Aman Mukazhanov – Jeweller

Aman Mukazhanov was born in Semipalatinsk and graduated from Almaty State Institute of Theatre and the Arts with a major in decorative and applied arts. His work represents both continuity and creative adaptation of traditional methods and decorative techniques, drawing on local folklore and symbolism to add a dimension of cultural heritage to his contemporary artistic practice.

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“I’ve been working with metal, making jewellery for about 25 years. I started while I was studying. In fact, I trained as an artist – I’ve been drawing all my life, ever since I was a child. I’ve worked with all kinds of material – gemstones, leather… in all the different fields at one time or another, but right now I’m mainly into decorative jewellery.”

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“Why jewellery? Well, it has associations with monumentalism, with sculpture – because at heart I’m an artist, and not one to make mere trinkets… on the one hand it’s jewellery but also artwork, if you will – my bracelets turn out large… they may not be very practical, not to everyone’s liking, but for me they’re interesting – large and statuesque, to be displayed, put on show – not for everyday wear, like works of art – to be exhibited, objects to be viewed, interesting compositions or sculpture: my work is not like jewellery; I envisage a bracelet, but it turns out like a sculpture! (laughs)

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“Grandfather, my father’s father, worked with leather – he was a real master; he made boots for me. He used to hunt – he set traps for foxes: he didn’t shoot them, but used snares to catch them, then tanned the pelts himself and used them to make ‘tumaki’ – Kazakh fur caps. He worked with leather and with wood too: during the Soviet years he made cupboards and exchanged them for livestock, bartered them for sheep; he was a craftsman, a folk artist.”

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“Meanwhile, grandmother used to weave by hand and dyed the wool herself – I saw that: they used to go to the mountains and gather moss, scraped it off the rocks, different colours, and dyed the wool – it was pure, ecological pigment. They put the wool in a big cauldron, brought it to the boil and added the moss, whichever colour they needed – yellow, red or green – and from that wool they spun a big ball of yarn, and then on a special loom they wove ‘Alasha‘ – strips of handmade carpet – and we used to play, jumping over the threads of yarn and they’d shout: Hey! Don’t do that, you’ll ruin it! But we were just kids. I saw all that and felt an impulse…”

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“When I was at school I’d already started to draw; I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. My penchant for drawing is probably where it all started – drawing is the most important, after all. I started making metal rings for the girls, cutting little hearts from aluminium pipes – aluminium is soft and I made hearts and rings to give to the girls. That was at school, in the 7th and 8th grades.”

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“I just wanted to acquire knowledge, to find out more and more about handcrafts… but this was during the Soviet times: there were no craftsmen, nobody was making things by hand. There were only Soviet plants, factories; you weren’t allowed to make things yourself. But I really wanted to learn by myself to revive the folk traditions which were obsolete, forgotten… I studied archaeology – I was fascinated at how they used to work, skills we no longer possess. But who could I turn to? I didn’t know anyone, so I had to study, and through my studies I started making contacts. I began to get introduced to various craftsmen, to meet teachers and artists. Through them I got trained, studied by myself…”

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“Fine arts are fundamental, and for five years I studied sculpture and painting. Working specifically with metal, there was a folk artist – Shokparov Darkembay – he set up the cooperative here. All his life he studied how Kazakhs worked – their methods had already been lost. Through such people, I think I have attained the level I now work at. I just want to create works of my own by studying the history of my own people; the folk who used to live here and I want to preserve their methods, their styles, to continue their legacy, with particular emphasis on Kazakh traditions.”

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“Only by studying ancient traditions can you create something new. If you don’t study, I don’t believe you can create anything new; there has to be some kind of foundation. I’ve always tried to preserve the indigenous, local traditions because our craftsmen did so. To continue their… not to simply reproduce or copy, but to create something while maintaining traditions – the traditional designs. Understanding, studying and grasping their ideas, their reasoning, and refining antique methods to a more contemporary setting; maybe changing the form – making items lighter, more modern, but still retaining some traditional methods. For this reason you need to study archaeology and so on, otherwise you won’t create anything new.”

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“It’s called granulation – an ancient technique. The wood gives off a high temperature from underneath, so the ball melts quicker; it’s not a hard surface, and the metal is heavy so it forms a perfect sphere. But if you work on a hard surface, the base will be flat. This fire brick is hard, but here the wood is soft. It dates back to the Scythian era, the 5th century BC, and has survived until now, preserved mainly by the craftsmen of Western Kazakhstan, it’s called granulation – small balls soldered in the form of a triangle. The triangle was interpreted as three elements – heavenly and earthly energy to protect the wearer.”

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“On one hand jewellery adorns a woman – the gemstones make her look beautiful – and on the other, they protect her. They’d wear bracelets on both wrists so as not to lose energy through the hands. They thought that energy came and left through the hands, and they wore the bracelets so that bad energy wouldn’t enter the body.”

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“Maybe the time has come, and people want to wear traditional styles. During national celebrations they dress up and so they ask for items made just like in the past. To do that you need to study how it used to be done. That’s why I try to make things like they used to – bracelets fashioned in the same way, using the same gemstones. I think it’s like traditional clothes – they’re not worn these days. They used to be worn every day but these days Kazakh people only put them on for public holidays; normally they wear modern clothes. The same with jewellery – it’s not to be worn every day, only for national celebrations – so that our cultural heritage will be passed on, preserved through jewellery, through clothes. Just like music, I think, it should be handed down unaltered; jewellery should also be handed down without changing its form, even the meaning should be passed on, I think.”

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“When a grandmother tells her daughter, “this ring means such and such… pass it on to your daughter in turn” – this is interesting! This is the reason I make traditional items. But also, as an artist, I should leave behind my signature. Maybe some people like it, while others don’t – that’s not my business, because I’m not an artisan. I’m an artist and do my work, express my inner self as I wish to: I make this or that bracelet or pendant; these are also traditions, and should remain and be passed on. Who will do it if not the artists, the jewellers? And if each jeweller only makes contemporary items then these traditions will be lost…”

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Tear sheets from Nomad #55:

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