and symbolically support the sense of belonging, that at the same time can cover and pretend, was mobilized as the very productive instrument in architecture. This became possible with the skills, passion, techniques and knowledge of ustos and their students, who became involved in the projects, as well as the efforts of those who collected samples, akhta and sketches of ornamental heritage of Uzbekistan.


Avedova, Nina. 1961. Tashkentskaya Rez’ba po Derevu. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.

Bogolyubov, Andrey. 1908. Kovrovye Izdeliya Sredney Azii. Saint Petersburg: Ekspeditsia Zagotovlenia Gosudarstvennykh Bumag.

Denike, Boris. 1939. Arkhitekturny Ornament Sredney Azii. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Vsesoyuznoy Akademii Arkhitektury.

Dudin, Samuil. 1927. Kovrovye Izdeliya Sredney Azii. Leningrad.

Hirsch, Francine. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Moussavi, Farshid, and Kubo, Michael, eds. 2006. The Function of Ornament.  Barcelona: Actar.

Notkin, Iosif. 1961. Bukharskaya Rez’ba po Ganchu. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.


Pritsa, I. 1960. Tashkentskaya Rez’ba po Ganchu. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.


Ryuk, Sohee. 2022. “Patterns and Collections: Carpets from Central Asia in the Imperial Russian Imagination.” Acta Via Serica, 7(2), 65-87.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2002. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” In Refiguring the archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, Razia Saleh, 83–102. Berlin: Springer.

Zakhidov, Pulat. 1960. Ferganskaya Rospis’. Tashkent: Gosadarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennoy Literatury SSSR.


O`z RMA,  f. 2296, op. 1.

O`z RMA,  f. 2406, op. 1.

O`z RMA,  f. 2532, op. 1.

*This is a revision of the essay published in the collective volume Suture: Reimagining Ornament (Almaty, Hong Kong: CHAT, 2023). Republished with permission.

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