A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Rikki Quintana of HoonArts. HoonArts is a fair trade handicraft company which specializes in products from Tajikistan and Central Asia.
How did you get started in Fair Trade with Tajikistan artisans? As an undergrad, many years ago, I was a Spanish major and I loved travel and international relations. I had visions of doing something in the international arena, but then I went to law school. My career took a detour and I spent 31 years practicing business law. When I retired, I decided I wanted to go back to what really fed my heart. So, I started volunteering with a local organization that hosts short term professional exchange delegations from all over the world.
In the fall of 2013, we hosted a week long delegation from Tajikistan visiting here under the theme of youth development and civic engagement. My colleague and I spent the entire week with the delegates. One of the delegates stayed here, in my home; one of the delegates stayed in her home. We were so inspired by their passion for making a difference at home, under extraordinary circumstances, that we decided we really wanted to do something to support their efforts, but we didn’t know what.
Out of that initial connection, we created our own little non-profit organization, called Bridges to Tajikistan which does just that, it builds sustainable bridges between people in the U.S. and Tajikistan. Fast forward to the fall of 2014 and we had another delegation from Tajikistan. This time hosted by Bridges to Tajikistan. One of the delegates was the Executive Director of the Tourism Development Center of Tajikistan and he works in the realm of tourism promotion, ecotourism, and handicraft promotion which are very closely tied in Tajikistan. We met with the staff at the International Folk Art Market, now the International Folk Art Alliance, to find out about the market and introduce Tajik handicrafts. We learned that there had never been a Tajik artisan in the market, and that no one was importing Tajik handicrafts into the U.S. So by the end of the week, I decided somebody had to take a leap of faith. I literally said before they left, “Okay, I’ll do it.” My first email back to Bakhriddin, in Tajikistan, was “Okay, how fast can you get me products? Can you get me products in time for a Christmas sale event?” and that is how it started. I’ve spent the last year building relationships with different artisan groups, developing a shipping system, holding local shows, and building the foundation of the business. So, that’s how I got into the crazy business of Tajikistan.
What kinds of products do you sell? I have a variety of different products because I work with 12-15 different artisans or small artisan groups throughout Central Asia.
JEWELRY: I have silver filigree jewelry, but not a lot in stock, partly because they end up being a little pricier than people want to pay in this part of the country, because we have all of the Native American jewelry. What is interesting about the jewelry, is the Tajik jewelry is much more of the Persian style. Tajikistan was the northern most extension of the Persian empire, so the Persian influence is much more prevalent in the Tajik jewelry.
Whereas, the Kyrgyz were a nomadic people in Kyrgyzstan, so the traditional patterns are similar to the Native American patterns. It does look like it could be Native American.
HOME DÉCOR: I have home décor items, like wall hangings, pillow covers, and table accents.
Suzani traditionally, in Tajik, refers to a wall sized textile decoration that is used to decorate homes, buildings, and offices even today in Tajikistan, but it also now is used to refer to the style of embroidery that is used in smaller items. I don’t carry the big wall size embroidery because people in the U.S. don’t decorate an entire wall with a tapestry or one piece of embroidery, but I do have small pieces that use the suzani technique. That’s really pretty. The pattern on this piece is called bhutta, which means bush and it symbolizes nature and growth and long life. The artisan left these wall hangings unlined to show the technique; that is how they leave the piece traditionally. One of the things I’ll be exploring this year is: Do people prefer the exposed embroidery or do they want it lined on the back?
I like the colors in this table runner. The ikat fabric (the border) is woven on small handlooms so the fabric is only about 15-16 inches wide. Some are as wide as 17 inch and it is generally produced in small family workshops who jealously guard their patterns and designs down through the generations. I also buy ikat fabrics by the yard from an Etsy shop called Silk Way, the owner is based in Margilan, Uzbekistan, but she has somebody who acts as her warehouse here in the U.S., so the items ship from California. I contacted her because I wanted more patterns, I already had everything from her store, so she went to all of the other family workshops and took photos of all the latest fabrics. Then I said “Okay, I want five meters of that one, and five meters of that one” and that is literally how I did it.
