Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Folk clay toys from Russia

Dymkovo clay doll from Russia, Mother with childrenMother with many children Dymkovo doll, 1960-70s, All-Russian Decorative Art Museum, Moscow

One of the cutest souvenirs one can bring home from Russia is a ceramic folk toy. There is a variety of them but the most lively and most poplar toys are from Vyatka. They are called Dymkovo toys because originally they were produced in Dymkovo Sloboda village. The Dymkovo toy is nearly five hundred years old. The figurines were traditionally made by women and children working together in family units dividing the work according to the skill required for each step. Each person specialized in a particular part of the body or accessories. All parts were joined together and the seams rubbed with a damp rag or a wet finger and then the figures were set aside to dry for several days.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Peranakan beadwork

Peranakan beadwork, detail of tablecloth featuring birds and flowers in its designFragment of a beaded tablecloth, Penang, early 20th century, The Peranakan Museum Singapore 

During my last stay in Singapore a month ago I visited the Peranakan Museum and was really impressed with the amazing examples of Peranakan beadwork. One work was especially memorable: a large (126 x 118 cm) tablecloth made from over a million glass beads, featuring in its design colourful flowers, birds and insects on a turquoise ground. This is the largest known example of Peranakan beadwork in the world. One must visit the museum if only to see this master piece.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Souvenirs from Vietnam: pottery

Vietnamese ceramics for sale in Hoi An

Though not famous for its high quality, Vietnam ceramics nevertheless are creative and have a sort of rustic beauty different from that of the carefully refined ceramics from some other countries. There is an air of innocent carelessness about them as if the craftsmen who produced them were quite liberal in their creation not relying too much on the rules of symmetry and decoration.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Gem carved sculptures from Hoi An museum

Happy Buddha carved from garnet
Happy Buddha, garnet

On a picturesque and crowded with tourists street of the Ancient Town of Hoi An there is a small but interesting museum, the Gemstones Art Museum. It was founded in 2013 by a Vietnamese passionate collector. The museum's exhibition is divided into two sections: one showcases natural gemstone crystals and uncut stones and at another more than two hundred pieces of precious stone sculpture are displayed. In terms of quality and rarity of the stones, the variety of the carvings represented the collection has no comparison in Vietnam. Visitors have a unique chance to get to know and enjoy the great artistic and manual skills of Vietnamese craftsmen. Here are a few examples of the gem carving from the museum's collection

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Crafts of Central Asia: ganch carving

Detail of the ganch wall decoration, the Throne Hall, Khudoyar Khan Palace, Kokand, Uzbekistan 

Anyone who has not been to Central Asia is hardly likely to know the meaning of ganch. If one explains what ganch is it may seem highly prosaic: it is neither stone nor clay but something in between. It is obtained by firing a rock containing gypsum and clay and grinding it into a powder which is then mixed with water and a solution of vegetable glue. It then slowly solidifies as it dries out. Its shades range from light gray to light yellow. Ganch carving is one of the unique and ancient forms of artistic crafts of Central Asia.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Crafts of Russia: wedding ring shawls of Orenburg


Orenburg shawls are one of the world famous symbols of Russia. These lacy hand-knitted pieces of art are beautiful, warm and so light, fine and delicate that can be pulled through a wedding ring. They are so loved in Russia that there is even a song dedicated to this piece of clothing.

Tonight, when there's frost and there's blizzard
When the snow storm is roaming the road
Will you cover my shoulders, sweet darling,
With an Orenburg downy shawl.

The story of the Orenburg shawl started in the second half of the 18th century, when two older crafts were joined together. One of the predecessors of the fluffy shawl with its cobweb pattern was the thermal Kalmyk or Cossack shawl, which was worn under light clothing in fierce frosts, and knitted in plain stitch from the softest goat's fleece. The other was the fine lace shawls made by Ural Cossack women.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Crafts of Burma: kalaga wall hangings

 Kalaga wall hanging depicting peacocks
Late 19th century kalaga wall hanging; embroidered wool with silver and gilt threads and sequins, with appliqué of coloured braids, silk and felt fabrics, padded. The Victoria and Albert Museum

Kalagas are traditional beads and metal-thread embroidered pictures that originally were used to decorate the walls of the palaces and the temples, served as a room partitions or as screens hung outside the house on festive occasions. The word "kalaga" literally means "foreign certain" and referrs to the fact that the original idea was imported from Thailand. The art has been practised in Myanmar for well over two hundred years. Kalagas's most distinctive feature is richly decorated, applique figures that are padded to give a soft relief on an ornamented background.

