BAKU, March 1, 2008 -- It is ironic that so many countries copy Caucasian designs but to find a carpet that is actually woven in the Caucasus today is rare.
After all, it is a simple rule of economics that if there is a market there is a product. By that logic, weavers in the Caucasus should be at least as active as their imitators.
But weavers in Azerbaijan say that there are many reasons they produce and export so few carpets today compared to their rivals.
For one, the country is in the middle of an oil boom that is noticeably dislocating traditional life and livelihoods as people seek a part of it.
The city at the center of the boom is Baku, which has swollen in size to the extent that half the country’s population now lives there. Everyone wants a share of the new money but not everybody gets it, creating huge new disparities of income.
Amid the influx of people there are many village women – Azerbaijan’s traditional weaving base. They have long given up weaving at home for family purposes but are ready to work in commercial weaving because it pays an average wage and they have few other employment opportunities. Yet what they produce for Azerbaijan’s commercial weaving companies is mostly inexpensive carpeting indistinguishable from that produced anywhere else.
Vugar Dadashov is one of a handful of entrepreneurs who is trying to revive high-quality, artistic weaving in the country. He employs some 70 to 75 weavers in the outskirts of Baku and in the Shirvan, Kuba, and Kazak regions and produces 550 to 600 carpets a year.
Dadashov says the biggest challenge is to recreate the traditional knowledge base of Azeri weavers. The grandmothers and great grandmothers of the present generation had that base, but much has been lost and now must be relearned.
Fortunately, the country has long had scholars who have studied the technical structures of all the antique Caucasian rugs, so these are well known. And the designs are well recorded by museums and in art books. So, the weavers’ knowledge can be regained.
Dadashov says a key part of his revival strategy is to encourage his weavers to go back to working at home, the traditional Azeri workplace. He keeps production from his formal workshop, just outside Baku, to a maximum of 10 to 15 percent of his total output.
Other high quality operations are also focusing on small workshop and independent weaving to recreate the high-quality handwork of the past.
Anther firm, Aygun, has 35 weavers and 15 apprentices. It is located near Kuba -- a region from which more than 30 distinct carpet patterns originate -- and produces around 140 carpets a year.
But if these ‘revivalists’ are to turn back the hands of time, they have much ground to recover. That is because so much of the uniqueness of Azerbaijan’s carpet-making art was destroyed during the country’s time under the Russian and then Soviet empires.
Russia entered the Caucasus in the 18th century and spent the next century integrating the region into its economy. To spur carpet production as a profitable export item, Tsarist officials introduced the Kustar (Russian for ‘Artisan’) program in the 1860s, providing home weavers with patterns and wool while taking care of sales. Twenty years later, the newly opened Russian-built railroad was taking tons of carpets to Black Sea ports for export.
All that time, quality continuously declined. Cheap synthetic dyes were introduced wholesale. And producers introduced non-traditional designs of all kinds. R.E. Wright and J.T. Wertime note in their book ‘Caucasian Carpets and Covers’ that the new design elements included European floral sprays inspired by patterns on wallpaper or soap wrappers.
Roya Taghiyeva, director of Baku’s carpet museum, says things only got worse during the Soviet period.
“The main purpose was simply for more carpets to be woven, as it was an export product,” she says. “It brought currency, but our different schools of weaving lost their classic distinguishing features. Shirvan-style carpets were woven in Kazak, and Kazak carpets in Shirvan. No attention was paid to specific features.”
She adds: “When it got orders from foreign countries, the Azeri Carpet Union would tell producers the designs, where to produce them, in what quantity, and with what wool.”
Lost were such traditional distinctions as weaving different types of carpets in different geographical areas, with distinguishably different color values and wools. Those were the nuances which once made Caucasian carpets so prized by collectors.
As for independent carpet producers, the Soviets simply put them out of business. Dadashov, whose great grandfather was a very successful rug merchant, tells a story of how his uncle once found a fortune stashed away in the family’s old house.
The uncle, then a boy of six, put a hole in one of the rooms’ walls while playing with a stick. Crammed into the wall were sacks tightly stuffed with useless Tsarist-era rubles. It was great grandfather’s capital from his shop that the Bolsheviks closed in 1920. Communist officials later seized the discovered sacks of money and burned them in a bonfire in the Old City district of Baku.
Now Dadashov is trying to revive his family business generations later by focusing on a return to natural colors and high quality wools. He and the other revivalist producers have also returned to hand-spinning their wool and using the different grades traditionally associated with carpets of a specific provenance.
But Azeri officials continue to lay a heavy hand on the carpet industry, which the government still regards as an important source of tax revenue.
For each exported rug, producers must buy a license from the Chamber of Commerce that costs $ 113. Then they must pay customs fees.
But perhaps even more importantly, the government provides no encouragement in the form of subsidies that have become common in other carpet-producing countries.
“If a carpet exporter makes more than $ 100,000 annually in Iran, the government gives special premiums to the exporter,” Dadashov says. “In Turkey, the tax that you pay to the government is paid back to you after a while. That does not happen here.”
All this, along with the higher salaries paid to weavers in Azerbaijan than in Iran or the subcontinent, puts producers at a disadvantage on the world market. When imitators in Pakistan and Afghanistan can produce their own ‘Kazaks’ with the general outlines of the famous Caucasus design – but at a fraction of the cost – the competition is tough indeed.
The future of the Azerbaijan’s carpet industry could depend as much upon how Azeris themselves view their traditional art form as upon how the market does.
As Azerbaijan gets wealthier, two trends are noticeable.
One is a marked preference in the country for modern, machine made floor covering of the kind common in the West.
The other is a predilection among the very wealthy to give expensive hand-woven carpets as high-status gifts and the continuing custom – at all levels of society – of wrapping deceased loved ones in carpets for burial.
It is to early to predict which of these opposing pulls will prove strongest. But at Baku’s carpet museum, Taghiyeva sees part of her job as educating young Azeris about their own rich art heritage.
The museum, which moved into the former Lenin Museum when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, stores many masterpieces of the past. But she says looking is not enough.
“Our museum was engaged in preserving and researching our carpets. But in connection with the market economy, we have changed our function,” she says.
“Today, we want this museum to be an educational and entertainment center. We have programs for children, wedding programs, we show the carpets’ important role in these events. There are a number of moments in our wedding traditions that are connected with carpets. The carpets were not only laid on the ground, they reflected the owner’s world outlook.”
Now, she says, her aim is to keep carpets as part of the identity of future generations of Azeris as well.
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Barry O'Connell: Caucasian Rugs and Carpets
Vugar Dadashov's AzerbaijanRugs.com
Article: Azerbaijan's Traditional Art Not Recognized By International Museums