Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Chiprovtsi: Stooping Women Guard the Bulgarian Renaissance's Few Traces

If the women in Chiprovtsi are slightly stooped, it is because they have spent the past four centuries sitting on little three-legged chairs. For as long as the place is remembered historically, they have substituted the pianos in their living rooms with massive looms for weaving with which they entertained themselves and their society.

Text by Yana Vladimirova | Photographs by Antony Georgieff and

For Bulgaria, these women’s kilims from Chiprovtsi play a similar role to the one of the Brussles lace for Belgium: an old-fashioned art which has become emblematic of the place since the seventeenth century. According to connoisseurs, however, the characteristic, stylised patterns are a mix of Balkan, Anatolian, Persian, Caucasian and even Mongolian ornaments.

Chiprovtsi was known as one of the kilim-weaving centres of Bulgaria since the late Middle Ages. Until the end of the nineteenth century the main consumer of its production was the Ottoman Empire, of which the Bulgarian lands were part during that time. At the big fair of Pirot in 1860, for example, the Chiprovtsi craftsmen sold 180,000 square meters of kilims, most of them – prayer rugs for the empire.

As early as the seventeenth century, however, the kilims began to infiltrate Western Europe, crazed as it was for oriental splendour at the time. Sold mainly by Italian and Turkish tradesmen, they were often passed off as Turkish.

Contemporary art historians assert that there were dramatic differences in the symbolism and aesthetics of the Anatolian and the Chiprovtsi kilims, as the latter bear the marks of the fragile, barely developed Balkan Renaissance.

As it was part of the Ottoman Empire, South-eastern Europe missed this part of European history. With two exceptions: Dalmatia, along with a part of Croatia, and to a lesser extent – Chiprovtsi, the Bulgarian Catholics’ centre in North-western Bulgaria.

In the seventeenth century, the flourishing town and its surroundings were inhabited by Catholics who developed quite a progressive urban culture. The Bulgarian archbishop Petar Bogdan Bakshev – the only author of Renaissance poetry in Bulgaria, was based in the town. Everything ended with the Chiprovstsi Uprising in 1688 – in its aftermath the city was destroyed and most of its citizens emigrated to Banat.

If something remained, it was the Chiprovtsi kilims’ aesthetic. The diversity of ornaments and compositions, the strong improvisation element and their symbolism are in strong contrast even with the restrained geometry of the kilims of Kotel – another flourishing Bulgarian centre of the same period. The Islamic art from that time, filled as it was with prohibitions against the depiction of human and even animal forms, is even more remote.

One of the leading decorative motifs of the Chiprovtsi kilims, for example, is the Black-eyed Bride, called karakachka[ital] in the local dialect. It is a black, fully stylised figure – in the older examples, the figure has a head, hair tied in a pony tail and even an eye, but in the later ones it appears as a composition of a few triangles. Some ethnographers think that this figure is a reference to the Goddess of Fertility – a dubious claim if you consider the dramatic red and black colour scheme that dominates the kilims. A closer reminiscence is that of death, sadness and mysticism.

Other examples of the earlier Chiprovtsi kilims are known as bakamski – named after a southern tree species from which red and black paint are obtained. These kilims have patters with triangles and combine light, cool colours with a surprising harmony.

Connoisseurs claim that these two designs, created at the beginning of the seventeenth century, have no equivalent throughout the world. If national identity can be spoken of at all, it may be productive to search for it precisely in this period.

Historically, though, Chiprovtsi became known for its kilims much later – only after Bulgaria regained its status as an independent state. At that time, the karakachka and the bakamski kilims were already passé and a diversity of geometrically shaped flowers, animals and people paraded in unrestrained, often daring, compositions and harmonious combinations between cool and warm colours. The local producers were receiving gold medals at the fairs in Antwerp, Brussels, Liege and London, while their creations entered the collections of many European museum and stores.

Bulgarian socialism, which tended to develop strange types of patriotic policies, attempted to industrialise the production of the Chiprovtsi kilims and they began to appear on the Eastern Bloc’s markets on prices lower than the industrially-made Western carpets.

As a result of these efforts and the economic crisis of the Bulgarian transition to democracy in the 1990s, the Chiprovtsi kilims had almost disappeared a few years ago. Because of the lack of interest, the women on the three-legged chairs went back a few centuries and began making their handiwork more as an intimate familial entertainment than a kind of an economic activity.

Until recently the only place in Chiprovtsi that sold kilims was the local ethnographic museum. Or one could order them in people’s houses and get them after a couple of months.

But over the last few years, the curiosity towards Chiprovsti was reborn in a new “designer” context, in which the socialist threat of industrialisation has been substituted by that of commercialisation. If one wants to take a peek into the authentic, not always joyful world of a fallen Renaissance centre for the applied arts, one should do it right away.

* Kilims are tapestry-like woven rugs produced from the Balkans to Iran. Unlike carpets, they are flat and have no pile and they are often reversible.




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