HANDBAGS and BACKPACKS: I have embroidered handbags and smaller bags, including ones for cell phones and eye glass cases. This particular piece (Ikat clutch shown above) is leather with machine embroidery, but it is free motion (not programmed) and I watched them do the machine embroidery. It is just amazing. They stick the fabric or leather under the needle and they guide it all by hand and generate this beautiful design. The multicolored fabric is the same handwoven ikat fabric from Uzbekistan that we talked about in the table runners.
Convertible bags: This is cool because it can be a backpack, or a one shoulder bag. The bags are lined and the patchwork technique is the traditional quroq technique. The fabric is all silk and these two styles, one with colorful stripes and one with single color stripes, are the two type of fabrics that were traditionally used in making men’s clothing and they’ve used that cloth for these bags. These fabrics traditionally would not be used for women’s clothing, but they are colorful and interesting. I just thought these were really cool bags and I got as many as I could. I bought what they had in stock and then ordered some more. I brought some home as gifts, but it was hard to give them because people like them and buy them. I have them priced at $40, which is a really good, easy, price for selling something like this. That seems like a pretty reasonable price, to me.
Yak Leather Bags: I work with a small group that has around 14 families, that work in leather. Yaks are native to the Pamirs, so in the rural areas they do yak and I bought only yak leather. That feels so soft and luxurious.
FELTED ANIMALS: I have felted animals (yaks, bears, donkeys, and snow leopards). The snow leopards, especially appeal to me because I love cats. They have a wild snow leopard population in Tajikistan of about 400 animals, in two different populations. One in the eastern Pamir region, that’s the larger population, and a smaller one in the western area. There have been some recent studies by conservation groups studying these wild populations. So, I love the idea that these artists are capturing that conservation movement in their handicrafts. I hosted the Executive Director of the Union of Craftsman of Tajikistan to visit the market in Santa Fe. While he was here, I took him to the Albuquerque Biopark Zoo and he saw the snow leopard. His comment was “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a live snow leopard in person.” He was so excited to see an animal that was native to Tajikistan.
When my husband and I were in Tajikistan, we saw that donkeys are so integral to the rural economy. Everybody in the rural area has a donkey. We asked “Gee, we don’t see many horses?” We were told “Donkeys cost $300 and horses cost $1,000.” So almost nobody has horses, but everybody has a donkey and they are the beast of burden, provide transportation, and are the family pet. The artisan that works with the felt, has trained other women from the nearby villages to do the same work.
HAIR ACCESSORIES: These are some of the wooden hair accessories and combs that are available. I think they are beautiful. Look at all of those tiny details in there. Master Sodiq, a 5th generation wood carver, does most of the work by hand, but for the finest details he uses a dental drill. I visited him in his workshop and I have photos of the array of hand tools. He makes primarily combs for hair, all of which have the UNESCO award of excellence, with walnut and apricot woods. He starts with a chunk of wood, a hack saw, and an ax. It’s like they always said about Michelangelo: The statue was always in the piece of marble. That’s how Master Sodiq’s wood carvings emerge from the wood.
I had a customer here ask “Does he do barrettes and hair clips?” “I don’t know, I’ll ask.” First, I inquired if he was interested in new product ideas and he said yes. So I went onto Etsy and Amazon and got some photos of barrettes and hair clips. I sent the message to Bakhriddin with photos and said “I want Master Sodiq’s designs on hair clips using authentic national patterns” It took him a while because this was in the winter and their power is hydro-electric power, so they have electricity shortages starting in October that run through the Spring until the rivers are flowing more reliably again. So, he had to wait until he had time in the evening and electricity to do the design work, but he produced a beautiful collection of clips and barrettes that are now selling as part of his product line domestically as well as internationally. That was very exciting to me, to be a part of developing his business. I learned, through this process, that the only reliable metal clips for barrettes are made in France. Of course, Master Sodiq doesn’t have access to French made clips, so I was able to buy a set and when I went to Tajikistan I took a bag of French made clips that he can now use, so that the metal part is as high quality as the wooden part. Before he was going down to the local market, buying Chinese hair barrettes, taking off the plastic, and putting the metal part on his wooden clips.
