Johan Solberg

Old town, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Johan Solberg has found no shortage of information on the art of handmade paper in China, Japan, Europe, and the Middle East. However, he has discovered that not much is known about a country that links papermaking in the eastern and the western parts of the world.

Uzbekistan, located in South Central Asia, is responsible for connecting the papermaking tradition from China to Europe. Dating back more than 1,000 years, paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree in the Uzbek city of Samarkand was renowned for its quality.

Johan SolbergSolberg, an MFA student in book arts at the University of Iowa, traveled to Uzbekistan last summer on funding from the Graduate College to research the current state of papermaking in the country.

This Norwegian bookbinder visited numerous sites, institutions, and individuals associated with papermaking. While access to some collections of religious, mathematical, scientific, and philosophical texts were limited, other were much more accessible.

Solberg found a pronounced need for more skilled conservation treatment of valuable manuscript materials. He also became convinced of the importance of future research on the much-neglected papermaking and bookbinding traditions of the region.

“A lot of production methods that happened in Uzbekistan can explain how the production methods became what they became in Europe,” Solberg says. “Unfortunately, there also is a very important cultural heritage in Uzbekistan that is at risk, due to lack of funding from the government.”

Papermaking in Uzbekistan today

Uzbekistan has been characterized by domestic repression and self-imposed isolation for much of the time since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Waqf scroll made from handmade paper lined with silkThis economic reality is impacting the papermaking heritage of this country.

People of Uzbekistan widely understand the meaning of the texts written on the handmade paper. However, they know little about conservation of the texts. Solberg says there are only one or two copies of each historical document, leaving citizens to preserve the texts by copying them by hand.

“Uzbekistan is a very economically challenged country, and what happens is a lot of the craft traditions usually disappear,” Solberg says. “Industrialization happened, and after the fall of the Soviet Union very few people went back to doing the craft. In South Central Asia, like in Uzbekistan, paper is used as a writing substrate. After they got papermaking machines and high-speed production, the need for handmade paper diminished.”

Solberg believes the key to conservation is getting people in Uzbekistan interested again in the art of handmade paper. Scholars like Solberg can play in a big part in educating the public on successful conservation efforts.

“If nothing happens, the documents will disappear. Archivists were talking about water leaks in the storage rooms,” Solberg says. “I would not be able to rescue all the manuscripts, but I feel like training some of the staff to understand more about proper handling and conducting simple treatments that stop the deterioration process would be extremely helpful.”

Solberg hopes to return to Uzbekistan soon to continue his conservation education efforts.