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SICA Success Stories

Revitalizing Kazakhstan's Cultural Legacy: USAID Champions the Preservation of Kazakh Traditional Arts

During the Soviet era in Kazakhstan, an estimated 70 percent of traditional Kazakh crafts were lost or destroyed, resulting in the dissappearance of the knowledge required to recreate them. As a result, many textile embroidery techniques used to create clothing, footwear, headgear, and various interior items now teeter on the edge of extinction. "It's a regrettable loss of our tangible cultural heritage. The Soviet era, with its policies, posed the greatest threat to our cultural identity. Now, our task is to painstakingly rebuild our understanding of traditional ornamentation," comments Aizhan Bekkulova, Chairwoman of the Union of Artisans. The USAID-funded Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) project supported the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan to create an online database showcasing traditional Kazakh crafts. Throughout one year, the team conducted expeditions across Aqtobe, Shymkent, Pavlodar, Aqtau, Taraz, Qyzylorda, Almaty, and other regions of Kazakhstan. Their research in various Kazakh museums and visits to artisan workshops uncovered unique crafting techniques. The team digitized these findings for display on their website, presenting a vast gallery of textile designs sourced from both museum and private collections across Kazakhstan. The website also features a comprehensive bibliography about the symbolism, history, and cultural legacy of Kazakh ornamentation, aimed to inspire emerging creatives.

Presently, the database showcases 60 graphic ornaments, a gallery of 300 applied arts objects, articles, interviews, and much more. Regular updates promise fresh content. Materials from regional museums, including those in Pavlodar, Qyzylorda, Aqtau, Taraz, Turkestan, Aqtobe, and others, have are categorized and complemented by interviews with artisans, archaeologists, and art critics. The database reveals previously unknown Kazakh national ornaments and provides photographs, detailed descriptions, books, success stories, and more.

Looking ahead, the team plans to diversify their collection, including art forms such as wood and bone carving, ceramics, jewelry, musical instruments, equestrian gear, weapons, utensils, yurt decorations, metalwork, and others. The platform will also feature practical lessons, especially highlighting endangered techniques.

The project has resonated widely, especially among the younger generation interested in Kazakh folk arts as a mode of decolonization. Enthusiasts, ranging from experts to novices, often approach the project team seeking insights into ornaments and their meanings. "Without engaging the young, our rich artisan history risks fading away,” Aizhan Bekkulova says. “The Union prioritizes youth engagement and education, organizing various training programs. Impressively, our younger members have started leading some of these sessions, displaying expertise beyond their years. They represent our bright future."

Reflecting on her personal journey, Aizhan adds, "I've dedicated over three decades to this field, consistently updating my skills. Diverse artworks provide fresh insights. My travels, both within Kazakhstan and abroad, combined with museum explorations, have enriched my understanding. To those passionate about learning, our team extends a warm invitation. Our skilled artisans are ready to mentor and impart their deep-rooted knowledge. If you are genuinely committed, we stand ready to guide you."

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