In November 2020, photographer Christina Abdeeva traveled to Dagestan to shoot a new collection by designer Asiya Bareeva who lives between Makhachkala and Moscow. We are publishing this photoshoot along with an interview in which Asia told Christina about her roots, her relationship with Islam, the inspiration she draws from local crafts, and the ways she shares her knowledge with others.
Christina Abdeeva: Could you please tell us how you got involved with design and started making clothes?
Asiya Bareeva: I have always been attracted by beauty, painting, and art. As a kid, I went to art school, then I entered a textile technical college—everything developed in stages and followed a certain logic. During my studies, I worked as a stylist and thought to continue with this, but after the preparation of my final collection I realized that design was also something I was both interested and good at and wanted to approach it more seriously.
CA:What inspired you during your studies? Where did you get your sketching ideas from? I remember that you enjoyed various fabrics and all sorts of vintage items, which you then turned into collages.
AB:I have always loved drawing, colors, and textures. My mother had a friend who worked with interior fabrics and all the time presented me with samples. So, when I was little I went over these pieces, still not knowing how to sew then. They were just parts of my collection and survived up to the period of my diploma project – I also used them in it. My grandmother lived in the Penza region and when returning back from her place, I always brought fabrics that she had had since the Soviet times, some embroideries both she and my mother had done . . . All of them were also used in my collections. It was fabric that I based my collections on—not sketches. Fabrics and colors have always inspired me. Even in the very first collections, I did not have any black, only colors, plus a large number of prints, combinations, and shades.
CA:Tell me about your relationship with Islam. When did it begin? Has Islam always been an important part of your life and identity? How did it affect your work?
AB:Since childhood, I have believed in God, communicated with Him and felt His influence on my life. I felt grateful when something worked out—and when I did something wrong, I felt His anger. I mean I understood that there was Someone who knew it all: my situation, my life, and the entire universe—was looking at me . . . and I felt it if I did something wrong. I often asked people who, perhaps, I even met for the first time whether they believed in God, and my attitude to them could be worse if they answered they did not. They immediately aroused rejection in me, but not in the sense that I turned away from them: I just felt uncomfortable, I did not understand how one could fail to believe in the Almighty, who created us and everything around.
I came to Islam at the age of twenty seven, already after graduating from the institute. I had many questions about life, about myself, a lot of fears had been built in me by then. I did not understand why I had all those, although I was doing what I loved, I was surrounded by beauty, I was to some extent admired. I still didn't see the point in just enjoying life—it seemed strange and senseless. I felt like going on a pilgrimage and around October 2013 I left and returned as a different person. The whole universe was revealed to me, monotheism, pure worship. Everything in Islam touched me and became the main part of my life, its truth. After this trip, I started reshaping my life: I directed my love for Islam to my clothes, to what I did, to how I lived and looked . . . Everything began to take on the shade of Islam, and the more knowledgeable about Islam I was, the more I communicated with other Muslims, the more intense its presence in my life became.
CA:How did you end up moving to Dagestan? How long have you been in Makhachkala?
AB:I have been living in Makhachkala for almost two years. At the same time, I often fly to Moscow and do not feel totally cut off from it.
CA:Where do you feel more at home?
AB:My home is both Moscow and Makhachkala. In Dagestan, I can get distracted, I feel peaceful when I am here. I like everything around: nature, sea, mountains, delicious food, and pleasant, like-minded people. I found friends and set up a studio pretty fast. The relocation was not traumatic. Although as soon as I came to this decision, I, of course, had doubts but I did not voice them. I just took the necessity to move as it was.
In Moscow, everything was set and seemed to be fine: my studio, production, projects, friends . . . But I love changes and always accept new situations with gratitude and hope for the best. I understand that there is good in them—and more often than not it does turn out to be so. The intention you have when getting down to business ultimately brings you to the right mood. So, I am happy! I feel good and comfortable here. Here I implement some new plans and ideas—in my work I am now inspired by local traditions and crafts.
CA:Tell us more about this!
