Serikazy Nurgaliev – Master Saddler

Serikazy Nurgaliyev, master craftsman of saddlery and horse tack, was born in Semipalatinsk and lives and works in Sheber Aul, Almaty. He has loved drawing since he was a child. While still at school he learned from his father – also a master saddler – how to carve items from wood and to make souvenirs. After graduating from Semipalatinsk State Pedagogical Institute, he worked for a year as a teacher of drawing, painting and handicrafts. Once he had completed his military service, Serikazy decided to engage more fully with the decorative arts.

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“I didn’t make saddles straight off. To begin with I worked with fur and leather, mastering different techniques. I made tumaki – Kazakh fur caps. And right when I was making these, and my father was making horse tack, our work got noticed and we were invited to join the cooperative “Miras” in Almaty. We were given an apartment as a workshop, and we started working… My father began to teach me his craft. Since then I have been making saddles and harnesses, working with wood and leather.”

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“Father told me that he got these skills from his father, my grandfather. My great-grandfather Nurgali was also a famous master craftsman – he might even be called a ‘composer’ among artisans, you know (laughs). He’d literally invent patterns on the fly for the women who were making felt pieces to decorate yurts.

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There is a wonderful family story about him. In the Ayaguz region, sometime before the Soviet period, a rich man had a golden eagle that could hunt wolves. When the eagle’s talon got injured by a she-wolf, the bird-owner declared: “If there is a craftsman who can fix my eagle’s talon so that the bird is able to hunt again, I will give him anything that he desires”.

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My great-grandfather, then a young man, went to that village and created a metal bird talon, attaching it to the damaged tendon. The tendon retracted when the claw grasped, and so the bird was able to hunt again. While my grandfather was treating the eagle, a young girl had caught his eye – the bird-owner’s niece. After the owner had made sure that the eagle was able to hunt as before, he said: “Well, what do you want in return – tell me…” Great-grandfather Nurgali replied, “I’m not going to ask for anything. I do not need anything – wealth I have. But I have taken a particular fancy to your niece”. And his skills were so appreciated that the girl was given over as his bride, without him having to pay bride-price.”

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“And so the skills are passed down through the generations. And it’s not only among the men. I personally have no sons, only daughters. My eldest makes national-style felt art. I pass my skills on to my students – my cousins from Talgar, who also work with reindeer leather, wood carving, and national-style decorative arts. My younger sister graduated from the same institute as I did, in Semipalatinsk. Now she works at the Almaty Technological Institute, teaching art. There are six of us in the family. Interestingly enough, my father is left-handed, I’m left-handed, and my younger sister is too – and we both followed in our father’s footsteps… but those in our family who are right-handed, they don’t pursue this line of work (laughs).”

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“It’s absolutely essential to preserve these traditions and pass them on to younger generations. Speaking as a pedagogue, I think that it’s really important for the education of youngsters. In our village, Sheber Aul, the children of craftsmen see how their parents work, and it sets a positive example for them. Not necessarily to become artisans – many of them go on to study in very different institutes. But a lot of them do end up working in our field, the applied arts.”

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“Generally speaking, of course, craftsmen are absolutely necessary: without them, where would we be? Foreigners come here, and they really appreciate manual work. Once, an American I think it was, ordered an item from us. We made his order, and we were happy with it – it had turned out quite neat. And he says, “Hey, guys, there’s something wrong here. You should at least give it a little dent here or a knock of the hammer there – just so it doesn’t look like it’s been factory-made”.”

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“Saddlery really is the most complicated of Kazakh handcrafts. In addition to working with leather and wood, you need to know the art of jewellery. The saddler also has to be a sculptor, because a wooden saddle is rather like a small sculpture. Everything is important: that the saddle sits well on a horse, its design – that it is pleasing to look at, and, most importantly, its functionality – that it is also comfortable for a person to ride in.”

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“If I’m working alone on a saddle, it takes roughly 20 days from start to finish. If I have an assistant, about 12 days.”

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We process the metal by ourselves. The leather we also select and treat ourselves. Especially embossed leather – it has to be really carefully handcrafted. Then the dyeing – this is usually done with grasses, roots, oak bark, and also by applying henna – we make these natural dyes ourselves. The semi-precious stones we use are all from Kazakhstan – carnelian, chalcedony, turquoise… we buy them from craftsmen who work with gemstones. They carve the stones into cabochons especially for us. The wood we use is typically willow, locally called tal – this is mainly used for lightweight saddles. While for sports – kokpar, or traditional horse races, we use hardwoods: elm or birch.

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“There are two types of saddle – those carved from one solid piece of wood, and those made from parts attached together to form a whole. The saddle made up of parts is called kurandy. Actually, there are a lot of different types, and the types are also sub-divided. For example: in the west, in Atyrau, Mangistau and Aktobe they use the kozykiruk style. The southern style, used mainly in the Almaty region, Taraz and Shymkent, is called kusbas or ‘bird’s head’… In the northern regions, the saddle is basically a crescent shape – similar to a woman’s saddle. Each clan is very proud of its saddle. Generally speaking, though, only the older generations can really tell the difference between saddles, not the youngsters. When I see a saddle, I can tell right away which province it’s from – which region, even.”

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“I mostly make saddles for those clients who have good horses: wealthy people. As they say – the new Kazakhs. Basically I deal with ‘purebreds’. I ask clients: “Do you have a Thoroughbred or an Akhal-Teke?” from their answer it is immediately clear what kind of saddle they need. The age of the horse also plays a role. The size of a saddle should, above all, be made to fit the owner’s measurements – if he’s well-built, we need to make the saddle larger. But there are certain standard measurements for saddles. These are purely Kazakh – developed traditionally and measured with fingers and hands…”

“Those are repoussé mouldings – for decorating the breastplate, the bridle, and so on.”

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“Here I’m cutting out decorative pieces. This is the cold method – silver on top, ordinary iron underneath. I make notches with that tool, and then work the silver onto the textured metal. In Kazakh I know how it’s called – kaktau – but in Russian… probably the notch method. It’s a really ancient technique – I’m very practiced in it. I learnt it from my father, but not all craftsmen are able to master it.”

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“Here I’m stitching felt panels. They’re like pillows under the saddle – so that it is not too uncomfortable for the horse.”

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“This is a copy of the saddle that belonged to the poet Madi. He was an akyn – an improvising poet of the Argyn tribe. But I made the saddle with a slightly different pommel. It’s called uirekbas, or duck’s head – typical in the north of Kazakhstan: in the Kokshetau and Akmolinsk regions. I imagine what the saddle is going to look like right from the moment that I’m carving its form out of wood.”

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“Of course, I have ideas for the future. My dream is to have an exhibition of saddles from all the regions of Kazakhstan. To put together a display of saddles from different areas that were used by specific Kazakh tribes. I don’t know – maybe I can get some museum support. The main thing is to provide information for the people of Kazakhstan, especially the younger generation – for them to know how saddles used to be made.”

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“My clients never send me photos, but they do tell me by phone that everything is all right. Once, though, I saw it with my own eyes. It was a long time ago – the 100th anniversary of Kasteev, our Kazakh artist. As part of the celebrations they held a big horse race. I went there with my friend Aidar. Aidar says: “Look, what a splendid saddle, let’s go and have a look…” So we went over – and it turned out that we’d made the saddle ourselves! That’s how it was! (laughs)”

Tear sheets from Nomad #52:

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