Suture / Asel Kadyrkhanova
18 Dec 2023
I embroider, stitch by stitch. I listen to the sound the needle makes as it pierces the fabric. It is a quiet punching sound produced by the resisting material. Stitch by stitch the thread folds into a pattern on the surface — or, more precisely, the thread becomes the surface, intertwined into the intersection of threads that constitute the fabric. This process has its duration and rhythm; any attempt to accelerate it fails, causing the thread to entangle in resistance.
Hand embroidery has not been my everyday practice, unlike the generations of women in my family — my grandmothers and great-grandmothers — who would hand-make everything that constituted nomadic life. They turned the chaos of every day into a cosmos of yurts, felt carpets, and embroidered colourful clothes. Born in the late Soviet Union and educated in the European tradition of artmaking, I find myself detached from this tradition, being accustomed more to drawing and painting. Embroidery differs from drawing qualitatively. While a pencil glides on a surface, leaving a quick line, embroidering this line slows it down by ten times. It returns one fully into their body, subjecting them to a rhythm consonant with the bodily rhythms: heartbeats, breathing. Hand embroidery does not tolerate rush but teaches care, patience, and resilience and, as such, it is an act of reparation. I turn to the practice of hand embroidery as a work of memory. It is my conscious (re-)turn to the body, my performative questioning of what I may inherit from what has been lost irrevocably. What fragments of the lost knowledge are available to me? Is this knowledge restorable?
This essay reflects on the two works presented in the exhibition Suture: Reimagining the Ornament: video performance Speechless (2017/2022) and a series Marijam (2022). The first work addresses the issue of the alphabet change in Kazakhstan between 1929 – 1940, implemented as a part of the policy of cultural assimilation in the USSR. The second work, Marijam, is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, who lived through that turbulent time. Both works explore the questions of invisibility, cultural identity, and language. In these works, I employ hand embroidery to explore the interconnection of touch and vision and to find a visual language of trauma.
Both works feature the alphabets of the Kazakh language. I use the plural term for the alphabet because there are three: Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic. The subject of the alphabet change remains topical in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries of the former Soviet bloc. For almost ten centuries, Kazakhs used the Arabic script; in the beginning of the 20th century, the educator and linguist Ahmet Baitursynuly reformed it as ‘tote çazu’, a system of writing based on the Arabic script but adapted to the Kazakh language. In 1929, a version of the Latin alphabet ‘yanalif’ replaced the Arabic-based script in Turkic-speaking nations of the Soviet Union. In 1940, ‘yanalif’ was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, which has been in use until today.
The replacement of the alphabets was implemented under the politics of cultural assimilation in non-Russian Soviet republics. In the decades when the alphabets were changed mass atrocities and oppressive policies took place, including collectivization and forced settlement of pastoral nomads (1925 – 1933), the resulting man-made famine (1931 – 1933) that took lives of one third of Kazakh population, and the Stalinist purges (1937 – 1938). The developer of ‘tote çazu’ Ahmet Baitursynuly was executed in 1937 by the NKVD.
By (re-)turning to the practice of hand embroidery, I seek to touch upon the lost connection to the tradition of textile-making that used to be an essential part of nomadic life. By embroidering letters and words in Kazakh Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, I seek to understand the connection between visual image and concept, ornament and language, touch and vision. I inquire into the role of language as a tool to communicate feelings and concepts, focussing on how the loss of visual images and concepts creates a lasting absence. How can a return to the textile help to address the legacies of the loss? How can an act of embroidery be a work of memory?
Apart from Kazakhstan, the Cyrillic alphabet is currently used by the Kazakh diaspora in Mongolia. The other two alphabets also continue to be used by Kazakh diasporas abroad: in China, Iran and parts of Afghanistan they use the Arabic letters, whilst Kazakhs of Turkey, Germany and the USA use the Latin script.
