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  • The Soul of Tengri Fashion Show: Celebrating and Reviving Kazakh Couture

    A young Asian person with long dark hair walks in a fashion show, wearing a bright pink, five-pointed felt hat, embroidered blue shirt and striped red jacket, oversize blue felt ball earrings, and an oversize gray circular ring.

    A model dons designs by Aizhan Bekkulova, including a headdress inspired by the Tengrist goddess Umai’s crown.

    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    As I walked through the dressing room, the excitement was palpable. Around me, models tried on traditional Kazakh headpieces, colorful contemporary jackets, warm fur hats, and intricate necklaces. One designer wrapped an elaborate scarf around a model’s head, while another accessorized an outfit with stunning jewelry. New and old friends chatted, in English, Kazakh, and Russian, while helping each other with their hair and makeup. They were all getting ready for the Soul of Tengri fashion show, held on July 11 at the National Museum of Asian Art.

    Organized by the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative, the fashion show featured the work of three accomplished Kazakh clothing designers: Aizhan Bekkulova, Tilek Sultan, and Aizhan Sembigaliyeva. The event also celebrated the closing of Soul of Tengri, a pop-up program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that showcased the work of eight Kazakh artists who practice a wide range of artistic traditions, from wood and sheep bone carving to embroidery and wool felting. The program emerged from a collaboration between the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Kazakhstan’s Union of Artisans, which was founded by Bekkulova.

    During the fashion show, Bekkulova, Sultan, and Sembigaliyeva shared work inspired by the cultural and spiritual traditions of nomadic communities in Kazakhstan. For thousands of years, Kazakh nomads have worshipped Tengri, who is seen as both an all-encompassing God and as a personification of the universe. Many Kazakh artistic and musical traditions remain rooted in these ancient beliefs.

    Camera: Charlie Weber, Nadya Ellerhorst, Angel Westbrook, Mykal Bailey, Sonia Harnish
    Story and editing: Sonia Harnish

    Bekkulova’s collection was inspired by and named for Umai, the Goddess of Earth in the Tengrist worldview. In some stories, she is also described as the wife of Tengri, the patroness of mothers, and the protector of children. Some Kazakhs believe that Umai watches over young children who have not yet learned to speak. The numbers three and five, central to Bekkulova’s collection, are associated with Umai. Inspired by depictions of Umai’s crown in ancient petroglyphs, her collection includes colorful and playful headdresses—some with three spikes and others with five.

    “The collection is filled with amulets,” Bekkulova shared through a translator. “I care a lot about the sacred symbolism of Kazakh nomads.” Bekkulova’s pieces include symbols that represent ancient practices. “Kazakh nomads believe that your back has to be specially protected. So we usually put symbols of the sun on our back in order to protect it.”

    Bekkulova also brought accessories from Kazakhstan, including traditional silver jewelry, silk scarves, and felt pieces. Although her collection is rooted in tradition, it also highlights her own creativity and reinterpretation of ancient traditions. “When you look at this collection, you cannot tell that its traditional,” she said. “But it’s a modern interpretation of traditional nomadic clothing, and it follows the nomadic philosophy of clothing.”

    Kazakh communities have a saying: Tengri likes diversity. “As Kazakh nomads, we try to stand out—not to be cocky, but to please our God,” Bekkulova explained during the Q&A following the show. With their bright colors and bold designs, Bekkulova’s collection emulates this tradition.

    Kazakhstan is a nation of many tribes which each have their own unique styles and traditions. Sembigaliyeva’s collection is rooted in the traditions of Western Kazakhstan, whose mountainous landscape is strikingly different from other areas in the country. The collection, Mangystau Mirage, is named for a peninsula in the region that has, according to the program curators, “a special energy, full of sacred places with mystical and historical significance.”

    Seven models and their designer line up on stage in front of a seated audience, many taking photos with their phones.
    Aizhan Sembigaliyeva’s collection, Mangystau Mirage
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The traditional clothing of Western Kazakhstan includes multilayered jackets and a mix of camel wool, cotton, and velvet. Sembigaliyeva designed a shapan, a traditional wool overcoat worn by both men and women. One of her female models wore a stunning red overcoat lined with fur and featuring intricate silver embroidery. Her husband wore a simpler, dark grey shapan and a thick, furry hat.

    Sembigaliyeva’s collection also included headpieces traditionally worn by women. One of her models wore a beautiful white headscarf (ak oramel) embroidered with yellow, blue, green, and red geometric designs. Another model wore a large, pointy red hat called a saukele, which symbolizes a woman who will soon be married.

    Sultan’s collection, entitled Ancient Craft, was inspired by the diversity of tribal cultures across the country, as well as the history of nomadic communities. In the past, many Kazakh nomads traveled long distances just to purchase basic goods. It was difficult for women to carry money with them on these journeys, so they often wore it as decoration. The silver accessories in Sultan’s collection reflects this history.

