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  • Toby A. Cox

Stitching Together an Identity Fragmented by Time, Politics, and History

For centuries, artists have been trying to capture the turbulence of the human soul through art, using different mediums to embody different dimensions of human identity.


Nariste sitting in her workshop

Nariste is a storyteller who tells stories of herself and the world through art. To her, art is fluid and as an artist, she refuses to be put in a box - she is a painter, a photographer, a film maker, a documentarian, a sketcher, a writer, a poet, and a visionary. She attributes different mediums with different moods, parts of her inner self, and artistic goals.


Nariste expresses herself through many mediums, such as photography and painting.

“I switch back and forth within myself. Sometimes a lot of words are coming out from my inner personality, but then I get really quiet and just need to paint with no words," she said.


If she wants to reflect reality, she turns to photography and film. If she wants to tell a story that only exists in her imagination, she turns to painting.


"I consider myself to be a nomad, switching between medias,” she explained.


For her most recent project, however, Nariste has replaced her paintbrush and paints with needles and thread.


Nariste's sewing table.

“Sewing for me is a meditative way of telling the story of the inner woman. I believe that much of this artwork, like sewing and embroidery, associated with womanhood is underestimated. I think it’s a powerful language,” she said.


Embroidery empowers Nariste to explore more than her inner woman – it is also helping her explore aspects of her ethnic identity with a Kyrgyz father and Uyghur mother.


“Uyghur culture was really restricted during the Soviet Union. Even for my mother, she has a passport and its written that she is Uzbek even though she is Uyghur,” she said.


Uyghur people have been facing religious persecution in China for more than 100 years. In the early and mid-1900s, many Uyghur people fled their homes in China to Kyrgyzstan and other Soviet republics to escape religious persecution. As refugees, they faced discrimination and challenges in preserving their cultural identity whilst trying to start anew in a different land.


Today, they still face persecution in Xinjiang, China for their religious beliefs.


Through embroidery, a traditional art form rooted in both Kyrgyz and Uyghur culture, Nariste blends these two parts of her identity.


“Sewing is a tradition of both the Kyrgyz and Uyghurs but the traditions are different, so I’m combining them … In Uyghur textiles, they tend to use shinier objects [like beads]; their art is different from Kyrgyz art, so I use Kyrgyz designs and Uyghur ornaments together,” she explained.


This project is how Nariste is exploring new dimensions of herself and how she is making sense of the world around her.


In 2010, Kyrgyzstan experienced ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations that turned violent.


Many of Nariste’s Uyghur relatives fled to Kazakhstan, fearing they would be mistaken as Uzbek and attacked.


Now, inter-ethnic relations have remained stable and peaceful for 8 years, however, there is still residual tension between communities.


Despite their differences, there are many similarities between Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs in language, culture, and beliefs.


For Nariste, these similarities are more important than what divides them.


“I’m trying to connect them [these needlework styles] because within the Kyrgyz nation there are Kyrgyz,

Uyghur, and Uzbek people. How they can all live in this world and have tensions is strange for me to see because they have a lot of similarities amidst their differences,” she said.


By embroidering parts of herself that were once fragmented by conflict and politics, Nariste is making sense of a turbulent world that seems to prioritize division over unity, one stitch at a time.


A traditional Kyrgyz shape decorated with traditional Uyghur beading.

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© 2020 Toby A. Cox

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