AB:When visiting a new place or being on any trip or journey, I start to deep dive into all and take an interest in everything. Many crafts continue to live here—of course, their heyday is behind them, but they are not dead yet. Moreover, Dagestan is a beautiful combination of different cultures: the Dargwa, Lezgins, the Avars, Rutuls, the Tabasarans, and the Laks live here. And all the nationalities have crafts characteristic of their lifestyle and geography.
When I moved, the first thing I wanted to do was sculpting: in my Moscow studio I also had clay. I found a small place where crafts are revived under the supervision of skilled teachers. I came there and they gave me a piece of red clay—the very material the Balkhar ceramics are made of, which is then covered with white geometric painting. I liked its minimalism. It was my first encounter with local crafts.
CA:Speaking of crafts, what about your trip to the village of Untsukul?
AB:After moving to Dagestan, initially I traveled a lot to different nearby towns. I recall visiting Derbent and observing vessels made of beautifully processed wood with metal notches at the local museum. I kept thinking about them and from time to time asked who was making these items and how. Then I got a chance to meet a man who preserved the tradition of Untsukul notch. It is done only in Untsukul and taught only to local guys, no outsiders allowed: even if someone comes from another village, the secret will not be shared with them. The person I met is one of the few to continue this craft, although his wife and daughter can also do it in between household chores.
It is an interesting technique: a tree of a special sort is taken, neither very soft nor very hard, which makes it easy to implant a metal plate so that it stays in firmly. The craftsman said that pear, apricot and, if I am not mistaken, apple tree wood are best. A notch is made on the processed tree, then a metal plate is taken—in the past they used silver, now cupronickel is more popular. The plate is implanted, the excess is cut off. And with small strokes of metal, a pattern is drawn, which is then framed with another plate and varnished.
There are also handwoven carpets with an incredible combination of vibrant colors. They are made by the Tabasarans. Although I have found a loom they can be weaved on, I have not tried it myself yet —so far, I have only watched my friend Fatima doing it in a more modern way. She takes geometric shapes as a pattern and also frames carpets, like paintings.
CA: What are you working on now in your new studio? What are your plans? Are you going to make clothes? Or do you want to focus more on ceramics?
AB:I have brought everything I had in Moscow: the entire studio, fabrics, clay, patterns. Everything is mixed up. Now I am centered on ceramics, I have made two stoves of different sizes. Before, I used to fire everything in a studio next door, but now I can do it any time I want. I experiment with glaze and clay. I also want to do clothes, it is just that I have not found a suitable team yet. But I’m very much eager to resume work in some new direction. That is, I don’t want to do what I did. I still like my old collections but I myself stopped dressed up in such a lurid and complex way a long time ago. And doing the same things I used to do seems unnatural to me.
CA:Do you prefer something more casual?
AB:Exactly! Something neater and for everyday wear.
CA:Remember, we once visited the Dagestan Aul Ethnography Museum where we looked at various costumes? You also mentioned studying antique dresses there for some project. Could something like this inspire you in your work?
AB:It’s extremely interesting! Alexey BazhenovAlexey BazhenovThe founder of fashion industry forum Be In Open. wrote to me, sharing his idea to digitize various folk costumes, make patterns and put them online—he came up with this plan after a trip to Dagestan. I visited the local archives where I could see and touch things, checking the right and wrong sides of everything. Those fabrics have interesting treatments and combinations—their cuts are extremely modern. I mean, you can put all these clothes on and wear them right now.
I think many would find inspiration in it. It is a pity that people often draw it from modern designers and they do it superficially. Sometimes you take some idea, develop it yourself, and come to something through long term work. And there are people who might accidentally see something and appropriate it. They do not understand that they are robbing themselves—after all, it is much more exciting to do your own research, to be inspired by some source. The same folk costume does not belong to anyone. People of those times were probably not so selfish, they did not try to draw so much attention to themselves as today’s designers—and it is something I find to be good about them. I mean, a project like that, perhaps, would stir people up, give some new incentive to their creativity and allow them to rethink what they are doing. What people used to create once is an immense source of inspiration! And it is really exciting to explore something on your own, to do your research, to take an interest in something, to look around, and to read more on this. In this way, you come up with a unique product, something of your own—do you see what I mean? That's what I find to be exciting!