Crafts of Belarus: Sluck sashes


Double-sided sash, Sluck, 1778-1807, silk weaving. Photo source

Being a bit nostalgic about the days I spent in Belarus recently I decided to write about something Belurusian. And there can not be a better choice than Sluck sashes , real treasure of Belarusian culture. This type of handwork was produced in Belarus (then Rzeczpospolita) in the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sluck sashes were named after the city of Slutsk (Minsk region), where they were first produced in 18th century to replace expensive imported sashes from the Orient. Such sashes from Ottoman Empire, Persia, Iran and China were very popular among the nobles of the time and served not only as a decorative element of the costume but as a symbol of high social status and wealth as well.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Traditional masks of Nepal

Traditional Nepalese mask

Traditional masks of Nepal can be devided into two sorts: "tribal" masks which belong to the ethnic groups such as Gurung, Magar, Tharu, Rai etc and which are also referred to as "shaman's" masks; and "classical" masks which represent Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses.
The classical Nepali masks always represent deities or demons and never the dead or the ancestors. Besides, masks are more often used in processions and in rituals rather than in theatrical performances.
There are three categories of masks: first, masks representing faces of gods which are worn by performers during ritual dances, a second category, masks which serve as ornamental motifs for decorating a temple, a chariot during a procession or a vase used as a ritual object. A third category includes masks in metal or stone representing faces of deities that are worshiped like statues. They are called statue-masks. The metal used for making them are silver, brass or bronze. These masks are often decorated with jewels and when not worshiped they are kept in a wooden box inside the temple.

Traditional pottery of Nepal

Pottery in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Pottery has a long history in Nepali culture. The oldest recorded finds in Lumbini date back at least 2600 years. The large ceramic water pots can be found in almost every village in Nepal which are used to collect, store and transport water. These vessels also keep water cool. Clay goods are also essential to many Hindu and Buddhist religious ceremonies. During pujas small ceramic cups are used to hold candles and butter lamps. Traditional Newari rice wine called aila is made using a special ceramic set-up crafted just for distilling rice or millet alcohol: several clay containers of various sizes are used in conjunction with a large ceramic vessel with holes punched in the bottom. Without this special holed vessel the creation of potent aila would not be possible.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Crafts of China: horsetail hair embroidery

Horsetail hair embroidery, source

Every ethnic group of China has its own unique way of designing and adorning their costumes and textiles. An ethnic minority of the Sui (Shui) counts just about 400 thousand people. For centuries a special traditional type of embroidery has been kept alive by the Sui women. This unique kind of embroidery uses horsetail hair for the needlework.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Crafts of China: beautiful enamelware

Vase, Qing dynasty, 18th century, Cloisonné enamel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enameling is a technique of fusing powdered glass to a bronze, copper or sometimes silver body by firing. The powder melts, flows and then hardens to a smooth, durable coating. Such metal vessels with a glassy coating on their surfaces are known as enamelwares. Enamelware which has the sturdiness of metal, the smoothness and corrosion-resistance of glass, is practical and beautiful. To day the earliest known enamel object made in China is the Tang Dynasty (618-907) gold-inlaid silver-base enamel mirror kept in the Shosoin Repository of Nara, Japan. Chinese enamels can be classified today into cloisonné, champleve, and painted enamels according to their production methods. In terms of bases there are gold-base, copper-base, porcelain-base, glass-base and purple-clay enamel. Among them the copper-base enamel is the most popular because the copper price is lower and enamel is easier to adhere to the copper surface.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Embroidery of Belarus: ritual towels

Hand-embroidered rirual towel rushnik from Belarus
Hand-embroidered ritual towel from Podneprovie region


These amazingly beautiful, hand-embroidered ritual towels are from Belarus. They are called rushnik and all the examples in this post are from the collections of different museums of Belarus and date from the 19th century. Each region of the country has its own distinctive designs and patterns of embroidery with hidden meaning and symbolism. The most popular motifs were flowers, plants, birds and geometrical. Such towels were not for everyday use of course, but for wedding or funeral ceremonies and for decoration of the place of honour (where the icon was placed) in the house. The majority of rushniks are embroidered with red threads. The very word "red" means "beautiful" and "splendid" and the colour itself symbolizes life, sun, fertility and health. It was believed that a rushnyk with red embroidery possesses magic powers that can bring happiness, prosperity and health to a person and his/her family.

