The FynArts Gallery is hosting a new exhibition that will open this Friday, 15 March. As we have come to expect from this gallery, the exhibition, entitled Tree of Life, will again feature artists that work in unusual media and deal with unique subject matter. The Tree of Life exhibition will present a combination of Suzanis from Manina Baumann’s collection and paintings by her daughter, Maria Baumann.
The word Suzani is derived from the ancient Persian word for needle and needlework, ‘suzanikari’ and has become the name for exquisitely embroidered works of art, handmade for centuries by young girls in Central Asia as part of their dowry. The antiquity of this art form dates back to the origins of the Silk Route itself. This is the world that Manina, who studied Textile Design and History at the University of Stellenbosch, has been enchanted with for almost a decade.
A keen collector of silk Suzanis, Manina started Bukhara to Cape Town Suzani Textiles in 2012, importing and selling Suzanis locally. It all started when she was captivated by a photograph of a Suzani on a textile blog and made contact with Azizbek Gulyamov, an expert in Suzanikari. In 2013 she travelled to Uzbekistan to learn as much as she could about this ancient women’s craft.
“Suzanis are known for their strong colours and exotic patterns, but their true purpose lies in the belief that the embroidery is imbued with magical powers for protection and good fortune, for joy, prosperity, good health and fertility. It ensured a happy life for a newly-married couple, so much so that there was a belief that ‘bad’ embroidery could impact negatively on the future happiness of the couple. A woman who embroidered beautifully was ‘worth her weight in gold’ to her new husband and highly respected in her community.”
Various dowry pieces in silk or cotton featured in the wedding ceremony as canopies and head dresses, before they became important adornments in the wedding chamber and in the new home. When a little girl was old enough, she would be taught the art and secrets of embroidery by her mother and grandmothers and helped to create her own dowry pieces to present to her groom and his family on their wedding day.
“The young girl, living in the harsh, arid desert, embroidered the symbols of her village and family into her creations and also added her own fantasies of the Islamic Garden of Eden and her dreams for her future married life,” says Manina. This heavenly garden with its Tree of Life was symbolic of an undamaged world and earthly paradise that was wished upon the young bride. It represented the ancient Persian concept of an ideal universe of everlasting beauty and magic, of balance, harmony and unity, as depicted in so many Persian silk carpets.
Having grown up in a time of machine-woven and printed textiles, Manina says she is overwhelmed and inspired by the exuberance, beauty, craft and elegance of these hand-embroidered Suzanis. “Each one is an artwork, alive with the unique history and energy of its creator,” she says, adding that it has become her passion to keep this ancient art from flourishing.
The Suzanis that can be seen in the showroom of Bukhara to Cape Town Suzani Textiles are modern interpretations from modern-day Uzbekistan, once the Emirate of Bukhara. “Suzanis became the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of textiles during the last century when the Communist regime forbade women from creating these traditional pieces,” she explains. “Embroidery became commercialised and mostly machine-sewn, and had to be decorated with Soviet motifs and symbols instead of the centuries’ old ethnic patterns. Since independence, the new government of Uzbekistan, with the help of Unesco, has set up schools to revive the region’s ancient crafts.”
Antique Suzanis in museums and collections were studied, the designs copied and drawn on adras and atlas silks, and women from the villages were carefully selected to do the hand embroidery. “The women who made the Suzanis that can be viewed at the FynArts exhibition were amongst those young women at the craft schools in the 1990s. They are mature, middle-aged women now and at the peak of their creative excellence, producing authentic interpretations of antique Suzani designs of incredibly high quality.”
Nowadays, with the ever-rising price of silk and the production of cheaper, machine-made copies of Suzanis, Manina says the survival of this captivating craft is threatened once again. But she is hopeful that it will withstand the passage of time.
“Suzanis are unique works of art that provide a window into the ancient world. While the meaning of some of the more ancient inherited symbols may have been lost and forgotten, they are still being used as decorative elements in contemporary Suzani design and they still carry a powerful message. Each authentic Suzani tells a woman’s quiet story to those who understand. Over generations, every phase in the history of Suzanis has contributed to the spirit of this art.”
Manina’s daughter, Maria Baumann, who has a Masters in Fine Arts from Stellenbosch University started her creative journey as an illustrator. Working mainly in watercolour, she draws inspiration from the playful organic design quality of the Suzani tradition. Her works make use of the same joyful abundance of colour and the Tree of Life subject matter, although her work is populated by typically South African trees and other fauna and flora.
The Tree of Life is Manina and Maria’s third mother-daughter exhibition. It will be opened by Melvyn Minnaar at 11:00 on Friday 15 March at the FynArts Gallery in The Courtyard, 2 Harbour Road, Hermanus. RSVP: email@example.com