Tuzkeez tapestries at Camden library

Sep 02, 2014
A detail of one of the tuzkeez going on view at Camden Public Library shows the intricate hand stitching that goes into the Kazakh tapestries.

Camden — “Tuzkeez” means “wall hanging” in Kazakh; there will be an exhibit of handmade tuzkeez in the Picker Room of Camden Public Library during the month of September, thanks to the generosity of collector Judith Varney Burch.

The particular tuzkeez in the exhibit are made by the Kazakh women nomads of western Mongolia and honor a birth, marriage, or special event. It is customary in the Kazakh tradition for a newly married couple to be gifted a new “ger” or yurt decorated with the traditional chain stitch embroidery such as these tuzkeez.

The borders of the tuzkeez are made on a treadle sewing machine, and the inside pattern is sewn by hand, using a chain stitch. Each family is very proud of the craftsmanship and design of the tuzkeez in their homes. Some of the tuzkeez are dated and inscribed in Kazakh; often, the center piece from a tuzkeez will be removed and passed down to make a new tuzkeez.

The bottoms of the tuzkeez are usually unfinished. It is customary for the tuzkeez to line the walls of their homes — gers in the warmer months and cabins in the winter months. The tuzkeez are usually placed behind beds or other furniture, hiding the bottoms. Most tuzkeez are non-representational art, keeping with the dictates of the Koran although, during communist times, stylized flowers and stars were often used in the patterns. The Kazakhs are known for their use of dazzling patterns and vivid color.

It takes more than 100 hours to produce each tuzkeez. The size of each piece is about 3-foot-7-inches by 8-foor-2-inches. Most women will only make three to five in a lifetime. It is very difficult on their eyes. The making of tuzkeez is a dying art form; the younger women are not interested in learning how to make tuzkeez and the older women are slowly passing on. The tuzkeez that remain are becoming more and more rare. The rate they can be produced is a very small fraction of the rate they are being exported.

The tuzkeez in the exhibit all come from the collection of Burch. She serves as a research collaborator for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and recently opened Arctic Inuit Art, an art gallery and learning space for the community to explore the Arctic. The gallery is located in Charlottesville, Va., and is open to the public by appointment. Burch also curates exhibitions and lectures around the world.

In addition to the gallery, work with the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and her international touring educational collections, Burch has created the nonprofit Arctic Culture Forum in Charlottesville, which she runs with the help of multiple University of Virginia anthropology student interns.

“My passion is sharing Inuit art and culture. Combining that with my love for travel has been a gift that keeps giving. My Inuit textile collection, ‘Culture on Cloth: Baker Lake Wall Hangings,’ has traveled the world; I recently opened the exhibit in Patagonia, Argentina,” Burch said.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

The bottom edge is traditionally left unfinished as it is usually hidden.
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