    Like Bekkulova and Sembigaliyeva’s collections, Sultan’s pieces are rich in symbols, such as white stones believed to protect women from danger. His collection represents the traditional clothing of Kazakh women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “There were different outfits for different kinds of women,” he explained. Married and unmarried women, for example, wore different kinds of clothing. During the show, one of his models wore a beautifully decorated vest and headpiece traditionally associated with unmarried women.

    Ten models pose on stage, wearing elaborates dresses, vests, shirts, and headdresses, in front of a seated audience. Another man in front of them prepares to take a bow.
    Tilek Sultan’s collection, Ancient Craft
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Many of the fabrics featured at the fashion show were handmade, although the designers also import materials from other countries. During the Q&A, Bekkulova explained that Kazakhstan played an important role on the Silk Road; through the travels of Kazakh nomads, the region gained access to splendid fabrics from Italy, France, and China. In her collection, Bekkulova uses both handwoven and machine-woven fabrics. Similarly, Sembigaliyeva uses Italian fabrics, as well as camel wool that she spins herself. Sultan prefers Italian velvet and Indian cotton but does all his own embroidery.

    Through the Soul of Tengri collaboration, Kazakh artists, designers, and musicians endeavor to preserve and revive cultural traditions that were largely lost. During the Q&A, Bekkulova explained that when Kazakhstan was colonized, the Soviet Union prohibited many of their cultural and spiritual practices. Kazakh jewelers were no longer able to make jewelry. Ancient practices, such as silk weaving and suede production, were lost to history. Because of Soviet policies and propaganda, many artists and craftspeople were no longer allowed to even identify as Kazakh.

    By the time Kazakhstan gained its independence, in 1991, nearly seventy percent of traditional crafts had been lost. Today, Bekkulova strives to bring back and share these traditions through her work with the Union of Artisans and the Smithsonian.

    “With your support, we can revive our culture again,” she told attendees.

    On stage, people in elaborate outfits in purple, teal, pink, and orange line up and applaud, while a woman in front tosses a handful of candy toward the seated audience.
    Aizhan Bekkulova’s collection, Umai
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The fashion show was not only an opportunity to share Kazakh culture with the public. The event provided an opportunity for members of the Kazakh diaspora community in the United States to celebrate their cultural heritage and to form lasting connections with people from diverse backgrounds.

    “I don’t usually have a chance to wear traditional clothes,” volunteer model Meray Ozat told me. “Visiting these artists and wearing their clothes is such an honor to me. It’s so great that I’m remembering my culture.”

    Similarly, model Akzhana Bakytzhan shared that since moving to the United States a couple years ago, she’s endeavored to stay connected to her roots. “I’ve started to appreciate more of my culture while being abroad,” she said. “It’s important to know your language, your culture, your musical instruments.”

    All the models at the fashion show were volunteers. Many belong to Kazakh communities in the United States. Models from other cultural backgrounds—including a few Smithsonian interns—were excited to learn about traditional Kazakh designs.

    “It feels really special to quite literally embody these pieces,” Enrique Granados said. “It’s been really cool to hear Russian, Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh all in one room.”

    For Daniel Zhang, a model and intern with the Folklife Festival, the fashion show was an opportunity to reflect on his own Chinese background. “I hear the Kazakh designers speaking in Mandarin to models, and it reminds me of how connected Asian culture is.” Central Asia is often on the margins of what people discuss when they discuss the Asian American experience, Zhang shared. “So to me, this is an important platform.”

    Walking down the aisle of a theater among a seated crowd, a model strikes a pose, smiling toward the camera.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    An elder woman wearing embroidered white dress walks down the aisle of a theater, a composed look on her face, her hands clasped in front of her.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    While walking around the dressing room, I noticed an older woman dressed in ornate, embroidered clothing—but not Kazakh clothing. Rose Freeze, a member of the Indigenous Mohawk community, formed a connection with several Kazakh artists on their first day at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They invited her to the fashion show, and she decided to wear clothing that symbolizes her own cultural heritage. “To honor their traditions, I decided to wear my regalia.”

    Freeze emphasized the importance of cross-cultural communication as well as the role that clothing can play in bridging divides. “Let’s face it,” she told me. “Culture is not just in a book. It’s to be seen and touched and felt. There are special occasions when you should bring out your finest clothing because you want to bring out your identity. You want to celebrate what you have in common. You share your beauty.”

    Since their collaboration began in 2020, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Union of Artisans have led several workshops that brought together American and Kazakh craftspeople and storytellers. In 2021, the two organizations outlined a five-year program, whose mission is to research, promote, and sustain Kazakhstan’s cultural heritage and creative industry. By showcasing the diversity of Kazakh culture and creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, the fashion show was a perfect culmination of this goal.

    Although the fashion show marked the close of the Soul of Tengri program, all the participants are looking forward to future collaboration. As Bekkulova told me, “We hope that this event is only a first step for introducing the crafts and traditions of Kazakhstan to the American people.”

    Two young adults in a dressing room, each wearing fantastical felt hats, one pink and one green, while one adjusts the other's hair. Behind them, a film crew works.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Joshua Kurtz is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care.

    Soul of Tengri was a pop-up program of the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative and made possible by support from Chevron.

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