The Return to Romanticism: interview with Crimean Tatar folk artist Mamut Churlu8 min read

 In Central Asia, Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview, Russia
Mamut Churlu is part of the mass return of Tatar repatriates to the Crimean Peninsula at the fall of the Soviet Union. Churlu worked for years in Uzbekistan and Russia on researching folk art practices as well as creating his own art. When he returned to Crimea, he formed Crimean Style, a folk art project that promotes preservation and revival of traditional embroidery, weaving, ceramic, and ornamental practices. 

So much of Crimean Tatar art was lost in the Stalinist purges but a new generation of young artists devoted to preserving their culture is bringing it all back. New workshops with updated practices have sprung up all around Crimea. Education is key in reintroducing these practices back to the people. Hundreds have participated in Crimean Style’s workshops and are excited about an art form brimming with symbolism, cultural significance, and unabashed tradition. The significance strikes a different chord when it is so rooted in Crimean Tatar rites of passage and identity. Symbolism plays a big role in Crimean Tatar folk art. There are stories and meanings embedded into all Crimean Tatar artwork that have a special name – ornek.  

I spoke to Mamut Churlu to discuss his work in the great revival project. We leave politics at the door and explore the beauty of Crimean Tatar artistry. 

The Golden Age of Crimean Tatar art coincided with the peak of the Crimean Khanate prosperity from the mid 15th to 18th centuries. Then Crimean Tatar art and culture entered a period of self-isolation after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783. In contemporary times, ethnic groups have asserted their identity from the Russian monolithic narrative through art and preservation. Can you talk more about your involvement in the Crimean modern identity project? 

Russian aristocrats and educated art consumers started to show interest in Crimean Tatar embroidery in the 19th century, influenced by Romantic art movements in Europe. Fascination with folk art arose at this time. By the end of the 19th century, many Russians had private collections. Beginning in the 20th century, orientalists and ethnographers collected Crimean Tartar art for museum collections. Large collections of Crimean Tatar embroidery can be found in museums in Russia and Berlin. 

The process of Crimean Tatar embroidery usually took place in a traditional home. Household items were created as a tradition, usually for weddings and certain rites of passage. Typically, a bride brought up to four hundred hand woven and hand embroidered items to the groom’s house. The knowledge of this craft was passed down from their grandmothers and taught to girls in villages. 

In 1928, The Academy of Art and Sciences in Moscow organized an exhibition of Crimean Tatar ornamental design, weaving, and embroidery. Many collectors flocked to this exhibition and a cooperative of over 350 craftswomen was formed by 1930, with the idea of creating modern textile products like tablecloths, napkins, and handkerchiefs intended to export to the European market. Around the same time, Crimean Tatar embroidery was presented at an Art and Industry exhibition in Paris and awarded a bronze medal. 

We lost a lot when the indigenous people of Crimea were deported in 1944. Most of our folk culture and art was associated with the creation of household items. It wasn’t until a mass return in the 1990s when repatriates were able to revive their lost craft. It’s not the sole work of myself, but the efforts of so many young artisans who are bringing this lost art back.

You returned to Crimea in 1989 after spending much time in Russia and Uzbekistan. This is something of a homecoming for you. Can you talk about how Crimean folklore was a part of your upbringing? How do diasporic Tatar communities see the Crimean peninsula?

Even before my return to my homeland in 1989, I created decorative textiles, painted, and worked as a researcher. I worked with museum collections, participated in ethnographic expeditions, spoke at conferences about Central Asian carpet weaving, and even published a study on ceramic toys from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I worked as a curator, promoting Uzbek ceramics in exhibitions all around the Soviet world. 

My painting style is brutalist in character at first. It was birthed as a reaction to political aggression and an ongoing information war against my people. In the mid-’90s, I realized that persistent negativity would not uplift me or my people.

I realized it was important to partner up with international arts programs and organizations that were already working towards promoting traditional arts. In 1996, I created a school curriculum that successfully brought back Crimean Tatar kilim. (Kilim is a tapestry-woven textile made from sheep wool, dyed in roots, leaves, and flowers and many believe the decorations on a kilim have special powers to protect a house.) 

