Crafts in the Caucasus – From street stalls to artisans’ homes

We have spent nearly two months roving around the Caucasus, mostly visiting people and places that do not feature in the guidebooks, inventing imaginary lands and running different workshops, but also doing a bit of winter tourism and, of course, our particular crafts search. We roam cities, towns and villages, asking in every shop, stall and market for the crafts makers behind the scenes. But they truly hide, or are hidden by the intermediaries and sellers, who often pretend to make the things themselves but cannot respond to our curious interrogations about processes, materials or stories of the crafts. With disappointment we leave behind beautiful scarves, wooden figurines, traditional embroidery, warm felt hats and other treasures for which the artisan’s hand is invisible. And with a pinch of sadness we walk away, wondering if we will ever find a real crafts maker, one of those rare specimens who live inside the clay she moulds, the wood she carves, the colourful fabrics. And some times, a few times, we do.

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These Armenian wooden dolls did not make it to our backpacks because we could not find their maker, no matter how much we searched (and we did walk a few miles to find him/her)

What follows is a compilation of craft makers of all sorts, from smiley grandmas that sit around the market knitting for somebody different than their grandsons, to those whose crafts quench the thirst of tourists and others that make from the process their therapy, their art or their live story. For us they are all worth the walks to find them and the time to meet them, because we believe in the importance of knowing where stuff comes from, and because there is one thing that a crafts person cannot do without: the patience that our societies are often missing and that all slow travellers require. We search them, meet them and learn in between coffees, teas or windy streets. Enjoy the Caucasian selection!

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Packing crafts for faraway travels

KVARAYA ZHUZHUNA

Stall near Station Square. Tbilisi  (Georgia)

Kvaraya knits despite the cold of winter in Tbilisi, she knits hats and scarves of bright colours with glittering adornments and flowers to match. You can find her sitting on her cardboard workshop, just on weekends, when the market crowd grows. With her hand knitted items she compensates her tiny pension and makes a practical use of her love for colorful yarn.  Kvarya brings to the pavement the daily chores of knitters all around the world, women or men whose hands dance to the imperceptible beat of the needles. She has no internet, facebook or email, but promises to show the blog address to her son, who speaks English and will hopefully let her know that her photo adorns this post and that her hat will be warming up a foreign head next winter.

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NELI SADAGASHVILI 

Stall in the centre of Tbilisi. (Georgia)

She brings the crafts from Georgian mountains into the heart of the city, from her home workshop to the pavement, where she makes a colourful stall of felt to the delight of tourists and passers by. Flowers, animals and fruits animate her improvised shop, and the neverending search for “traditional souvenirs” meets here Neli’s funny representations of national meals (felt khinkhali and churchella or khachapuris of different sorts) served in between original shoes and hats that make Tbilisi’s winter look like spring in this corner. In between one visitor and the next, she explains us the story of this craft, a tradition in Georgia, wool hand .  She proudly remarks that this carnival is all made by her own hand, we believe her shy smile and gather a few pieces. Later on, we regret our small choice, and search for her without luck on a week day, after asking in other stalls for the hands behind the felt and obtaining from other sellers nothing else than products without story – so we leave the country missing in the stack one of the colourful felt scarves that wave in the winds of January.

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ASSOCIATION FOR PEOPLE IN NEED OF SPECIAL CARE

Tbilisi (Georgia).  Website of APNSC

We were brought into this peaceful corner of hectic Tbilisi by Rieke one of our friends from the Alternative Cultural Center Tbilisi, who said that in her association “they make notebooks too”. It is a day center for people with different needs, where crafts are applied to practical workshops and art used as therapy too.

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At the paper workshop everything is recycled and recyclable, dried flowers in little boxes and colourful paper fill a table surrounded by many smiles. They chat, they laugh and tear paper or glue notebook covers to the beat of a large stapler where something is being cooked for a school. We sit around for a whole morning, invited to join their production team at work and for lunch.  In the wood workshop abilities are much more obvious than the supposed disabilities of the participants, and at the candle room a few people that enjoy some coffee and cake happily show us their wax collection. We are told that all are free to take breaks and rest at will, and we ask what happens when a large order is waiting and a client calls impatient “we just tell them it will take a bit longer” – they say. We smile inside at the Utopian thought of workers around the world toiling at their own rhythm in creative production lines, while hugging good bye to the people that made our day in the city.

