Skip to main content
Nigina Ikromi and another artisan smile softly at the camera while holding a colorful piece of cloth.

Gulzar Village founder Nigina Ikromi (right) built a home for Tajik culture and artisans.

Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

  • A Home for the Arts in Tajikistan

    This article is part of a series that supports the Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey project. Over the past year, the Center has collaborated with partners in Central Asia to document the craft practices of fifty women-run artisan enterprises across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Through the magazine series, we share the stories of the people and cultures that participated in the lookbook.

    When people visit Gulzar Village, a cultural center in the heart of Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe, they may feel as if they are visiting their grandmother’s house. Handicrafts featuring Tajik embroidery—each uniquely adorning a purse, blanket, or clothing—are set on display in the center’s showroom. In another room, a traditional oven called a tanur stands ready to bake non, the round and flat bread served as a side dish for many Tajik meals. When Gulzar hosts celebrations, the courtyard lights up with a projector. Low tables and vibrant rugs are provided for the guests to sit on, all shaded by a bright canopy of leaves.

    In 2020, Gulzar’s founder Nigina Ikromi sought to create a “corner where people could come, touch culture, feel at home, and help artisans,” converting a former mosque into a colorful hub for Tajik culture. Today, the center not only displays traditional arts and crafts, but it also provides a vibrant setting for frequent cultural events that feature Tajik music, fashion, and cuisine. The community is more than just a place; it is a combination of a museum, restaurant, design studio, and event space.

    An adult sits in a shop while handling a colorful yellow, green, and red cloth. Two more adults sit near her, and a fourth adult is standing. They are all handling different materials.
    Nigina Ikromi founded Gulzar Village in hopes of creating a “corner where people could come, touch culture, feel at home, and help artisans.”
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

    One of the center’s main appeals is that it provides the opportunity for both Tajikistanis and international tourists to immerse themselves in the country’s cultural heritage. As a place where visitors can stay overnight, this one-of-a-kind artistic community has been, literally, a home to travelers and artisans alike.

    When I first spoke with Ikromi, she was just returning from an evening iftar meal, eaten after a day of fasting during Ramadan. Among the center’s features, Ikromi described “a traditional kitchen with Tajik foods that you won’t find in any restaurant. For example, the dish of rice and beef, oshi palav.”

    A few days before our interview, one of the biggest media companies in Tajikistan hosted the Persian New Year—Nowruz—at Gulzar. On Nowruz, people celebrate the start of spring and new beginnings, practicing long-held traditions like cooking sumanak, a traditional dish made from sprouted wheat, and making wishes. “We also invited local musicians to Gulzar, who sang and danced to the traditional instrument karnay sunray.”

    What makes Gulzar much more than just a celebratory space is its sustained effort to support local artisans throughout all regions of the country. Even before Gulzar opened its doors, Ikromi ran an organization called Creative Development Tajikistan, which collaborated with the government to create a database of artisans. They identified around 8,500 craftworkers across the country, many of whom had never received recognition for their skill and knowledge.

    An artisan looks away from the fabric as she weaves a piece of fabric. The artisan wears a shiny light-purple headscarf and bright blue outerwear.
    Artisan Karomat Tursunova weaves a piece of fabric. Ikromi has worked for years to uplift Tajik artisans and the country’s cultural heritage. She is still amazed that, at one time, Gulzar Village was simply a big dream. “There was no such place in Tajikistan. None at all.” Today, Gulzar serves artisans from across the country.
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

    According to Ikromi, the main challenge to making a living as an artisan in Tajikistan is distance. For instance, Sogdian artists have practiced in the Yaghnob Valley in northwest Tajikistan since the Bronze Age. However, harsh weather closes access to and from this area for eight months out of the year. Their difficulties are not wholly unique. Over ninety percent of Tajikistan’s terrain is mountainous. The geographic challenges affect both emerging and established artisans.

    As a solution, Ikromi wants to organize a “Yaghnob night” at Gulzar Village to showcase the region and the unique cultural heritage of those who speak the Sogdian language. “We will also organize small exhibitions and invite Sogdian artisans to our center.”

    Gulzar’s method to uplift Tajikistani artisans provides them with more than visibility in Dushanbe. Behind the scenes, they introduce regional artisans to a growing number of economic and business opportunities. “We help them register their business,” Ikromi said, “and advise them on how to fill out applications, how to submit to international festivals, and how to participate. We arrange their documentation and connect them with customers and donors.”

    The vision to integrate artists into Tajikistan’s investment infrastructure has paid off. In 2022, Gulzar supported Mavluda Asoeva, an artisan of willow basketry from Vakhdata, by writing her a business plan and budget for a presidential grant. She received funding and equipment from the Tajikistan’s Committee of Women and Family as well as the Ministry of Industry and New Technology. She’s one of several success stories.

    An artisan stands outside behind several woven baskets while smiling at the camera.
    Ikromi supported Mavluda Asoeva, an artisan of willow basketry from Vakhdata, Tajikistan. Both Ikromi and Asoyeva were featured artisans in the lookbook.
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

    Ikromi’s own story bridges the stereotypical divide between cultural heritage and business. She first imagined Gulzar Village when she was working at the Union of Craftsmen of Tajikistan. Having already learned traditional Tajik crafts in her childhood, Ikromi chose to study finance and entrepreneurship in college.

