Culture

A Heavy Hat

BENI’s ‘The Doppi Project’ shows how globalisation can help preserve cultural heritage

Subhi Bora and the cultural weight of the Doppa | Nadir Nahdi

The Doppi Project was an experimental project spearheaded by Nadir Nahdi on how children of the diaspora and immigrants can reconnect with cultural heritage in innovative, fresh and beneficial ways. The project had three aims:

1 — To use storytelling to show Subhi Bora — an Uzbek-Uyghur-Australian — reconnecting with her heritage.

2 — To preserve the traditional heritage of Doppi, working with small women-led businesses in Uzbekistan.

3 — To sell the traditionally handcrafted Doppi to raise money for a social enterprise to amplify and support Uyghur storytellers and creatives.

This project is an example of how diaspora communities can reconnect with heritage and culture, as well as the global nature of the world we now live in and the effect of global market forces on traditional expertise. The accompanying three-part YouTube series follows Subhi and Nadir as they travel around Uzbekistan searching for the few remaining artisans able to make traditional Doppi hats.

“My Dad’s side of the family is from this country. I grew up in a place that is so foreign to this. Our parents left here to go to somewhere like Australia to give me and my sister a chance at a better life. I’ve had this incredibly privileged upbringing, and then I come here and it’s like I want to find a connection with this place. … I’m surprised at how naturally [this connection] has come. … It feels so familiar. It’s so foreign, but it’s so familiar. This feels like coming home at a much deeper level that I can’t express in any other way.” — Subhi Bora

The films touch on the effects of USSR occupation on traditional skills such as silk production. Silk production was further affected when the collapse of the soviet union ruined the remaining infrastructure. In addition, market forces for cheap tourist souvenirs mean that simpler embroidery, artificial fibres such as viscose, and artificial dyes are used, meaning that traditional craftsmanship is now difficult to find. For example, 1kg of natural silk that is locally produced costs $100, whereas 1kg of imported artificial silk costs $5. Coarser embroidery — or machine embroidery — mean that more hats can be produced at a fraction of the cost.

This is not just an issue for the weavers and artisans of Uzbekistan, but across the world. Globalisation and market forces mean that small businesses and enterprises are forced out of business in favour of big corporations and mass-produced, cheap products. Reliant on the tourist trade, prices — and therefore quality — are forced down until expertise are lost.

Subhi Bora in a Bukhari Doppi with gold embroidery | Nadir Nahdi

The art of gold embroidery was already almost lost. Following the fall of the Emirate of Bukhara, gold embroidery in its original form ceased to exist and disappeared. The skill was traditionally only practised by men, however, when the gold embroidery market disappeared with the fall of the Emirate the remaining masters secretly taught it to the women of their families to ensure the continuation of the craft. Manzila, a gold embroidery master from Bukhara, learnt in this way — and thus the ancient craft continues to be preserved.

Subhi Bora in Bukhari gold embroidery | Nadir Nahdi

Globalisation does not just equal Westernisation. Initially, there was a localism to the hats. One could tell the area of central Asia someone came from just by the shape and design of their hat. Nowadays a Bukhari design can be embroidered onto a Tashkent shaped Doppi. It's a smaller scale example of what is going on worldwide: there is a homogenisation of culture that results in the same clothes being worn in Shanghai as New Delhi as in London and New York.

There has, however, always been an aspect of globalisation. As Subhi says in episode three, “even in ancient times, they were using Japanese fabric.” There has always been a cross-fertilisation of culture, there has always been a movement of products around the globe. Commerce has always been international, however, there has never been the pressure for global conformity such as is found today.

Globalisation can also be the key to saving heritage and culture, as localised expertise can now easily be brought to global markets thus ensuring their longevity. By connecting the few remaining traditional artisans with international buyers, heritage — and therefore culture — can be preserved.

Subhi Bora exploring a Bukhara shop | Nadir Nahdi

Talking to Subhi in episode one, the silk weavers comment how the clothes and textiles are important to them because they’ve “been wearing these clothes since [they] were kids”. They tell Subhi that as her parents are from the region, she can “preserve their memory and tradition by wearing these clothes.”

“If the culture means something to you it starts at home, you uphold the value and traditions that are important to you at home. But that desire to preserve must come from you.” — Uzbek silk weaver

Through the three-part series, you can see the blossoming of connection from within Subhi, learning to cherish her Uyghur and Uzbek heritage and lighten its weight. On discussing the Doppi, Subhi explains that she “never wore Doppa outside the house,” as “ …it felt like … you didn’t see anyone around you wear stuff like that. It wasn’t Australian. It wasn’t like mainstream, or it wasn’t cool or trendy. … [I] recognised that it was foreign and that it didn’t belong in Australia.” Asked whether that had since. “It did,” Subhi replies, “when we started this project”.

“Heritage and objects may seem mundane, but really they are keys, cyphers, and hold within them memories and stories. That’s what gives them significance. We should be rooted in who we are, but confident enough to be who we can be. Confident enough to forge new relationships with our heritage and the world we now live in. This will imbue relics of our past with the significance of today, and that’s how we can find a place for our cultures to belong and feel their relevance.” — Nadir Nahdi

The preservation of the Ummah and our individual cultures in the face of Westernisation and homogenisation therefore must come within ourselves. It starts first with ourselves, then in our homes and then expands out into the wider community. With the right intention, globalisation can become a tool for preservation rather than erosion, preserving not only diversity but heritage.

Subhi Bora dancing | Nadir Nahdi

The Doppi Project Website:

The Doppi Project YouTube Series:

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

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Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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Rosalind Noor

Rosalind Noor

Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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