Saturday, September 8, 2012

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through November 12, 2012

Before I came to this exhibit, I knew very few things about Kazakhstan: it used to be part of the Soviet Union, and it's the home country of Borat.  Considering only one of these things is actually true, that's not a vast store of knowledge.  To say I came with an open mind is putting it mildly.

Turns out, Kazakhstan is a vast country, the largest landlocked country in the world and about four times the size of Texas.  Nomads have been traveling there for thousands of years, and it's a bridge between Iran and China - a sort of East/West crossroads.

The show demonstrates that these nomadic people had large networks whereby they were able to exchange goods and artistic ideas.  The earlier works (and I do mean earlier - they had two petroglyphs on display that weren't new in the Iron Age) were very realistic portrayals of animals, especially horses, which were very important in their culture.  Later art, influenced by contact with people in what is now Iran, showed more fanciful creatures, winged cats, for instance.

One of the ways in which archeologists have found out about these people is by examining the items included in their burial mounds.  They left no written records, so the only clues to their lives are the objects they left behind.  The permafrost has acted to preserve these remains, even the cloth and leather that you might expect to have disintegrated long ago.  Like the Egyptians, they equipped their dead with items they might need in the afterlife, including horses, sadly for those animals put to death upon the demise of their owner.  The carving is tremendously impressive, especially when you realize they had only very primitive tools.

Verdict: Well worth a look; the artistry is amazing and where else can you learn so much about ancient Kazakhstan?

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