Dinara Chochunbaeva and the Central Asia Craft Support Association
Dinara Chochunbaeva is an artist, teacher, children’s book author, and a tireless champion for the preservation and development of Kyrgyz handicrafts. She has been a frontline worker for cultural preservation and traditional arts all her life, both during the Soviet era and in independent Kyrgyzstan. She’s been an artisan advocate for over twenty years, committed to understanding not only craft traditions, but also the social and political aspects of cultural revival. She has been a presenter at numerous international forums about the role of traditional craft in building and sustaining healthy communities.
Following a USAID-funded artisan development initiative in Central Asia from 1994-1999, Dinara and her colleagues founded the Central Asian Crafts Support Association (CACSA), a coalition of more than eighty artisan organizations from all the countries of Central Asia. She served as the President of CACSA for its first eight years, and is now director of the CACSA Resource Center in Kyrgyzstan.
HAND/EYE correspdondent Candra Day asked Dinara about the contributions CACSA has made to Kyrgyz handicraft – and also to talk about the creative dynamics of her own life.
H/E: How was CACSA started? What were your original goals?
Dinara Chochumbaeva: In 1993 Clare Brett Smith, then president of Aid to Artisans, visited Kyrgyzstan at the invitation of Roza Otunbaeva – at that time the Kyrgyz ambassador to the USA and now the new President of Kyrgyzstan. Later Clare told me that when she got the first call from our embassy in Washington she didn’t think it was serious. Ambassador Otunbaeva introduced herself and asked Clare: “Why don’t you come to Kyrgyzstan?” When Clare asked why, Otunbaeva responded, “Because we have beautiful crafts.” Clare’s eventual visit was the beginning of the Central Asian crafts movement. After Kyrgyzstan, Clare visited neighboring countries in Central Asia and, as a result of her efforts, a regional four-year Central Asian craft development project appeared.
In 1998, at the close of the program, the eleven partner organizations working together to develop crafts in the region began to ask each other, “What should we do after the Americans leave?” Without US funding, we could easily revert to our previous situation. But during the project these artisans had become accustomed to seeing each other, to creating, collaborating and marketing as a community. We realized that we live in the same area, that we have the same cultural roots. And we realized that we must save and develop our cultural heritage. We learned that we are powerful together. We decided to form an association for solving our common problems, and in March of 2000 the Central Asia Crafts Support Association (CACSA) was formed.
CACSA is a non-governmental organization whose headquarters move every four years to another country in the region. Today, CACSA includes over 80 artisan communities, uniting over 5,000 craftsmen from six countries of the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. The goals of CACSA are to preserve and develop the cultural heritage of the people of Central Asia and to support craftsmen of the region to reach international markets.
H/E: What do you consider to be CACSA’s most important accomplishments?
DC: Most important is that we created an effective regional network and made a noticeable contribution to the development of the craft market. We did not realize it when started, or even along the way. But now, seeing how the craft market looked in 90’s compared with its present day success, I think we have a right to say “There is our investment in this as well.”
We also developed the craft skills of artisans by providing grassroots trainings to people in rural areas all over the region. As a result of our efforts, local (and sometimes national) governments noticed that crafts production can be a serious part of the economy and they have started to support the field.
The ongoing tasks of Association are the creation of a shared regional informational network and data base for Central Asian artisans; expansion of sales market for crafts on both regional and international levels; facilitating the professional growth of artisans with education programs; carrying out research in the history, culture and ethnography of Central Asian people; and attracting global attention to the crafts and traditional culture of Central Asian people through the organization of regional and international cultural programs, conferences and symposia.
H/E: What has been lost in the 20th-century? What cannot be regained in the 21st?
DC: Kyrgyz traditional culture is mainly represented by traditional crafts, folk music and oral folklore. Crafts are an essential part of the traditional nomadic culture of Kyrgyz people who lived in close connection with nature, which was the inexhaustible source of both raw materials and inspiration for beautiful handwork.
From ancient times, Kyrgyz masters created items in harmony with their nomadic life. Craftspeople used the resources of the nomadic shepherd’s household: wool, leather, skins, horns and hooves, as well as abundant natural materials such as the wood of local trees and shrubs, chii (a special kind of river reed), clay, natural dye materials, etc. Artisan masters transferred their knowledge to the next generation, not only about getting and using the resources around them, but also about responsible recycling.
Ornamental motifs were (and are) the main media of artistic expression by Kyrgyz masters. Ornamental forms have their roots in ancient times and reflect their creators’ aesthetic perception of their natural and social environments, as well as their cosmology. Many ornamental motifs had a sacred and protective function. In the past, Kyrgyz ornaments also had an informational, storytelling purpose.
Nowadays, though, there are very few artisans who can “read” our ornaments. Our unique traditional knowledge, which has been orally transferred from generation to generation for centuries and was never recorded, is on the verge of being lost. Artisans seldom know and use complete traditional craft techniques, and even less often know the rich range of historic Kyrgyz motifs. Most of them use synthetic raw materials, and copy from one another the ornamental motifs without understanding their meaning.
Custodians of our old ways (usually the eldest among us) can still be found in our more traditional communities. But as these elders gradually leave this world, they take with them their precious experience and knowledge, which is not recorded anywhere and not much in demand by modern society. Often our elders say they have no one to whom they can transfer their knowledge. Our most traditional ways have almost never been the subject of serious study. Now is the time to collect and record what is left for future generations of Kyrgyz people. With others in Kyrgyzstan, I am working on this project.
Kyrgyzstan, with the Central Asian region as a whole, also faces the challenge of preserving and regenerating our natural resources, which have often been used with a harshness akin to vandalism. The database we are creating as part of our heritage documentation project will provide the initial material for educational programs to safeguard our bio-cultural diversity. One important goal of this project is to foster in younger generations a spirit of respect for their cultural heritage, traditions and natural environment.
Of course we cannot turn back time. But now is the time to capture traditional knowledge of our craft techniques and meanings. And we are trying.
H/E: How do you decide what’s especially good?
DC: I look for Kyrgyz craft that shows harmony in form, ornament, and color. In the best examples of craft, I see something uniquely Kyrgyz in a sense of proportion, modesty, and delicacy of composition and color combination.
H/E: How did you begin your career as an advocate for traditional handicraft? How did you make the transition from artist to the founder and leader of institutions?
DC: To answer this question I have to come back to my roots. My ancestors on both sides were craftsmen. I remember that my granny was always doing something by hand and, from three years of age, I liked to sit near her and to watch how just simple layers of felt were transformed into amazing multicolored patterns. In addition to producing felt rugs, she knew how to make silver jewelry, sew velvet dresses, and fashion shoes and coats from leather. Unbelievable. And she also was a teacher: in the 1940’s, she participated in a Soviet government program to eliminate literacy in South Kyrgyzstan. My parents were both teachers and they loved their jobs. I saw how they loved their students and how they worked really hard.
But I never wanted to follow them into teaching. I always dreamed of becoming a painter. I loved to paint portraits of interesting, unusual characters. And I believe (even now) that I could be a professional. But the old wisdom that “the apple never falls far from the tree” has been true for me: I am teaching people.
Candra Day is founder of Vista 360, dedicated to preserving mountain cultures. See www.vista360.org.