You are currently viewing Nadia Rein in Conversation with Asan and Sonia Raimkulov – Husband and Wife Art Tandem from the beautiful Kyrgyzstan

The name of Asan came about in the conversation with Kamala Abdykadyrova when we started to work on the list of workshops for Felt and Culture Retreat in Kyrgyzstan. Kamala shown me the work. I could not take my eyes from the stunning landscapes.
Asan is a member of the Union of Artist of Kyrgyzstan, and an artist whose work was presented on many exhibitions, movie sets and private collections.
When I asked him for an interview he said that he will be with his wife as they work together.
Sonia is a fine artist with experiences in working on stage decorations and teaching art.
It is still white winter in Kyrgyzstan. Asan and Sonia are working in their home studio, it is too cold to be in their main studio – 40 km from Bishkek. I missed snow and feel a bit jealous. And I am very excited to finally meet Asan and Sonia, although only via zoom for now.
Can you tell our blog readers about your journey as felting artists? Did you start as felting artists? And how your life and art partnership come together?
Asan: Since childhood we worked with felt. We are nomads. We lived in the mountains, in yurts, and we always helped grandmother and mother. But even then I always thought can I make a painting out of felt?
I started studies in Almaty, in Kazakhstan. Back then, in the nineties, it was a very difficult time, a transition after the Soviet Union’s collapse. When there was the Academy of Arts open in Kyrgyzstan, I transferred to my homeland, Kyrgyzstan, and I met Sonya too, who also studied there.

We graduated in ’97. Since then, we’ve been working together.

We have not started working with wool straight away. There was demand in more traditional art and it was bringing food to the table. However, I wanted to try something new, something different. There were many artists working in traditional media, but my childhood dream of making painting of wool was still in my head.

Sonia was not fully convinced at the start. But one festival we got some wood, dyed it as my mother used to do and made the first woollen painting which was sold almost before we could put it up on the next festival. Sonia could see the potential. And here we are 20+ years later combining our contrasting approaches to art. Our work is one of the best in Asia and commended in festivals in Almati, Kazakhstan; Samarkand and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Sonia adds that Asan is a masterful artist with a distinctive vision, he is a member of the Union of Artists, and that she constantly learns from Asan. And despite of some disagreements they might have due to different temperaments and art approaches they complement each other beautifully.

Sonia’s strength is a landscape and Asan loves to fucus on details and national elements – yurts, people in costumes etc.

Sonia’s education started at Chuykov Art School in Kyrgyzstan, she specialised in oil painting on canvas. Later she worked as a set designer and a teacher before she joined Art Academy, department of decorative design, small architectural forms, where she met her husband, art and business partner and in times became a convinced wool artist.

How does the rich tradition of felting in Kyrgyzstan influence your work as the artists?

Asan: Felt is everywhere around us in Kyrgyzstan. It is deeply in our blood. I was among the feltmaking process and the colours or Ala Kiuiz techniques from my childhood. This technique with its picturesque ornaments that tells stories inspired us. And we, in time, developed our own take on it, sort of combining old traditions and bringing them to modern life. In Ala Kiuiz technique there is a base layer of wool and then a colourful pattern is laid on top.
We start our process with preparation of the wool. We need wool in different colours and hues. I had to remember how my mum used to dye wool and now we do the same. The main tool in our work are hand carders. They help us to create our artistic palette and prepare wool for our work. Even when we travel we take them with us.
We also use adaptation of traditional felting method which we believe helps to achieve the best result in colours and finish.
Colours are very special in our work, they can help to represent the mood, the atmosphere and the unique beauty of the things we paint.
We did a series of portraits and work with KazakhFIlm (Movie company in Kazakhstan). We made the decorations from felt for the historical film Marco Polo, an Italian film. The 10th century, exhibition carpets were made for the beginning of the film as it opens, they made it for the map, Dzungarian, ancient things. This is in quality, basically this is a decorative panel of those times made by the given to us images of analogues and we executed it exactly in colour and size.
But we always come back to the beautiful nature of Kyrgyzstan in our work.

That leads beautifully to my next question where do you find inspiration for your felting projects? Are there particular themes or aspects of Kyrgyz life and culture that inspires your work?

Well, we also have a decorative part, and we talked about portraits, we do them to order. This is how we mostly deal with projects, it’s easy for us to do. Basically, we work on consumers’ demand. People mostly ask about landscapes, and where do we get this inspiration from? This area itself, Kyrgyzstan, is a very beautiful country. It’s so beautiful, there’s a lot of materials here. This is what we are looking for. What we want to convey on this canvas.
After all, we are creative people. Even when we go somewhere, not just to relax, but for some business. All the same, our eyes are working. We can already imagine where to get what from, this is the colour, oh, we admire it. For example, the state of the mountains, the atmosphere, the beauty of the seasons or something… the colour… Seasons, that’s all, this is our country, Kyrgyzstan.
We were also in Kazakhstan, oh my God, it’s such a similar country, both mountains there and mountains here. And so… There are no words here. This is all, this is the material. And all these applied in our work. It’s all this that pushes us to create something in synthesis, something else, and model things like that. We have decorative things like these abstract things.

How do you see the future of feltmaking in Kyrgyzstan? Are there any emerging trends or developments in the craft that you’re excited about?

There is a rising interest in traditional crafts like felt and yurt making not only from our neighbouring country Kazakhstan but also Europe and wider. Kyrgyz people also began to incorporate more of national elements in their homes. There is a growing awareness of the cultural heritage and a return to appreciation ancestral traditions, spurred by local councils and politicians who are beginning to support and promote these crafts. It is hugely important to preserve and value cultural traditions.
Also tourism is growing in Kyrgyzstan, which helps local craft people.
It would be great as an artist to be able to find yourself in better economic conditions and focus solely on the creative pursuit without worrying about basic needs. As we said we are two distinctive artists and there are things which both of us would like to focus on in our art life if there was time for it. Sonia loves to explore traditional toys and dolls and Asan would love to express in wool painting tradition of his people – Kyrgyz such as games, nomad move …

As the artist teaching on the Felt and Culture retreat in Kyrgyzstan this summer, what do you hope participants will take away from your workshop?

We hope that our simplified technique of wool painting will allow participants to enjoy creative part of the process and re-create a bit of stunning Kyrgyz landscape which they will take back home to remember their great adventure in our country.
We also hope that they will see potential in this technique to be used not only in painting nature but also portraits, still life, abstract paintings and more.
One does not need to be an artist to make the painting in wool. We will guide you through the whole process. We cannot wait to see your creations and here about your adventures.

What advice would you give to aspiring felting artists, particularly those interested in exploring Kyrgyz felting trainings?

It is great that you are interested in felting techniques of our country. Felting for us was for centuries part of life. Every tradition and every pattern have a story to tell. You can learn a lot about our country and its people through the crafts.
If you started felting you are already artists. And we hope that you enjoy your artistic journey.
From our side we will try to do our best to make your experience with us as fund and productive as possible and will share with you our knowledge collected in daily practice and experiments in 20 + years without counting traditions we absorbed.

We talked to each other for 2 hours, with some technical issues at the start and then despite of been across thousands of miles from each other I could feel the warmth of their stove and loved ‘excursion’ around Sonia and Asan’s home studio. Filled with finished masterpieces and colourful piles of wool prepared for the new creations.
If you would like to meet Asan and Sonia in person and explore stunning landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, you might be interested in Felt and Culture Retreat in Kyrgyzstan.
Email for more information.

Article by Nadia [Nadja] Rein