Souvenirs from Russia: Palekh lacquered miniatures

Palekh lacquered miniature decorative dish


During my last stay in London I found this beautiful decorative place in a local charity shop. And this is not just an ordinary decorative plate but a real treasure: an authentic Palekh lacquered miniature. Distinctive features of Palekh miniatures are brightly painted scenes over the black background;  elongated, graceful figures(as on icons) and elaborate gold and/or silver ornamentation applied in fine lines throughout the painting. A genuine miniature also has on it a name of the artist and the year when it was created. My dish dates from 1989 and the artist's name is T.Bolshakova.
The exquisite, highly detailed miniatures painted in Palekh are called "small miracles" and they are on a great demand among the collectors throughout the world. So, I was really lucky to have mine for 8 GB pounds only. The painted image is of Ivan attempting to capture the mythical Fire-bird.
The Palekh art didn't exist till the beginning of the 20th century. Previously the small Russian village was a center of icon painting. The Revolution of 1917 changed that, the new government closed down the churches and banned icon production. The holy images were no longer on demand and the icon painters of Palekh found themselves out of work. The new times demanded new themes and subjects. So, Palekh artists had to use their skills and technique to create something different and they started to paint characters and scenes from real life, literature and fairytales using papier-mâché boxes as their canvas. Below are a few examples of beautiful Palekh miniatures from collections of different museums of Russia

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Khon masks of Thailand

Khon masks on display
Khon masks on display at the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, Bangkok

The khon is a traditional mask play in Thailand which implies the wearing of masks by performers. The story that has been used for staging of the khon is the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. Staged in its entirety, the Ramakien is an immensely complex story with 138 episodes involving 311 different characters and taking more that 720 hours of continuous performance.
The mask is perhaps the most important characteristic of the khon, for through it more than any other thing else, one distinguishes the variety of roles.

Crafts of Thailand: woodcarving

Thai woodcarving, a scene from Ramakien (Ramayana)
Wood carved scene from the Ramakien (Ramayana) 

If you are holidaying in Thailand and are seduced to buy one of the tours the local agencies offer I bet among "elephant riding" and "boat market experience" suggestions there will be a visit to a woodcarving centre too. All my photos of beautiful Thai woodcarving objects were made in one such centre near Bangkok.
Thanks to the rich forests that once covered much of territory of Thailand woodcarving became a major craft early in the kingdom's history. Until the late 19th century woodcarving was widely practised and entire temples and palaces were often wooden.
The preferred material for carvers was teak, because of its durability and resistance to insect damage, but other woods were used as well. The colour of the wood was not that important since it was usually gilded, lacquered or adorned with glass mosaics, tinsel or other bright material after carving was completed.

Crafts of India: wool rugs

Agra carpet, late 19th century. Nazmiyal Collection

Who would doubt that Mogul Emperors of India loved luxury: for its special comfort and as display of their power and wealth. And in case they found something missing or were not quite happy with the local products they didn't hesitate to invite foreign craftsmen to fulfill their desires and to teach locals. Seems like one of them, Akbar, especially missed soft and nice Persian carpets in his interior and so he established a carpet weaving centre right in his palace in Agra in 1580. And thus the Indian carpet was born. And in time it became no less famous as its predecessor the Persian carpet.
Sir George Birdwood, one of the greatest authorities on Indian carpets, said that they "...gained their reputations for the originality and great beauty of their designs, the harmony of their colouring, and their special fitness for the houses of the cultivated, the wealthy and the great".
And that's how he describes one of the Indian carpets at the Paris Exposition of 1878: "it is a carpet which it will be difficult to put into a European room, as its surface is too beautiful to allow of its being broken by furniture. It is a carpet to be looked at like a golden sunset...".
As at the start carpet weaving was patronized by the higher class it reflected its taste in designs: gardens, flowers, fruits and hunting were popular themes at those times. With the end of the patronage and the rise of interest from western countries the Indian weavers widened assortment of patterns and now there are large varieties of carpet designs offered: from Persian to Scandinavian, from Central Asian to Chinese.

Crafts of Japan: Iki Ningyo realistic dolls

Iki Ningyo doll's head

These heads that once belonged to life sized dolls look slightly spooky and disturbing, so realistically looking they are. No wonder, Iki-Ningyo literally means "true-to-life dolls" and it is hard to believe that they were made in the 19th century. These extremely real dolls were used for creating scenes from a fashionable plays or well-known historical events. It was a popular amusement in the late 19th century Japan. The figures were modeled with absolute attention to character and realism. The heads were made of wood covered in crushed shell paste and had glass eyes, ivory teeth, individually inset human hair and eyelashes. These figures were not always executed for exhibition purposes, but also for the private viewer.
A few more examples of the 19th century Iki-Ningyo heads from the Tokyo National Museum collection. Looking at these hyper-realistic heads one can't help but admire the skills of the craftsmen.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Traditional pottery of India