    “I was not really interested in crafts when I was a student,” she explained. “I had almost no idea what this sector was, what this direction was. I just knew my grandmother used to do it. People used to do it. And my mother told me she was a master of gold embroidery in her younger years.”

    Gold embroidery is a pillar of Tajikistan’s cultural heritage and was once an official art of the royal court and nobility. The style is also popular for wedding dresses and formal attire. The Smithsonian’s Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey features Mavluda Abdurahmonova, a well-known master of gold embroidery who uses traditional methods and designs to produce modern goods such as purses, bags, and home décor.

    Tajik artisan Mavluda Abdurahmonova smiles a the camera as she sits between two young students. They sit behind a table as they work on a piece of embroidery. Several embroidered garmets hand on the wall behind them.
    Tajik artisan Mavluda Abdurahmonova is a master of gold embroidery who is widely popular not only in Tajikistan but also in the adjacent regions of southern Uzbekistan.
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov
    A left hand embroiders red cloth with gold or gold cloth.
    Traditionally, gold embroidery was used for elaborate wedding dresses and camisoles, but now Abdurahmonova produces a variety of gold embroidered accessories including purses, bags, and home goods. Abdurahmonova and Ikromi are from the same hometown, Panjakent.
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

    Ikromi recalls that, in her twenties, “I was doing patchwork in the evenings. It was like a hobby, and slowly, slowly, it began to bring me income. I became a member of the Union of Craftsmen of Tajikistan, and eventually I took the position of executive director.

    “We proposed to Tajikistan’s president that the government should support the artisans at both the state and international levels. Our president accepted the proposal and declared 2018 Tajikistan’s year of folk crafts. Then 2019, 2020, and 2021 became the years of folk crafts, tourism, and rural development. Basically, four years were dedicated to artisans!”

    The result was a notable increase in institutional support toward arts and crafts. Handicrafts became exempt from taxes, and international festivals started popping up in Tajikistan. Banks issued more loans to artisans. “Now, we are advocating that some cities in Tajikistan receive World Heritage status,” Ikromi said proudly. One contender is the city of Kulyab, where artisans specialize in a form of Tajik embroidery called chakan, sewing colorful designs that symbolize wishes onto cloth.

    With national momentum, Gulzar Village has had great success. But Ikromi still remembers that Gulzar was once only a dream. “There was no such place in Tajikistan. None at all.” She saw it not as a shortcoming but as an opportunity. Gulzar is entirely women-led, staffed with marketing specialists, quality-control workshops, and advisors who train artisans to take advantage of the newfound opportunities for a craftmaking livelihood in Tajikistan. Up to eighty percent of these artisans are women.

    But Ikromi understands that supporting her country’s cultural heritage is useful far beyond the positive economic impact. One of her main concerns is the fast fashion and overconsumption she sees in her community. “Too many cheap clothes are being brought into the country. For the last ten years, I have noticed it. But at the same time, since we began promoting our cultural heritage, there has been more and more people interested in buying local, traditional clothes.”

    She believes a key tenet of sustainable development is to push back against fast fashion trends by producing clothing locally with eco-friendly materials. At Gulzar, weavers like Karomat Tursunova create ikat fabrics using local cotton instead of importing mass-produced material. “Now we’re putting in two more additional looms for artisans like Karomat so that we can develop our designs ourselves,” Ikromi reported. “We will be using silk and cotton so that we can have even more local ikat productions.”

    Six multicolored materials show vibrant patterns with blues, yellows, reds, and greens.
    Ikromi believes it is important to produce eco-friendly materials and to push back against fast fashion trends.
    Photo courtesy of Alisher Primkulov

    Younger generations have also picked up Gulzar’s vision of fashion, tradition, and sustainability. According to Ikromi, even Tajikistani bloggers and influencers have begun promoting the ideas of slow fashion and traditional wear.

    This interest is evidence of the thoughtfulness behind Gulzar’s mission. The organization works to sustain traditions by magnifying their social impact and increasing the economic livelihood of artists and their families. “Our goal is not only to deal with the climate,” Ikromi said. “We must also help our artisans, support them, and make some positive changes in our area. We must preserve and develop our traditional culture and present our country to our guests.”

    Soon, Gulzar will open five to six artisan centers in rural villages throughout Tajikistan. They will offer home-based workshops and function as satellite hubs, connecting tourists with artisans and artisans with each other.

    The organization’s vision never strays from this goal of connection. Gulzar’s physical space in Dushanbe minimizes the distance between Tajikistanis and the artisans who practice their cultural heritage. Simultaneously, Gulzar connects rural craftspeople and communities with the resources they need to grow. Ultimately, the organization seeks to bridge tradition and modernity.

    As a recent post on Gulzar’s Instagram account states insightfully, “The world is changing. But culture can also grow and evolve if we support it and incorporate it into the new world.”

    Sofia Doroshenko is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Georgetown University with an interest in the culture and politics of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. 

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.