More than 2000 years ago, warriors and merchant caravans from faraway kingdoms – Persia, Syria, China and Greece – travelled along the Silk Road through what is now Kazakhstan. These travelers brought the art of their cultures, which was adopted and adapted by the people who lived along the route. Among these were the Scytho-Sakian people of southern Kazakhstan, the fabled Scythian horsemen. Contemporaries of Darius I and Alexander the Great, they fashioned objects of adornment in elegant, animal forms from gold, bronze and wood. These objects were part of the exhibition, OF GRASS AND GOLD – Nomads of Kazakhstan.
Creatures that inhabited the region north of the Tian Shan Mountains – horses, tigers, snow leopards, deer, ibexes and panthers – are among the animals fashioned into intricate, stylized, sculptural ornaments. Known as the Wild Animal Style, this form is a synthesis of foreign and indigenous design developed by the Scytho-Sakian culture. Wild Animal Style ornaments were part of the clothing of the Golden Warrior, a nobleman entombed in the Issyk Kurgan (burial mound). A replica of the Golden Warrior was on view at Mingei International.
Objects from the Berel Kurgan, where archaeologists found the remains of two nobles, were on display for the first time in the United States. The two nobles were buried with 13 saddled and bridled horses, sacrificed 2300 years ago to serve them in the afterlife. Among the ornaments was a life-size set of ibex horns meant to be worn on a horse’s head.
In the traditional culture of the Kazakhs, all spaces are ornamented, from the interior of their yurts to their garments to the tack for their horses. Kazakh ornamentation motifs are part of one of the world’s oldest symbolic languages, easily read by those who understand its iconography. Symbols such as the sun, crescent moon and stars, geometric forms, rams’ horns, birds’ wings, flowers, leaves and sprouts combine with colors to give meaning beyond simple decoration. To this people who first domesticated the horse, the act of decorating an object domesticates it as well, making even ordinary utensils and tools works of art and philosophy.
The exhibition was presented by the Foundation for International Arts and Education and the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Kazakhstan in cooperation with Mingei International Museum. The National Sponsor was Access Industries. Other Sponsors were Frontier Mining, Shell Oil and Zere Management Company. The Trust for Mutual Understanding was the Contributor. Dr. Claudia Chang, Professor of Anthropology, Sweet Briar College, was the Exhibition Curator.