WOODEN SHOE HORNS: These are also made by Master Sodiq, who makes the wooden combs and hair clips. They are little shoe horns and I just thought they were so adorable. It is difficult to find gifts that are appropriate for men.
JURABS: I have knitted/crocheted, what I call, slipper socks, the Tajik word for them is jurab. I say knitted/crocheted because the technique is not one that is used typically in the U.S. I’ve had one knitting expert tell me “Oh, that looks like Bosnian crochet”. I had somebody just tell me yesterday “I think it’s Tunisian knitting.” Either way, it’s very traditional. The patterns are very bright and colorful and you don’t see them anywhere else but in the Pamir region. Each one of the jurabs is unique. The sizing is only approximate because they are made as individual one-of-a-kind items. So, I’ve measured the foot and labeled it with an approximate shoe size. I asked my main coordinator “Now, is the yarn handspun?” He answered, “Oh, these are very poor people; of course the yarn is hand spun. It has to be. They couldn’t afford machine spun yarn. If they don’t have their own sheep, the artisans buy the raw wool, card it, and spin it themselves.” It’s an activity that is done by women after they have worked in their gardens and small fields, as well as in the winter. Then the jurabs are carried down to Dushanbe, the capital city, where they get boxed up and shipped to me by my coordinator.
CERAMICS: This is one of the ceramic pieces that Master Sukhrob calls an Aroma Lamp. He has a very unique style of ceramic. It’s all small forms with cut outs and mostly decorative pieces. They are small because he only has a tiny kiln; he can’t afford a bigger kiln. He explained that his style is so unique because he wanted to create a style that was the fusion of the ancient Chinese ceramics and the Tajik Persian ceramics. When he was developing his craft, he experimented with coils, wheels, and molds and he ultimately settled on the mold technique because he was able to create a lighter look than he could produce with a wheel and he could create his own molds. The designs that he puts on them he draws by hand and then they are all cut out by hand. Master Sukhrob was talking about the challenge of designing the piece so that all the patterns line up properly because if you do it wrong you get to the final side and it doesn’t work. He is teaching his sons, but they haven’t gotten the geometric part of it down yet. This is so cool when it has a candle inside it. On my website there is a photo of an Aroma Lamp with a candle inside photographed in the dark.
CUSTOM JACKETS: One of the things I’ll be working with Munira on this year is custom jackets. We’ve experimented with jacket’s sizing for the American woman, but it is a challenge. I have five beautiful jackets that don’t fit the American woman. One thing is American shoulders are broader, so we are going to be creating a more custom line on things like jackets. The jacket in the photo above was a jacket that Munira bought the ikat fabric for me as a gift, months ago to make something for me. I kept putting the project off, so when I knew I was going to Tajikistan last fall, I took my measurements and I sent them to her. I told her I wanted a jacket, something big, bold, eye-catching, but not garish, and then we can do fitting when I’m there. It is a little wide, but it certainly demonstrates the technique and the style. We are planning some kimono style jackets so they don’t have to be form fitting, but this gives you an example of the kind of custom work that we will be able to do. It is fully lined in silk. The quilting is hand done. The embroidery design is a traditional design. The tassels are traditional. I wear this as my personal marketing message.
