By Eva Skalla, BUS member

In collaboration with the SOAS Vostok Society, the British-Uzbek Society held a talk by a renowned Uzbek ceramicist Alisher Rakhimov entitled ‘Traditional Ceramics of Uzbekistan: History and Contemporary Development’. Alisher was visiting the UK to build bridges with the UK Arts institutions. He visited Carmarthen and Cardiff Schools of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Royal College of Art.

The lecture was held in a seminar room at the Brunei Gallery of SOAS University of London. The event started with introductions by Iskandar Ding (on behalf of the SOAS Vostok Society) and by Rosa Vercoe (on behalf of the British-Uzbek Society).

Alisher took us on a fascinating illustrated journey, full of ups and downs, showing the long and rich history of ceramics from the Kushan period of the III century BC, the Timurid period (XIV-XV centuries) and onto the Soviet period in the 20th century to the present day.

The remarkably rich ceramic culture still survives despite several periods when it was under threat. One of these is the Soviet period when the traditional ceramicists were forced to work in the factories as it was forbidden to work at home. Despite these harsh conditions, a number of workers managed to maintain tiny studios in their own houses to preserve their skills and their unique art. It is thanks to these people, many traditions survived in Bukhara, Ghjivan, Samarkand, Khiva, and, of course, the Fergana Valley.

Alisher shared a story of his grandfather’s efforts to revive the Tashkent style related to different periods, and the support, he gave to his fellow-ceramicists, in keeping the best traditions of Uzbek ceramics alive. He told us of the wonderful toy-making tradition by Hamra Bibi, who used to make ceramic and so breakable toys. Why breakable, one might ask? Well, it is intentional to teach children that nothing lasts forever.

Moving to the present day, Alisher told us of the great revival that is occurring thanks to help and encouragement of the current government. Ceramicists are supported by special tax relief conditions, access to interest-free grants and to all materials and supplies they might need to produce their artworks. The Hunarmand Association with its 33,000 members and 32 different categories has been created to support artists and craftsmen. This resulted in both a much better quality of artworks and an intensified collaboration between artists and art historians. The demand for ceramics is growing steadily. For instance, before 1995, the majority of Uzbek ceramics was bought mainly by tourists whereas now, 75% of ceramics is bought by local people in the domestic markets.

Finally, Alisher spoke about new trends in the Uzbek Universities, which are looking at changing their rather out-of-date, Soviet era curriculum, and looking at how to bring the excellence of the traditional techniques and approaches into the university programmes. Alisher is taking back what he has learned in the UK, both positive and negative, to look at what might be useful in the future.

The audience asked some interesting questions, and the evening ended with drinks and snacks which were much appreciated.