Image: Robert Chenciner shows a mask made from old Soviet felt military attire, collected in Dagestan. Photo: Melissa Potter
As I prepared for an art collaboration in Republic of Georgia, I purchased a book which remains my favorite of all time: Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Daghestan by Robert Chenciner, Gabib Ismailov and Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov. My colleagues, Clifton Meador (who originally found the aforementioned book) and Miriam Schaer noted the material available on Georgian women’s textile practices was scant, and first, I wondered what the relevance of this book would be to our project exploring traditional felt craft. As an artist, I adored the approach of the book, which featured Robert’s unusual ethnographic interpretation. In his introduction, he describes the vanity and hedonism in modern tattooing and cooking as a form of spiritual memory seen in the intangible heritage practices of Dagestan. As I leafed through the pages, I noted the rare felted rugs of the Western part of Republic of Georgia shared symbols with Daghestani women’s tattoos.
I decided to write him: “It appears to me the symbol systems of the Tusheti mountain region mimic some of the tattoo symbols, though my research shows no proper connection other than an assumption based on proximity. I was wondering if you had any thoughts or leads on this idea.” A day later, I got a detailed email suggesting I was right: “I have images of I think what you are referring to. These rare old felts are usually white on brown/black – either appliqués or mosaic or rolled in like sausages. The most exciting ones have spiral ‘trees’ and many smaller tattoo-like motifs rather like tamgas.”
Image: Robert holds a large felted rug from Dagestan. Photo: Melissa Potter
From that time on, he coached my work in Georgia and helped us consider the ancient meanings and symbols of the disappearing felt crafts we explored with women artisans in the region. I continued my inquiries and each time he generously replied with historical and contemporary references. At one point in Georgia, I saw a masked man asking for money in the streets, which reminded me of a ritual called Surovari I had seen and documented in Serbia. Robert introduced me to the Caucasus ritual, Berikaoba in which men don masks made from felt, animal skins, bells, and scraps to trick the evil spirits and encourage a fertile spring crop. This research became the foundation for a second project iteration with Miriam Schaer designing felted masks with feminist activists to protect their identities during public protests in Tbilisi.
Several years later, Robert invited me to visit him in London to see his unique collection and interview him about it. I have always considered ethnographers highly creative individuals, and Robert was exceptionally so. He allowed me to not only inventory his works, but also photograph self-portraits with them. I spent hours doing interviews with him at his home, as he narrated his collections--from spoonboxes to kaitag embroidery (his book, Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan is a must-have for textile researchers and appreciators, an utterly unique piece of scholarship.) He introduced me to his other publications including Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade and Dragons, Padlocks and Tamerlane's Balls. A key part of my research with Robert was an interview feature in my publication with Miriam Schaer, Craft Power: Enhancing Women’s Rights Through Traditional Practices in the Republic of Georgia (available for free download from Academia.edu)
Image: Robert shows one of his kaitag embroideries in his home in London. Photo: Melissa Potter
We had several other connections over the years: to Antonia Young, an ethnographer specializing in Balkan traditions I had studied, also an asylum case expert like Robert. It was through his deep understanding of the traditions in Dagestan he could accurately interpret the dangers faced by asylum seekers including blood feuds, and codes of conduct shaped by ancient beliefs. More recently, thanks to my work with Robert I recognized kaitag and felt masks from Daghestan on Instagram, of all places. As I connected with the account holder, I found she is the daughter of Gabib Ismailov, a co-author of Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Daghestan. His daughter, Raisat even sent me a photo from the book featuring her brother, who Robert asked to pose with his traditional Daghestani mask.
I am forever grateful for Robert’s singular scholarship and in particular his study of women’s traditional textile practices. His sense of its contemporary relevance affected my artistic practice and ability to identify similar practices beyond Republic of Georgia and Dagestan. We often discussed universal pre-Christian symbolism, which appears in so many ancient textile crafts. I continue to aspire to his enthusiasm, rigor, and endless curiosity which I will get to explore further in his forthcoming book on Daghestan, almost completed at the time of his passing. As textile scholarship is on the rise, I know his work will be discovered and explored with the same wonder I had when I first opened his book.
Written by Melissa Potter, an interdisciplinary artist specialising in hand papermaking.
Robert Chenciner died aged 76 from cancer in October 2021 at his London home, surrounded by his textiles, objects and his family.
Find out more about Melissa's work here: www.melpotter.com