Suitcase and World: The Ceramics of Uzbekistan. Rishtan.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Ceramics of Uzbekistan. Rishtan.

Rishtan Ceramic Panel
(Photo from Arastan)
Ceramics is one of the oldest forms of applied decorative arts in Uzbekistan; it goes back centuries, to the days of the Silk Road.

The first glazed ceramics, using a green glaze,were made in the 8th century.  By the mid-8thcentury, the first colored ceramics, covered in transparent glaze and appearing gray, appeared. From the 9-12th centuries various glazes were developed.

Following the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, there was an economic decline with led to a decline in interest in ceramics.  Then came Timur in the 14th century.

Once Timur had established his empire, with Samarkand as the capital,  the best commodities from all over the world started to make their way in to the markets of the empire. The finest white Chinese porcelain, with cobalt blue painting, were among the most valued goods. But exactly how the Chinese manufactured these highly desired porcelains was a secret that they kept to themselves.

In an attempt to decode the manufacturing process, Timur supposedly sent several ceramics masters from Samarkand to Rishtan. Unfortunately, all attempts to try and recreate the Chinese porcelains failed because the secret was in the kaolin clay that the Chinese used and not in the process. Though they failed to reproduce Chinese porclains, the artisans of Rishtan soon developed their own, unique form of pottery using clay and minerals found in the region.

Rishtan's reddish-yellow clay is found in deposits 1 to 1.5 meters deep and 0.5 to 1 5/8 meters thick in pretty much all of Rishtan. The fine quality of the clay allowed it to be used without preliminary refinement and without having to add in any other types of clay, as potters from other regions needed to. Additionally, the potters of Rishtan extracted various dyes and minerals, from their surroundings, to color and paint the porcelain.  The Rishtan ceramics depicted stories and images reflecting the cultures of the region.

Nestled in the Fergana Valley, Rishtan is the region's oldest and most celebrated ceramics center though Uzbekistan does boast other regions that are also known for their ceramic arts - Gijduvan, Khiva, Samarkand, Gurumsaray, Shakhrisabz, Urgut, Khorezm.  Each region has its own particular style and masters who excel at representing the style.

Rishtan Ceramics (Photo from Sheherazade Tour)
Rishtan is famous for its use of what is known as *ishkor glaze*, a  glazing technique that goes back to the days of the Silk Road.  Ishkor glaze utilizes the ashes of a desert plant called ishkor, mixed with crushed quartz. Ishkor can only be harvested in late September which makes Rishtan ceramics that much more valued and coveted.  Pottery made with this incredibly durable glaze display a beautiful, soft, blue green lustre.

Although the ceramics produced in Rishtan display a variety of shapes, ornamentation and color, the most characteristic coloring is a turquoise, dark blue and brown scheme on a milky-white background.  I must admit, I love the more vibrant colors!

Rustam Usmanov (Photo from Arastan)
Today there are around 2,000 potters in the Rishtan region, many of whose families have been working in ceramics for generations.  Every time I Googled to look for information on ceramics in Rishtan,  Rustam Usmanov's name came up.  He is, for many an Uzbek ceramics aficionado, the master of his craft. 

After graduating from the Tashkent Institute of Theatre and Art, Usmanov joined one of the many Rishtan ceramic factories and became its Chief Painting Architect within a year.  During this time, he studied the old Rishtan ceramic patterns and enriched his knowledge of earthenware.  He gradually honed his technical skills and develop his own original style.  After leaving the factory, Usmanov set up his own workshop.

To his credit, Usmanov is a winner of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for his blue Rishtan ceramic pottery;  his work is displayed in the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and is much sough after worldwide.

Photo by LoggaWiggler
Commercial interest in Uzbek ceramics has had its ups and downs over the centuries.  Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest and artisans have been responding by expanding the assortment of ceramic products that they offer - dishes, drinking bowls, cups, vessels for water and milk, as well as different types of storage containers for keeping products can now be easily found.  Perhaps, I'll break down and get a cute little ceramic figurine as one of my Uzbek souvenirs.

Our tour itinerary has us visiting a ceramics workshop in Rishtan and of course, I'm hoping that it will be Rustam Usmanov's place as his does take in visitors on a regular basis.  Only now and again will I buy anything breakable to bring home with me and I don't ordinarily like to go on visits to workshops but if I have the chance to visit a place where an artisan master works and own a piece of his/her artwork, I am there!

Note to self.  Add bubble wrap to the Packing List!