RUGS: This is a hand-knotted rug made of 100% mohair, which is made from goat’s wool. Then it’s all hand woven. When I ordered it, I wanted one rug as a sample. The artisan sent me some photos of the rugs they had in stock; one had a very Western design and one had a very kitschy tourist pattern. I said I want a rug about this size, and I sent some dimensions, but I want it to have a traditional Tajik pattern and they sent me about 20 photos of embroidered pillow covers and said we can make any of these. I said “Okay, I pick this one, but I want it to only have natural dyes and I don’t want to tell you what colors. I want the Tajik color aesthetic” and this is what I got and I just love it. I wanted to keep the rug for myself, but I won’t. I love the pink here and it is surprisingly soft. This particular craftsman has a combination craft center and homestay in Istaravshan, which is one of the major Silk Road sites in Tajikistan, which just recently celebrated their 2,500-year anniversary. I like the different heights of the piles from the lower dark background to the higher lighter colors. They are very creative. This particular style of pattern (the circle part) is traditional of the Zarafshan Valley, which includes Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Bukara, Uzbekistan, and Pajakent, Tajikistan were the three main cities in that Tajik area along the silk road and then they drew a political boundary between Samarkand and Pajakent so you can’t cross the border. You’ll see handicrafts that come from Uzbekistan that look similar to the Tajik stuff and it’s because that’s the Tajik majority area of Uzbekistan and it’s the same cultural group. I’m learning all kinds of fun stuff that I never could have imagined before.
So, what you got interested in selling handicrafts as fair trade versus traditional selling? I was first introduced to the fair trade movement by Cael Chappell, of Baskets of Africa, who you met. I met him because I was hosting a delegation of women entrepreneurs from Africa who worked in the handicrafts area, and I set up a meeting with Cael. I learned about what he was doing and that interested me in the whole concept of fair trade. So, when I decided okay, I’m going to do it. I really wanted to follow his model; because the only reason I’m doing this is to make a difference for the artisans that I work with. Jobs are very, very scarce in Tajikistan. A really good salary is $300/ month. About 50% of the adult male population is working as migrant laborers in Russia because there are no jobs in Tajikistan. Most of the artisans that I work with are women in rural villages who have no other source of cash income and many of them have no way to support their families because their husbands are in Russia. It has gotten even worse as the Russian economy has declined with international sanctions, so the men aren’t able to send as much money home to begin with.
“I’m totally convinced that it’s that personal connection that will change the future for the planet.”
So, the whole reason for doing this is to improve the artisans social and economic conditions and to create positive connections on a person-to-person level. I’m totally convinced that it’s that personal connection that will change the future for the planet. It’s not going to be governments or international institutions. It’s going to be people working together, breaking bread together, seeing that we all have the same hopes, dreams, desires, and I view this as my contribution to world peace.
Do you have any input in the handicrafts? I don’t do any designs. I provide market feedback, to the extent that I can. Nobody else is importing Tajik handicrafts as an established market, so we are testing what works and what doesn’t work. It is a function of design, color, and price. So, I will react to color combinations and say “I’m not sure that color combination is the best for the American market, but philosophically, authenticity is central to what I’m trying to accomplish. The patterns and the fundamental designs are all authentic and I look for products that I think would be of interest to the American market. I’m working with one of my artisans, who speaks very good English and I’ll let her know if I think it needs to be a little bigger, or I think Americans would like a pocket or a zipper pocket, but fundamentally I want the products that I sell to represent the culture and history of Tajikistan. I will never force a design on any artisan because I’m philosophically opposed to it.
To be honest, I wasn’t even really sure where Tajikistan was and I’m probably not one of the only ones. I know it is a “stan”, so former Soviet Union, but other than that, I wasn’t sure. Actually, there are two questions I always get asking when I meet new people. They ask “Now where is Tajikistan?” and “How did you get connected to Tajikistan?” I told you how I got connected and when the first delegation came, I had no idea where Tajikistan was either. I knew it was probably somewhere close to Russia. It is actually located immediately north of Afghanistan. Its eastern border is China. On the northern border its Kyrgyzstan to the northeast and Uzbekistan to the northwest and the west. If you imagine the Himalaya Mountains and you follow that chain of mountains to the west, there is a point at which the tail turns up, and where the tail ends and turns up is the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. The highest mountain in Tajikistan is Ismoli Somoni Peak. It used to be known as Communism Peak because it was the highest mountain in the Soviet Union. It is over 25,000 feet high. Mountains are integral to Tajikistan with 93% of the land area being mountainous. 75% of the population lives in the rural mountainous areas and something like 75% of the land are is at an elevation of more than 3,000 meters (around 9,800 feet). So, it’s a very mountainous country.