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ARSEN GOGCHYAN

1 Sharambeyan Str., Tufenkian Old Complex, Dilijan (Armenia)

Arsen told us he works with ceramics because his soul is made of clay. He was taught to shape earth by his father, a craftsman too, and has worked and self-learned for ten years. In his little workshop at the artistic town of Dilijan (more than 5 art schools and 20 studies in a town of 16,000!), he welcomes people to try their skills at the pottery wheel and crafts figures of his own creation along with teapots, cups and a very special ingredient of Armenian folklore called Aghaman, a salt cellar which may represent the goddess Anahit (pagan deity of fertility) or,  in its more christian version, a mother that patiently guards the holy salt, symbol of prosperity and eternity for the house. Also following the local passion for fertility Arsen skilfully incorporates in his designs the traditional magic of pomegranate –  the most widespread symbol of Armenia which, despite of the cliché, matches quite nicely with the natural colours of his coffee cups, glazed plates and little sculptures.

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ARTUR GREGORIAN

Family home. Village of Gosh (Armenia)

Walking and hiking in the surroundings of Dilijan we got to the monastery of Goshavank and drinking tea with some local ladies inquired about the makers of some wooden figurines sold as souvenirs. We were told that in the village of Gosh lived a man who worked with wood, and we did not doubt a minute to go and find the local wood-worker. One of his neighbours brings us to us to the house, where we are greeted with juice and coffee by a family of many, gathered around our curious eyes.

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Artur sips his coffee silently while his mother explains that he works simply with wood because it is all around . “He learnt by himself some ten years ago”, she says pointing at his opera prima, a representation of one of the local monasteries that crowns the living room cupboard of fine china. They bring out boxes of wooden souvenirs and although we are never shown into Artur’s creative den, we choose in and a pretty chandelier that he’s happily proud of, Armenian letters that we cannot read, and some enigmatic pendants made of dried pommegranate – they will turn out to be taratosik, traditionally  given away in weddings as blessings.  From the door, the family waves us goodbye as we go back to the misty road and the melancholic trees – it’s true that wood abounds in these forests.

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Taratosik (dried pomegranate pendant), chandelier and Armenian alphabet letters

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ALBERT BABELON

Artisan’s home and workshop. Yerevan (Armenia). Transcaucasus Handicraft in facebook.

A day with Albert is a visit to forgotten times, to that mythical place where the artisan is a translator of nature’s beauty into something practical. One look at his table, set for tea, and we know that the hour we had booked to visit his home/workshop is gonna have to stretch – although we did not imagine we would be sharing stories for more than 9 hours!

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“If you did not know yet – Albert starts with a pun – Armenians are the first in everything that exists”. It’s a common joke around the area, and we have sometimes seen it match with reality when, beyond affirming that they were the first Christians,  a driver tells us something like “some experts believe that it was Armenians who invented the Egyptian pyramids” or “Oh! In Bulgaria you write with cyrillic alphabet? I have heard some Armenians participated in its creation”. But jokes apart, this territory of ever shifting borders, that our host defines as Transcaucasus, abounds in historical treasures.

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Albert roams the Armenian countryside in search for the motifs of Transcaucasian petroglyphs that he captures in his ceramics. He restores ancient pieces of art and crafts that hide behind the curtains. He walks in nature, collects and classifies medieval coins, gathers pieces of regional myths and tales, he reads, he listens, he dreams of history and folklore. And to the sound of a music that brings waves from an erased past he re-creates traditional imagery, he transforms wood and clay into mysterious figures that stare at us from the glass cabinet – some things resembling horses, others looking like birds, a collection of secret boxes or a reinterpretation of  the amulets that science has obliterated from the farmers present.  He makes glass into little jewels hoping to bring colours to those who adorn their necks or homes. Albert is that artisan we were looking for, the one that tells stories over teas of local herbs unknown to us and makes crafts a living thing of the present.

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Centenary cattle amulet and Albert’s interpretation for a small pendant

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Coins and emboidery make their way to Albert’s glass creations

LATER ON, AT THE POST OFFICE …

The helpful lady that carefully opens each of our packed parcels, inspects each of the little items for postal approval and tapes them back for a safe journey, checks one by one the weight and price of each destination and duly informs us that  sending some of them to will not only be prohibitively expensive (sending costs exceeding the contents value), but also rather silly, as even the special declaration we need to prepare for each of the letters may not save them from further customs inspection.  And unwilling to risk loss or delay, we send just half and continue to carry the rest for miles in our loaded backpacks. We are just a bit sorry that only half of the participants will  receive the funny hand-written stamps of the Armenian post – all made one by one by this very same lady – which add to the hand-made nature of this project. The rest will leave from Turkey, where this whole thing started, as we trace back our steps in the journey to cross the mighty lands of eastern Turkey and the cross border territory of Kurdistan.

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Safely taped for rainy spring days


This post is part of the series Snail Trails – Handmade in Asia – a roving initiative to document, collect and share crafts from the places we pass by and the artisans we meet on our way East. Because there is a life behind the souvenirs and we are curious to see what it looks like. If you also want to know more click here for artisan’s and craft stories. 

 

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