I first filmed Speechless in 2017, and then re-filmed it in 2022. It is a performative reflection on the effects of the identity politics in Soviet Kazakhstan. In Speechless, I stitch and unstitch the word ‘soz’ (Kazakh: ‘word’) with a red thread on pale pink fabric. I do it, first, in Arabic letters, then in Latin, and finally in Cyrillic. To unstitch the letters, I remove the red thread with forceps wearing white surgical gloves (fig. 1). This action mimics a surgical act of suturing (or removing stitches) from a living body. It emphasizes the bodily character of trauma that escapes memory whilst remaining a “permanent resident” in the psyche of a traumatised person manifesting as a recurring symptom (Pollock, 2013: 2).
I find a visual language for trauma through what Mieke Bal (2010)calls “metaphoring”. The action is mimetic — and haptic, as it elevates a sense of touch in the viewer. Through the metaphor, I offer a way to think about the acts of erasure of language and identity, deprivation of which does not go without physical violence. With my performative action, I attempt to make pain expressible through a mimetic act, mimicking physical violence.
As an instrument of expression language is imperfect. It cannot convey many concepts, for example, as Ludwig Wittgenstein notes, it fails at expressing pain: “Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person surmises it.” (Wittgenstein, 2016: 95). The phrase “I know I am in pain” for Wittgenstein is therefore paradoxical: knowledge of one’s own pain comes with no need for words to describe it, whilst knowledge of someone else’s pain can never be fully possible (Wittgenstein, 2016; Scarry, 1985: 7).
The language of pain is devoid of words. In Elaine Scarry’s words, “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds of cries a human being makes before language is learned” (Scarry, 1985: 4). But I wonder how a moving image can convey pain. In my video, the word ‘soz’, at first easily readable, is deconstructed gradually in the process of unstitching, implying the destruction of speech. On the one hand, it is a metaphor for the destruction of language in an individual subject in pain. Their words turn into a cry or a moan — the red thread can no longer fold into a structure. On the other, as a reference to the alphabet change within Soviet identity politics, it is a destruction of one identity followed by an imposition of the other.
I begin to unstitch the word 'soz'. What has just now been a word starts losing its integrity; the red thread gets tangled and gradually turns into a structureless mess. The fabric holds on to the thread, as it has already become a part of it. At the end of each act, after I have removed the thread, the fabric is plain again. What was written has disappeared, but the history of the erasure is concealed inside the fabric. The tiny traces of manipulation are visible – the invisible history of the surface.
Speechless, video-performance, still, 2017 - remake 2022
Marijam is the name of my grandmother. She was born in 1911 in Eastern Kazakhstan; she learned the Arabic script as a young girl before eighteen when she married my grandfather. By the time Marijam had her first child, the Arabic alphabet had been changed to Latin. Ten years later, in 1940, it was replaced by Cyrillic. The decade in between saw mass atrocities, such as the famine and the Stalinist purges. Marijam did not have a chance to learn the new alphabet until old age. Only in the 1970s did she teach herself the Cyrillic script, which gave her access to written literary texts published in Cyrillic that she profoundly enjoyed. Forty-five years, a lifetime of exclusion from the dominant cultural code of the time. How to retrieve the irretrievable?
The work Marijam is a series of fifteen embroidered canvases. I seek to touch upon the loss and, at the same time, attempt reparation. Each canvas features a letter or a word written in one or two alphabets. The thread I use does not differ much in colour and shade from the fabric. I deliberately remove contrast from my embroidery to signify the broken connection to the tradition: Kazakh embroidery traditionally uses contrasting and saturated colours, such as red, ochre, green, blue, brown, black, and white. By removing the contrast from my embroidered pieces, I offer a metaphor for the ‘invisibling’ effects of the systemic suppression and appropriation of voices. The resulting image is not seen — at least not from a distance — one has to come close enough to see the letters.
