The region of Buryatia and its tapestry art are not widely known outside of Russia, yet they deserve special attention for a number of reasons: this
interesting and little known part of the world offers a wealth of profound
knowledge and skills, a beautiful landscape, a bounty of earthy and human
delights, and a unique method and approach to tapestry.
Horsehair tapestry is a very peculiar “commodity” of Buryat art. It is rooted in
the ancient culture of nomadic Buryats and is intertwined with the traditions of
other peoples and other cultures.
Horse hair has been used by Buryats, as well as other nomads, in their daily
life for many years. This traditional Buryat material, combined with the
technique of tapestry learned from the Russians and various traditions of
tapestry existing in other parts of the world, plus the curiosity of a few
Buryat craftspeople/artists and resulted in what can now rightfully be called
The first horsehair tapestry, “Baikal” (200 x 75 centimeters), was shown at the
all-Siberian Exhibit of 1974. It was woven by Tamara Timina,
who was intrigued and enchanted by a tapestry exhibit of a Baltic weaver. Timina
became a pioneer of the Buryat tapestry.
Following this introduction of a “new material” (and a new, for the Buryat,
art), a few other artists began to learn to create horsehair tapestries. One of
the teachers was N. Dulbinova, a craftswoman who was at ease with this difficult
medium of horsehair and who had rich experience in employing it in its
“traditional” role in taars, the traditional Buryat rugs which were widely used by Buryats in their nomadic life earlier in the century.
Tapestry as an art was born in Buryatia in the beginning of the 1980s. It was
“born” at the time of revival of interest in traditional crafts in the Republic
and at the time of growing interest in tapestry art in the former Soviet Union
(the same interest arose in the US at that time). It was a time of resurrection
of interest in national traditions and original Buryat art. Construction of a
new building for the National Buryat Theater was underway and, with the support
of the government, artists working in various media received an opportunity to
participate. The painter Dashinima Dugarov (the Chief artist for the interior
decoration of the theater) was a source of support and inspiration. He promoted
the idea of employing traditional Buryat techniques and motifs in all details of
the interior design of this building.
It was decided to make the main curtain from horsehair. There were no skilful
weavers familiar with this medium, indeed there were no skilled tapestry makers
in Buryatia at that time, but the idea was very appealing. The sketch for the
curtain entitled “Spring” was developed by E. Ayusheev while D. Dugarov, Solbon
and Svetlana Rinchinov led the project. They recruited 10 brave artists who were
interested in this work and undertook to learn how to spin and weave horsehair.
The 8 x12 meter (24 x 36 feet) curtain was woven in 8 months. For many weavers
it was a first experience both in working with horsehair and in tapestry.
This project provided not only for the creation of a unique piece of art - the
first and only horsehair theater curtain in the world, but it also created and
boosted development of tapestry in Buryatia. It was really a unique and very
powerful event that introduced such future masters of horsehair tapestry as
Baiarma Dambieva, Rimma Dorzhieva,
and Tatiana Dasheeva.
The women who became tapestry apprentices and makers of the theatre curtain were
no strangers to the world of art nor to the use of horsehair. All, or almost
all, of them were born into families living on the steppes and herding sheep or
horses where craft skills (weaving, wood carving, etc) were a part of daily life
and were not treated as something out of ordinary. Many of them had an art
education; some like Svetlana Rinchinova or Baiarma Dambieva had a musical
education or background. But the art of tapestry, the use of horsehair for
artistic purposes, as an art medium and an art form- this was new for all or
most of them. A handful made horsehair tapestry the focus of their lives and
became their own artists, tapestry makers with a very distinguished style.
But how did it all begin? What preceded the creation of horsehair
tapestry as an art form?
Buryats traditionally used horsehair for very practical purposes: it provided
for strong robes and harnesses, saddle-girths, reins, fetters and collars for
horses and calves. Later, after the Russians who settled in Siberia in the 17th
century introduced weaving, Buryats started making taars, small rugs which were
used more for practical than decorative purposes. The first taars were made from
goat hair yarn with horsehair as a base. They were of a small size, mainly with
geometric designs, and woven on small (often thread) reeds called “nykhur,” or
on small primitive vertical looms. A few long narrow stripes were woven and then
sewn together. Instead of a loom, tapestry weavers use a primitive vertical
wooden frame, which they warp.
Taars are very durable like everything made out of horsehair,
whether covers for leather shoes (pantla) or rain hats (horsehair is water repellant,
thus very practical for that kind of wear) or even fishing nets (for those only white
hair could be used in order not to scare fish). Taars were used not only inside the
house, but also as covers for horses. The medicinal qualities of horsehair, its
warmth (including the warmth and energy from the human hands weaving the taar)
and elasticity, made taars desirable and useful as massage pads. Durable, warm,
practical, easy to make: taars became an integral part of each Buryat household.
There was a special ritual (“adha dylhylhe”) for harvesting horsehair. In the
spring, after first grass appears and days become warmer, a group of young
strong men gathered together and caught horses with special ropes with a loop.