At the same time, there were other ornamental master jewelers returning to the motherland and creating traditional filigree decorations. Embroidery workshops also sprung up around this time. I started holding workshops for youth and teaching art at schools. In 2004, I was invited to the Ukrainian Union of Folk Masters and was able to organize the first-ever exhibition of contemporary decorative Crimean Tatar art in Kyiv.  

This exhibit was unlike any other. We exhibited ceramic plates and toys, traditional embroidery styles such as the gold thread stitch and double-sided embroidery technique, kilim, calligraphy, and tablecloths. From that moment on, I realized that showcasing the effort and artistry of Tatar art masters was a powerful weapon for promoting our culture at the international level. Education is key to fighting back in the misinformation war. What we needed was inside us this entire time.

I started Crimean Style, an organization that puts together free seven-day seminars to study ornek for use in both traditional and contemporary creative works. This promoted constant creative activity with countless amounts of shows in the largest cities in Ukraine. In over 15 years of Crimean Style’s existence, we’ve held more than thirty exhibitions.

To be completely honest, many people who support Crimean Tatar do so in a political vein. I urge people to see us for our culture and go deeper than politics. 

In the 1990s, you participated in a program from the revival of Crimean Tatar Kilim (tapestry-woven carpet and rugs) to develop folk art. Can you talk about your experience there? What is important about developing something that is lost from genocide and other trials the Tatar culture has gone through? Are there new methods to replace old techniques of creating?

In restoring what was lost, it was important to transfer the experience from the old masters to younger artisans. One example is the revival of silver filament jewelry work.

One well-known artisan in filigree jewelry art is Ayder Asanov. Before deportation, Asanov and his father taught at a workshop that trained young master jewelers. Now elderly, Asanov returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan and we’ve worked with him again to bring back this lost art.

Another artisan we’ve worked with is Zuleikha Bekirova. She studied Crimean Tatar embroidery since the 1930s. When she returned, also elderly, we worked with her to preserve and train a new generation of craftswomen in authentic traditional embroidery.

For these two practices – we’ve managed to keep the same traditional practice as pre-deportation. However, the revival project proved much more difficult with copper utensil production. There were no masters left who we could learn from. Crimean Style coppersmiths had to study old samples and reimagine what copper technology existed prior to the purges, without teachers.

Some craftsmen use modern metal welding technology and contemporary tools. We’ve used some of the same designs, but we also have adapted our ornamental heritage to the conditions of modern life. 

As with copper dishes, we were able to almost entirely recreate the same dishes produced in the 19th century. We could make plaster molds using the slip casting technique. This practice is followed by engraving, firing, and covering with colored coating enamels for a second firing. The old dishes in Crimean Tatar households were simple and covered in glaze. Absolutely nothing has changed about this practice. 

Chatyr Dag (named after a mountain in Crimea) is an organization that you started, that brings together fresh new talent. What message do you hope young Tatar artists take away? What is your message for people worldwide, who may reduce Turkic art to a monolithic category of simply rugs and traditional Islamic dress?

Chatyr Dag is more than just a mountain – it’s a symbol of our common home in Crimea. The peaks of Chatyr Dag can be seen from all parts of the peninsula. Another thing the mountains symbolize is the self-efficacy of the Crimean Tatar people. My organization, Chatyr Dag, has not received a penny of financial support from the Ukrainian or Russian government in its fifteen years of existence. All our activities have been financed by sponsors and donor funds. We rely on volunteer work.

In my opinion, Crimean Tatar art and the message that is embodied in our art is considered the property of the world. Our artwork is the world’s art. We bring together masters of various nationalities who have found their vocations, professions, and endless love in the ancient culture of the indigenous people of Crimea. Our art didn’t start in the 19th century. There are precursors of Crimean art in Neolithic times, long before the concept of states and nations were ever created. Our art has influenced the artwork of ancient Greeks, Scythian Turk, Byzantium, Ottoman, and even art of the Islamic world. 

Our art practices are rooted in authentic feminism found in Tatar women for over a millennium. Women began creating this work and passed it down to their daughters. Our values of a strong family, rites surrounding birth, and protection for our people are all found in our artwork. And truthfully, all of that is fundamental to everything in humanity. Our values are found in all religions and in the laws of all modern states. 

Featured image: Mamut Churlu
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