This was our pie-in-the-sky pitch:
The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and our partners will organize and host a hands-on workshop with two textile artists who do not fluently speak the same language. During the workshop, the artists will coordinate a live collaborative project to inspire attendees, and it will run in three consecutive languages with simultaneous translation. And instead of just one workshop, let’s do three. And they will all be virtual.
Two decades ago, I would have driven down to the local gas station to buy a calling card for five dollars, scratch off the numbers, punch them into my analog phone, and hope my colleague overseas would pick up the call. That was how we connected digitally across cultures. We have really come a long way.
With close to twenty years of experience in textile arts education and design, I have engaged in-person with countless participants through art making, generating excitement by putting raw materials in their hands and building meaningful experiences between people in a classroom. In 2020, suddenly, everything shifted. All we had left were the tools to communicate virtually. So when Storytelling through Textiles was conceived, it was an opportunity to explore the power of virtual platforms to connect across cultures, share our stories, and create meaningful relationships. I was ready to take what I learned in the classroom and bring it to a virtual platform.
Storytelling through Textiles launched on May 20, 2021, as a collaboration between the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, Chevron, Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The series would pair artists from Kazakhstan and United States to compare their craft practices and lead participants in an activity.
The series began with a virtual workshop featuring textile artists Gulmira Ualikhan and Folklife curator Diana N’Diaye, who both explore diverse methods of quilting in their practice. As we planned the workshop launch, we made sure to find ways to bring Gulmira and Diana into the same virtual space, where they could share the work they are so passionate about with each other and truly merge their practices into a creative activity for workshop participants.
Gulmira practices kurak, a type of traditional Kazakh patchwork quilting. Her work is an intricate exploration of decorative and symbolic shapes, defined by colors that hold meaning for the maker and the recipient. Diana’s work focuses on fabrics that have had another life, spanning objects for the wall and for the body that incorporate symbolism through figures, text, and function.
As the two artists spoke through a translator, they found an unexpected connection around amulets, or small objects that are traditionally sewn together with blessings and hopes that are worn or held. They discussed why it is important to see textiles as carriers of meaning beyond form and function. They spoke about the way written words can impart good luck, well wishes, and blessings for you as the maker and anyone you choose to give the amulet to.
“Through these traditions and artistry, we can learn something for ourselves and then pass it on and gift it to someone else,” Diana said to Gulmira. “Even though we are so far apart, we can be connected in spirit and what we do.”
As Gulmira described the process of making her amulets, she spoke of tying a red thread around her wrist for good luck as she stitched the blessings inside. This wonderful connection was developed into a simple activity for workshop participants. They could follow along as Gulmira described simple ways to create a patchwork design, and Diana imparted the power of words as they wrote their personal messages for the amulets.
“It was so interesting and useful to meet a fellow artist from the United States, who shares the same values and vision,” Gulmira reflected afterward. “If I have a chance to meet Diana offline, two hours will not be enough for discussion!”
Our workshop series continued on May 27 with a program on felt making. During our planning call, artists Aizhan Bekkulova and Janice Arnold realized that they had actually met in Baku, Azerbaijan, several years ago. Each possesses her own distinct style of working with felt, drawing from history, tradition, and its contemporary place in their cultures. They have a playful, unpredictable, and layered approach to working in this medium, as they innovate within their practice. There was an immediate connection between the two, built over several years of mutual admiration of each other’s work.
“Dialogue is the key word for such webinars,” Aizhan reflected. “We discovered new things for ourselves and tried to be interesting and useful to the participants.”
As head of the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan, Aizhan and her organization’s mission is to preserve the traditional arts of Kazakhstan, and in doing so engage with younger generations of makers.
With Storytelling through Textiles, we wanted to explore how every person is connected to textiles that carry personal meaning for them or their family. Many times, it is an heirloom piece passed down for generations. Others can be a garment or piece of fabric that reminds one of someone special. Aizhan shared a piece from her personal collection: a stunning leather embroidered coat that was close to two hundred years old. As Aizhan described the materials and techniques, she emphasized that this piece carries with it a textile technique that is no longer practiced in Kazakhstan. It represents what was lost as we moved away from engaging in traditional crafts, but it also shows that we can bring back these lost arts moving forward.
“Art brings you to your roots,” Aizhan told participants. “It is never too late.”
Throughout the workshop, both Aizhan and Janice shared their passion for felt making and honored the nomadic traditions that are so closely tied to Kazakh culture.
“This kind of cross-cultural exchange was a wonderful way to build more cultural understanding, make new friends and connections, and better appreciate and honor each other!” Janice remarked.
Aizhan concluded, “We hope that we will be remembered by them for our love and dedication to art.”
Our last workshop on June 10 with Zeynelkhan Mukhamedjan and Katherine Diuguid took viewers on a visual storytelling journey through each of their bodies of work. The iconography of place is important to Katherine’s embroidered collages. In many of her works, she harvests plants local to her home in North Carolina to create eco-printed fabrics. She then embroiders on and around the shapes left behind.
Zeynelkhan spoke about traditional symbolism in his work and the connection to history and their nomadic culture. He mentioned that so many of the symbols’ true meanings have been lost over time, but that gives him the freedom to create new meanings as he brings them into his tambour embroidery pieces.
The final creative activity for their workshop truly incorporated the essence of each artist’s work, combining a traditional Kazakh design process with Katherine’s techniques of collaging with nature. As he folded and cut out the shape of a bird from paper, Zeynelkhan narrated the story of a bride who goes to live with her new family. If everything is well and she is happy, then she sends a symbol of a bird to her family to let them know she is content. Katherine created the final collage, following along with Zeynelkhan and layering his Kazakh symbol for happiness over her collage of North Carolina leaves.
“The virtual format allowed a global exchange of ideas that would not have been possible otherwise,” Katherine reflected. “It was pretty incredible to share my work from my studio with participants and colleagues halfway across the globe. Discovering the overlaps in our creative process and influences and sharing those concepts with workshop participants was very special.”
Each artist who participated in this series did so because they truly love their craft. They tell stories through each layer of felt, embroidered stitch, and quilted fabric. Beyond sharing their passion with a virtual audience, they connected around their textile stories.
“We had the opportunity to talk about the ways in which we did our work through technology on a large scale,” Zeynelkhan said. “We have a lot to learn from each other.”
In addition to the talented artists, I would like to acknowledge the entire team who brought all of the many virtual pieces together for this series: Laila Ali, Aknur Berdigulova, Halle Butvin, Tracci Gabel, Sloane Keller, Alisha Shalakhmetova, Elmira Kireyeva, Jessica Leonard, and our many translators. Thank you!
Lesli Robertson is an interdisciplinary textile consultant, educator, and founder of Mekeka Designs, a bespoke textile studio creating with heritage materials and techniques from Uganda. As a consultant, she works with communities across the globe to find creative ways to promote, preserve, and honor textile traditions. She is now just a little obsessed with the textiles of Kazakhstan.
This workshop series was made possible through the US Embassy in Kazakhstan, Chevron, Union of Artisans Kazakhstan, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.