So how do you go about finding the artisans? Is it mostly through the tourism people that you have connections with already? Yes. We had also received some very nice gifts from the delegations we hosted. Tajik culture is one of the Asian cultures in which gift giving is integral to any kind of hospitality, so we have collected a lot of gifts. Some of the gifts seemed appropriate for what I was trying to do, some were sort of cheap touristy kinds of things. I treasure them for their sentimental value, but they are not appropriate for the handicraft business. I knew, for example, that I wanted the jurab (slipper socks), some of the combs, and some of the ceramics. There is always a big handicraft fair in Dushanbe the first week in December. I sent Bakhriddin to the fair and said “Take pictures of things you think might be interesting”. Because Bakhriddin had been to the U.S. and seen what kinds of art work is being sold here in New Mexico he understood the quality requirements and he understood the need to look for products that don’t have a lot of competition that is much cheaper than I could get it from Tajikistan. So, he had sort of a general idea and he literally just went shopping for me and took pictures. The first day he took like 100 pictures and I would text him back saying “What are those?” “How much do those cost?” “How are they made?” “Okay, can you get me two of those?” “Oh, that looks interesting, what’s that?” That’s how I got the first products here. Since then, through my Facebook presence and Bridges to Tajikistan I now follow many Tajik Facebook pages; so I see products in photos come across the Facebook feed all the time and if I see something that looks interesting, I will instant message Bakhriddin and say “Do you know the artist?” I did that with the dolls (shown above). He said, “Of course, that’s Master So-and-So from Khujand.” “How much do they cost?” “Well, let me call him.” Bakhriddin called him and texted me back “This is how much they cost.” It’s a back-and-forth process. As my sales increase and I’m able to determine which are the most marketable products and I will probably narrow my product line somewhat. I have a commitment at this point to the entire artisan community in Tajikistan. So, I’m always looking for new products, new artisans that can meet that quality, authenticity, and unique standard that I’m trying to set for the brand. So, it is an adventure. Sounds like it!
To wrap things up, do you have any interesting stories from when you were there? One of the most enlightening and fun evenings that I had in Tajikistan was when we were in the Fann mountains. We were in a region called the Seven Lakes area (a string of seven lakes that go up the mountain range. It is a very narrow track and you have to go up with 4-wheel drive. If there are two cars, somebody has to back up until there is a wide enough place that you can pass each other.) At the fourth lake which is called Nofin, which means belly button, we stayed at a home stay that was developed with the assistance of the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association, that is also the sponsor of the textile handicrafts business that I work most closely with. We were just sitting around talking one evening after dinner by the light of a battery operated lamp because of course the electricity was off. I was asking questions and the husband and wife who own the homestay where in the big main room where Munira was teaching them a new technique for hand weaving narrow straps for small purses and cell phone bags. So, off in the corner the husband and wife were practicing their hand weaving and Munira would inspect their work and give them guidance on how to tighten up their weave. Over in another part of the room the Executive Director of the Tourism Association, Jamshed, was working on transferring the embroidery patterns that would go to the embroiderers in the rural villages that would do the textile work for Armaghon handicrafts. I just thought that was so indicative of the spirit in which that organization works with the women, that the Executive Director is happy to sit and trace embroidery designs onto fabric while the artisans learning a new technique over here and Munira is making new patterns and answering my questions. It was just such a collaborative effort; that it was really inspiring. Knowing how much they want to make a difference for the people they work with and the way they work makes it all worthwhile. That sounds really lovely. Amazing hospitality, beautiful work, it was just a fantastic trip.
The final thing I want to communicate is that for Fair Trade vendors, like myself, that many of the venues that are open to other people who make arts and crafts are not available. We are trying to create a market for impoverished artisans who are doing fine work, so when you see us, make sure to stop, look, and learn about the people and products that we support.
What is your favorite item from the collection? What would you like to know about Tajikistan? Let us know in the comments below.
This is a sponsored post by HoonArts for the TrekkingGreen reader. See complete disclosure policy here.