Turkestan in Old Photos and Ceramics in the State Museum of Oriental Arts, Moscow

The exhibition ‘Turkistan in Old Photos and Ceramics’ featuring masterpieces of  the State Museum of Oriental Arts funds and collection of the Institute for the History of the Material Culture of Russian Academy of Sciences opened on February, 3, 2007 .

After the Peshavar treaty in 1855 the strategic rivalry between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia led to the Russian annextion of the territory of Central Asian states. In 1865 Russian troops seized Tashkent under the leadership of General Mikhail Chernyayev elevating the conquered territories to Turkestan Military District. In 1867 it was made a separate Turkestan Governor-Generalship, which was given a new official status of Krai in 1886.  The Emirate of Bukhara, the Khanate of Kokand and the Khanate of Khiva became quasi-independent Russian protectorates.

One of the most important traits of the Russian colonial policies in Turkestan was the highest attention to its history and culture. The interest of specialists and collectors, either Russian or foreign, in Turkestani antiquities was very keen. And, indeed, ceramics were the one most popular ware, displaying the ancient and medieval culture of Turkestan.

Clay in the East is the primary material. In Turkestan it was used all over; fences, stoves, tableware, mousetraps, toys, lamps, mud bricks and tiles were made of clay. It was the most significant material in national art, as well as in the local folklore it was believed to be medicinal, protective and magical remedy.        

The exposition gave a viewer an opportunity to trace back the origins and evolution of absolutely unique and perfect in technical and esthetic senses artistic phenomenon, the contribution of which to Islamic Art is really remarkable.   

Ceramic vessels of the 10th century A.D. illustrated an epoch of a growing role of the epigraphic elements in decoration. The tableware with elegant didactic Arabic inscriptions was very popular. The second prevailing group at the exhibition was ceramics with figurative or even zoomorphic motives. Though the depiction of every living thing is forbidden in Islam, it was not always adhered in the applied art contrary to popular interpretation of the figurative principles in Islam.

Roughly and ponderously fabricated, the late Central Asian ceramics of the 19th-20th centuries had nothing in common with the splendid medieval forerunners in glazing and decoration techniques and fabric processing.  Nevertheless these jigulines were not only the non-alternative and picturesque everyday details of the traditional life, but vivid trade pieces, inspiring many modern artisans.

For the second component of the exhibition the photographs, taken in Turkestan by researchers, professional photographers, high-ranking military officials as well as members of the Royal House were chosen.

Though the local exoticism, so carefully rendered in these pictures by travelers, has already disappeared, these photographs reproduce views, people’s faces, their costumes  and everyday life details very  reliably. Thanks to these pictures researchers could recall the general panorama of the monumental complexes and its lost decoration details.      

It was the mixed bag – officials sent to a mission, travelers seeking for a local colour, professional researchers and scholars – who did a major contribution in studying and saving cultural and historical heritage of this region.

While for the last eight centuries towns flourished and fell, empires and dynasties raised and collapsed in the Central Asia, the only everlasting was human aspiration for beauty and harmony, impressed in these resonant fragile masterpieces of clay and fire.