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22 May 2023




What if you could say only one word? What word would you choose to express yourself at any given moment? This thought evoked after I watched Rubens Ostlund’s “Triangle of Sadness”, where one of the characters could say only one word after a stroke. I kept thinking, how can one shift this embodiment of limitation? Can we find liberation out of this verbal limitation because we free ourselves of communication constructs?

Now when you are able to imagine this, think of not one word but more of a visual statement. What if your whole culture and history is narrowed down to one symbol, one ornament. Per say, qoshqar müïiz. Qozhqar müïiz - is a Central Asian ornament that became a universal visual component of Independent Kazakhstan resembling ram’s horns. It is placed on everything: t-shirts, trash bins on the streets, facades of the buildings, etc. This approach of copy-pasting irritated me for years. At my bachelor degree in art history classes in Kazakhstan we learnt a lot about Kazakh ornaments: we learnt about their diversity due to the purpose and placement of the ornament, thus ornaments for clothing were different from ornaments for furniture; about the formal variety shaped by their original geography, since the vast territory of the country had many directions in the development of applied arts and their visual representation. It angered me that today somehow we are lacking imagination of our ancestors and I thought it’s just lazy to put one ornament everywhere. Now, years after my graduation I’m just coming to realise that this is almost like the way one suffers to find their words again and learn to speak again after they had a stroke. My culture had a traumatic stroke and our recovery is still on-going.

On the way to recovery it is obvious that we would need to re-learn step by step all those basic skills our daily life requires. We have to make every word, every gesture, every ornament into a continuous, repetitive routine. We need to challenge our limitations to transform them into liberation.

One of my personal first challenges was to stop using the word “decorative” when we talk about Kazakh applied arts. The term “decorative-applied arts” was translated into Kazakh language from Russian as a form of classification of artistic practices. Decorative-applied art department in my academy, just as the same department in local museums, was always unspokenly considered second to fine art departments like paintings, sculpture, etc. This hierarchy came with western classical art classifications in the beginning of 20th century with Soviet imperialism. To this day we learn Kazakh art history based on Soviet literature that dates the beginning of fine art with first Kazakh painters, like Abylkhan Kasteyev, Kanafiya Telzhanov or Moldakhmet Kenbayev taught in Moscow and St.Petersburg. In my mind this sentence, “first Kazakh painter”, erases all those unknown artists who created not only conceptual pieces but practical, mobile items that surrounded nomads in their life. Later on “decorative-applied art” classification erased one more layer, the conceptual and intellectual aspect of not only items, but of the language of ornaments. Today when we copy-paste ornaments onto different surfaces we are lacking not only their purpose, because we don’t always know what they mean, we also lack the creativity of expressing ourselves through this language. Ornaments and the idea behind them flattened, leaving them only with their decorative, aesthetic aspect, only to be looked at, not understood.

On my way to investigate how can we re-learn the language of ornament I talked to Aisha Jandosova, Kyrgyz-Kazakh researcher and designer who started to make paper cut-outs of ornaments in October of 2021, one year into the coronavirus pandemic, she found her “home” through this practice. Aisha lives and works in the US, but frequently visits her family in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As Aisha shares in September of 2021 it’s been a year since she was away from her family and she was longing to be home. She started to draw some oyu-örnek (ornament in kazakh) and cut a few out, reminiscing the practice of cutting out snowflake patterns before New Year at school to decorate a classroom. During a popular social media challenge #inktober when illustrators and artists make graphic drawings and images everyday during the month of October, Aisha started her own hashtag #oyuörnektober where for 31 days she posted paper cut-out ornaments first found in books, then from Syrmaks, an ornamented felt carpet. Syrmak is usually made with two coloured felt parts, more often black and white, where the cut out ornaments are placed onto the background felt carpet creating an effect of inversion. The pieces are sewn to each other and embroidered along the lines of the ornaments. So it was only logical for Aisha to pick ornaments from these textile pieces which had a similar process of cut outs.

After #OyuÖrnektober2021 finished, Aisha continued her research on a weekly basis for the whole year. During these explorations Aisha used the outside world frequently for documentation of her collages or simply paper cut outs, making nature the background for her paper syrmaks.

Then the next October arrived. This time in the fall of 2022 Aisha decided to concentrate on Jeli - Syrmaq border line ornaments. Her process of drawing the ornament on paper, cutting it out, placing it on a scanner, creating a background colour with another paper changed a bit. For Jeli we see that she doesn’t use a background palette, leaving the black background. While making the border ornament Aisha leaves the centre part of the paper empty, concentrating our attention on the fluidity of the oyu-örnek that surrounds the space.