Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Kazakhstan ceramic dish © Madina Sultanova

Pottery Art: Yesterday and Tomorrow

Kazakh ceramic art is as old as Kazakh history itself. Excavation sites of early and medieval nomadic cultures include many pottery traditions that mark historical milestones of the Great Steppe. The most ancient forms of ceramics found in the region correspond to similar pieces found all over the world. Researchers believe that the first pottery traditions were introduced during the Indo-Iranian (Aryan) era of nomadic cattlemen, which is associated with the Andronovo culture of the fifteenth to eighth centuries BCE. In medieval times, the increased demand for ceramics was linked to thriving medieval Silk Road townships. Though there are similarities with many other Eurasian schools of ceramic art, each area presents its own unique pieces that carry distinctive characteristics.

The first Kazakh clay items appeared during the New Stone Age, fifth millennium BCE. The transition to farming and cattle breeding had started during this period and people learned how to model clay and bake the clay on fire to create parabolic vessels with round bottoms and simple ornaments. In the bronze epoch, with the spread of Andronovo culture through vast areas of Kazakhstan, ancient artisans refined the primitive vessel designs by making the ornamentation more complicated. The ceramic creations of this period were thin-walled and highly durable. The combinations of ornamental details in the Andronovo vessels were extremely diversified, so it is hard to restore the original meaning of each detail.

Thin-walled vessels were handmade; usually the master used banded clay strips. In some cases, a solid clay piece was pressed to shape the vessel’s walls. Ornamentation using cutting tools and painted pottery appeared in the later period. The methods of shaping pottery vessels changed over the centuries, following the changes in nomadic culture. In the Bronze Age, pottery was decorated with a special geometric ornament, coinciding with the patterns used in other parts of Europe and Asia.

In Turkic period the southern and southwestern regions of Kazakhstan were strongly influenced by the Central Asian traditions of ceramic glaze manufacturing. This resulted in an impressive development of the pottery art in these areas. The historical chronicles describe flourishing cities with entire urban blocks for pottery craft workshops. The medieval cities of Otrar and Taraz were the centers of the southern region, and both developed the unique pottery style that was well known far beyond the Great steppe.1K. M. Baipakov and L. M. Erzakovich, comps. Ceramics of Midieval Otrar (Kazakhstan: Alma Ata, 1989)

The so-called Timurid style dominated Kazakh pottery since the fifteenth century. It is characterized by a mono-colored interior as well as changing shades of cobalt on a white engobe had predominated the unique blue and-turquoise glazing coloring of pottery production. While in the sixteenth century, the number of pottery colors increased to three, the traditional cobalt patterns on a white engobe were still enforced. Islamic decoration traditions facilitated the use of floral motifs of vine-stocks and sprouts, cotton bolls, flower bushes, leaves, flowers, and branches while the geometric motifs were not vividly expressed. At this time, a major center of the glazed pottery industry was established in Turkestan (Yasa).

By the seventeenth century, masters were abandoning the cobalt painting, replacing it with a dark brown color on white glaze, and later it was changed by painting green on yellow glaze. These changes may have been due to the decaying Silk Road trade routes and the corresponding diminishing supply of cobalt.

In the eighteenth century, the role of the northern and western Kazakhstan regions had increased greatly. While these had not been historical centers of ceramic production the cultural highway was shifting from the south to the north, and this led to a visible deterioration of the burning quality and decoration as well as a simplification in painting. The plastic art and delicate manners of the medieval style had virtually disappeared. This deterioration has been attributed partly to the increase of imported Russian pottery, and over the subsequent two centuries, Kazakh pottery stagnated. Only in the twentieth century was there a revival movement.

During the Soviet period, artisans were looking for innovative approaches to pottery production. In the 1970s, artists revived the studies of the Otrar ceramic school traditions and the medieval Taraz workshops. Following archaeological findings, the artisans produced pottery samples that reflected the traditional methods of clay work.

The twenty- first century returned ceramics to its origins, and a new generation of ceramists, designers, and artisans have resumed the creative art. Nowadays, artisans from the so-called Almaty ceramics school are rethinking the spatial and plastic elements and ceramic traditions.

Today, just as centuries ago, earth, water, and fire are once again being worked through on a potter’s wheel, giving birth to new meanings and forms.

Notes   [ + ]

1. K. M. Baipakov and L. M. Erzakovich, comps. Ceramics of Midieval Otrar (Kazakhstan: Alma Ata, 1989