However, I realise that the invisibility of the thread gives me a nagging sense of discomfort and almost physical pain. It makes me think about the invisibility of the everyday labour of a woman that is seldom noticed. It makes me think about personal stories silenced forcibly or voluntarily. What were the stories that have never been told? What knowledge do we hold close to the body that we do not want to forget? Or does this knowledge reside inside the body, concealed but unforgotten?
Embroidery is a tactile medium. The contact with the fabric is constant. From time to time, I prick my fingers, and tiny blood appears — it spreads along the grooves of the skin but does not drip onto the fabric. The memory of a needle is strong. As I finish my work, I often worry that the needle is still near me; my body reacts with phantom piercing sensations.
The canvases are of the same size; they are arranged in a grid, which Rosalind Krauss sees as emblematic of modernism with its ‘will to silence’ (Krauss, 1979: 50-64). She argues that the grid breaks the boundary between vision and language, embracing art as predominantly visual. Its spatial structure makes sequential reading impossible, hence the grid rejects a narrative. In my work, I use the grid to emphasize how the structure of modernity absorbs and subdues the living language that resurfaces with fragments of words and letters. This work is not narrative; the story is hidden behind the canvas surface.
On the other hand, a grid emphasizes the materiality of the surface, which in visual art — specifically, in digital art forms, gets dissolved in visual imagery. Over the past few centuries, art has grown to rely predominantly on the eye. Juhani Pallasmaa notes that the hegemony of vision grew in parallel with the growth of Western Ego-consciousness (Pallasmaa, 2012: 46) But what is hidden behind modernity, as Walter Mignolo argues, is the idea of the expendability of human life (Mignolo, 2011: 6). In Soviet Kazakhstan, modernist ideals found a place along with the policies of sedentarization of the nomadic population, which resulted in the painful erasure of the nomadic tradition. Relying on the potentiality of the grid to draw attention to the surface, I emphasize what the surface itself can reveal. At a distance, the canvases appear as an installation of monotonous rectangles with little visual interest. To see the embroidery, the viewer must come close enough. I seek to demonstrate the contrast between the faceless grid and the ornament that is not seen as much as it invites one to touch. In this way, I want to begin the dialogue on what has been sacrificed to Soviet modernity.
Marijam, hand embroidery on red fabric, fragment, 50 x 60 cm, 2022
3. Learning ‘tote çazu’ as a work of memory
As part of this work, I teach myself ‘tote çazu’ to reflect on transgenerational memory and cultural identity. Each canvas becomes a workbook, a blank pad for learning and reflection. The learning happens through artmaking: I memorise the letters I embroider. I notice how my eyes, mind and throat react to the unfamiliar symbols. As I have not formed immediate bodily responses to the visual inscriptions, many letters look like an ornament to me, and the Arabic alphabet remains a visual code I struggle to understand. A letter is an ornament the meaning of which unfolds only at the knowledge of a concept it signifies. If a letter signifies a sound, a certain amount of time and practicing must pass before a mental image-sound is formed.
In Arabic, letters merge. Their appearance changes depending on whether the letter appears at the beginning, middle or end of a word. The shape-shifting letters make me think of the elusive character of a visual code and the shape-shifting cultural identity. For example, I reflect on the transformations and hybridity of one cultural identity while embroidering the canvas with three letters from different alphabets merged together (fig. 5). It is the letter ‘ğ’ in Cyrillic, ‘tote çazu’ and ‘yanalif’. Belonging to the different visual codes, they cannot be connected, but I make them merge. As a result, what they make is not a word but a graphic element without a fixed meaning. The sound they signify is a guttural ‘ğ’: something stuck in the throat: a word, wheezing.
A writing system, I realize, can affect one’s perception of time. Arabic is written from right to left. When I write or embroider from right to left, it feels as if the time is reversed: it moves from a finite point in the future to an open-ended past. Learning the Arabic letters of ‘tote çazu’ — the alphabet that is foreign to me but was familiar to my grandparents — is a work of memory. The process connects me to the visual codes they used. Symbolically, like writing in the opposite direction, it proceeds from the present moment to the unknown past.