Creating ceramics, India
photo courtesy Biswarup Sarkar

According to Indian mythology the first earthen vessel was made in a hurry by Viswakarma, the God of arts and crafts, when after the churning of the ocean a pot for keeping the nectar was urgently needed. And since that time clay craft has become one of the most popular handicrafts in India and earthenware has been an essential part of a daily life. Clay pots are used for storing water and grain, for churning butter or setting milk to make curds. A pot filled with water is a symbol of good omen and so it is often used in traditional ceremonies.For worship if no image of a deity is available, a water pot does the duty. A variety of earthen objects are used in rituals like lamps, drums, flower vases, musical instruments. Tiny earthen lamps are also kept near new-born babies for 12 days. Many objects are specially produced for festive occasions like lamps for Diwali or toys for Dusserah.

Traditional masks of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka traditional tovil mask
Sri Lankan tovil mask.  National Museum Scotland

In Sri Lanka traditional masks are not just show-pieces or curios to decorate apartments. Here they still have meaningful existence in rituals and performances. Masks worn during so called demon dances are called tovil masks. During a tovil ceremony the dancer has to impersonate the demon and to converse freely with the exorcist. So many of the masks worn in these ceremonies are only half-cut masks and do not cover the entire face and head. They are light and easy to talk through.
There is a specialized group of tovil masks called sanni masks. Many Sri Lankans believe that diseases are results of demonic activity and 18 demons that cause sicknesses are represented by the sanni masks. Among the 18 deseases are following: delirium, abdominal pain, blindness, lameness, dumbness, deafness and insomnia, paralysis, cold shivers, disease of the stomach, fainting, high fever.

Made for maharajas: ceremonial weapons

Shiels (Dhal), Lucknow, first half 19th century. Silver gilt, brass, enamel and diamonds. Photo The Royal Collection Trust 

There are hardly any portraits of Indian maharajahs that do not show them carrying their ceremonial swords. For them arms were more than mere weapons, they symbolized honour, justice, courage, manhood, pride, and freedom. Arms were believed to possess sacred power. They were worshiped on special festivals such as Dussera. And they were beautiful works of art, decorated with gold, enamel and precious stones. Some weapons were ornamented with the images or symbols of divinities, are then they were more than just a symbol of power and social standing, but also a symbol of personal devotion to a deity. The image of the deity would of course also serve as a blessing on the weapon and he who wore it, invoking the power of the deity to protect and justify the actions of the owner of the weapon.Some superbly jeweled Indian arms are on display in museums around the world. Displayed at the Baroda Palace Armoury is a sword whose hilt is studded with two hundred and seventy-five diamonds and an emerald. One of the most beautiful jewelled daggers is in the Wallace Collection, London. Its hilt has been thickly overlaid with plates of gold, enamelled a striking crimson and encrusted with rose diamonds, cabochon rubies and emeralds. Such pieces were handed down from father to son. At the time of coronation the ruler was ceremoniously handed the sword and shield of his father by the family priest.

Traditional Thai flower arrangements

Thai flower garlands
Thai flower garlands, photo courtesy edna astronomia-estrada

Thai floral decoration is an art that has been in practice since the early times of history. It makes use not only of flowers but also leaves and branches and some additional materials such as incense sticks or candles. The most common of all the country's floral creations are garlands known as malai. They are made by stringing together various flower combinations that depend on seasonal blooms and the creator's imagination. The mixture, however, will always include one or more fragrant flowers, usually jasmine buds and roses. Garlands range from simple to highly complex and are placed as offerings on shrines, presented to honoured guests and used on many other special occasions.

Traditional woodcarving of Nepal

Woodcarving of Nepal, decorative detail
Wood carved decoration of the Kumari house, Basantapur

One of the things that Nepal can really be proud about is its traditional art of woodcarving. You can stumble upon beautiful pieces of wood-carved art literally at any corner of Kathmandu. Struts, pillars and beams of the temples, doors and windows of the common houses and office buildings, photo- and mirror frames, furniture - everything that is wooden is decorated either with finely carved figures or with intricate patterns.
The tradition of woodcarving in Nepal goes back to the 12 century. Since then, the carvers have achieved great skill by passing secrets from generation to generation and acquiring and sharing new techniques. In the Newar community, to which wood carvers mostly belong to, medieval texts are still kept - instructions and rules for wood carving, which are used in practice until now. For example, the masters still do not use any nails or glue to create their works.