The entire herd was brought into a fenced space and
there the horsehair harvesting took place. Only the mane hair, the small tuft of
hair from between the ears, of mares and foals were harvested, never of stallions,
as well as the tails of the colts. While the men were harvesting hair, the women
prepared the ritual meal.
With the industrial development of the 1920s and later, traditional hand made
items were replaced with mass produced ones and traditional folks crafts were
forgotten or abandoned.
Yet thanks to those few who managed to remember their traditions and tried to
collect all the “remnants” of forgotten skills, traditional crafts are now
coming back to life.
The process of preparation of the material, horse hair, for tapestry today is no
different from the one used earlier in the century when horsehair was used for
other purposes. It starts with collection of hair, cleaning and washing, drying,
sorting hair by color, fluffing it, spinning. There are no commercial supplies
of clean horsehair arranged according to a color scheme, as exists in the US -
artists themselves are responsible for preparing it.
Of course, there are a number of challenges to this seemingly simple process.
During the Soviet times, according to Baiarma Dambieva it was easier to obtain
horsehair from slaughterhouses where hair were mixed with other substances, and
where one really had to have a strong desire to work with tapestry: a strong
smell makes horsehair collection quite a challenge.A few organizations were
collecting horsehair but, with the fall of the Soviet Union, this source
vanished and obtaining horsehair became quite a task..
A distinguished feature of all Buryat tapestries is its non-abstract, figurative
character, whether landscapes (works of Dorzhieva, Timina, Richinova) or
figures, pastoral or decorative scenes, or imagery richly incorporating Buryat
ornament and Buryat mythology (tapestries designed by
Al. Tsybikova and woven by B. Dambieva). The style and technique of the five major
masters are easily identifiable. Dambieva’s tapestry demonstrates
a subtlety and delicacy of colors and soft “texture,” almost a watercolor, airy quality.
There is an intense “skidding” pattern of colors in Dorzhieva’s works.
T. Dasheeva employs a “folk picture,” primitive style in both
the imagery and “rough” manner of weaving. T. Timina’s decorativism
and S. Rinchinova’s ornamentalism represent not only mature masters with their own style,
but also a variety of possibilities built into the media they use.
There are three main colors available: brown, black and white. The brown is most
readily available while the white is a rather rare commodity. A real skill and a
very good sense of color are required from an artist in order to achieve
desirable results with such a limited choice of color. Yet the weavers see the
limited choice of colors as an advantage. Baiarma Dambieva says that in those
three colors is a whole spectrum, and this limit sharpens one’s eye and prompts
one to find other ways to express color richness. ”It is every easy to make
tapestry when you have tens of colors and hues of various colors,” Baiarma says,
“but to create a picturesque and rich in subtle colors and color overtones a
delicate pictorial scheme of horsehair tapestries is another thing. And this
there a real skill of horsehair tapestry maker demonstrates itself.”
Earlier experimentations with dying horsehair with henna or using some yarn were
rejected by the weavers. Weavers deliberately refused to use any types of dyes.
Instead tapestry weavers use other devices to provide richness: the texture of
tapestry, unique methods of weaving by treating the warp in a certain way or by
spinning weft hair differently, the use of only mane or tail hair or of some
combination, adding some volume by weaving in an intentionally “loose” manner
and adding three dimensional parts (as in “Spring” and “Flute Tune” sketched by
A. Tsybikova or a series “Rain Tune” by B. Dambieva), different type of
finishing and approaches to blending natural colours.
The 1980s were a very good time for the development of tapestries. Commissions
followed one after the other and horsehair tapestry quickly became a part of
public buildings and a distinguished feature of interior design in Buriatia. One
can see them in libraries and airports, hotels and theaters. But this period of
interest and governmental financial support ceased with fall of the Soviet
In the 90-s weavers faced a very difficult time: no commissions, private or
state, since the economic situation in the country became devastating. Weavers
have been forced to find some other means to support themselves and their
families. The regular exhibits that played a very important role in the creative
search and development of tapestry have ceased to be organized, and only limited
number of tapestries were created in the 1990s.
It does seem that a gradual revival of interest in this art is now taking place.
With a slow improvement of the economy and the development of a middle class in
Russia, weavers have regained some interest again and a few private commissions
are making their life easier. It is not possible say whether it will become a
“new trend” and it is not possible to foresee the way Buryat horsehair
tapestries will develop. The artists themselves do feel a strong need to
exchange ideas, an opportunity to show and share their creations with each other
and the general public.
Baiarma Dambieva recently noted that there has been no new development lately,
everybody is “waltzing around the same place.” Some “fresh air” in the form of
artistic exchange is desirable and needed. Its is promising that there are a few
new apprentices learning “secrets of the trade” from recognized masters. There
are no doubts that Buryat weavers have something to share with their knowledge
of tradition and their own experience of working with this beautiful natural
material of horsehair.
(information on the traditional use of horsehair by the Buryats is from “Things
from Horsehair and Yarn Made in Alarskiy Aimak” (in Russian), by R. Myrdygeev,