Unfortunately, we had to take a break due to lack of funds. We just visited this archive, looked through the items, and sketched and measured them up. The museum decided that other projects were more important for them at that point. It would be interesting and useful to have such information publicly available. A person from any country of the world could see what the masters of various cultures once created. I would expand the project so that people could collect such archives and upload templates.
CA:Yes, that's a good idea—even in regard to the need to continue the tradition and preserve the past. Because few people go to such museums, especially now.
AB:Yes, firstly, it would allow for the preservation of the past, and secondly—be a reminder that, in principle, one cannot come up with anything new because in the past people already created such combinations and constructions. It gives you an opportunity to look at yourself from the outside and be more modest in evaluating your abilities and talents. In no way do I devalue anyone, but what I mean is that if people had a wider outlook they would not be so greedy, even with their own products.
CA:As for this return to folk costume and the clothes you make in general, it is interesting to mention that it does not depend on trends. It is more from the niche of “slow fashion”.
AB:Yes, I have always tried to create clothes that would last longer than just one season—something you could wear five years later or at any time, at all. It does not belong to any subculture, to any historical period, or any traditions. It is just what I love, what I saw once, what made me feel good, smile, and admire.
CA:I liked the table with ceramic legs you posted on Instagram. As far as I understand, you used a Kaitag embroidery pattern, redrawing it in your own style and applying it to the ceramics. It looks very beautiful, I would like to see more of this—when you take local traditions and rework them in your own way.
AB:You have just reminded me of one furniture-related project I have: in cooperation with the local design bureau Bronze Home I want to create a small capsule collection of objects based on my vision where, among other things, I would use the design elements of my ceramics. I want to start with dressers, and then maybe it will lead to something else. In general, I am interested in creating something large-scale, something capable of becoming a part of the interior and everyday life. I have already dressed people, then people have eaten from my plates and used my vases to put their flowers in—now I want to invite them to sit on my chairs. I am already thinking about a future dream house, which—most importantly—I will do with my own hands. That is why I want to try and to master many crafts.
I want to understand the plasticity and structure of wood, how to work with it. Or stone, for example: I have big plans for the Derbent stone they have here. There is enough room for imagination, for the implementation of one’s ideas. But I would like to find allies who would help me—also to broaden my own horizons while I help to broaden theirs. I love teamwork, when you are friends with those you work with—it's a natural process. It used to work like this before: people took what they did not have and gave what they had in return; there was constant communication and exchange. And now everyone wants to do everything on their own and only for themselves—there is a lot of selfishness around.
CA:I like this thought. It speaks to some kind of desire for community.
AB:People often think that if they share something, they will have something kind of stolen from them. But this is not so. When you share, you become enriched. In general, people have to share any knowledge they have, because we are given this knowledge precisely in order to further channel it. Firstly, it makes us kinder, and secondly, gives everyone a chance to grow. And I do not like thieving people who are unwilling to share what they have. Hopefully, after reading this, people might notice in themselves such qualities and rethink their behaviour.
CA:And the last question I wanted to ask you. Do you feel that your emotional state has somehow changed in Dagestan? Here you spend more time by the sea and in contact with nature while Moscow is so wild and crazy—everyone is in a constant rush there.
AB:I am happy because my soul finds peace here. On the weekends it might take you an hour or two to get to some stunning place, whereas in Moscow you might spend the same time just stuck in traffic jams. Also, it is very cold and dull there. I feel uncomfortable in Moscow and even if I go there on business or to see my family and close friends, I want to return to Dagestan all the time. Here you always see the sun, the sky, various states of nature, and the sea—actually, I live next to it. It makes me think about global things, makes me understand how insignificant I am, and at the same time gives strength. Because when you do not rely on yourself only, when you do not feel like the master of the world, but accept everything as it is, the humility of your heart will speak of the strength of your spirit. Other thoughts appear in your mind and your soul rests. There is mutual connection and I feel immensely blessed being here.
Graduated from the A. N. Kosygin Moscow State Textile University. During her studies, she was working as a freelance stylist. Upon graduation, she launched her own clothing brand Asiya Bareeva, as well as a line of ceramic objects.
Works with staged and landscape photography. Graduated from the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow and Ecole nationale supérieure Louis Lumière in Paris. Lives and works between Paris and Moscow.