Kazakh eagle hunter photos to be exhibited at Spring Fair

A rare photographic exhibition showcasing the culture and lifestyle of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters by Beshlie McKelvie

A photo of the Kazakh eagle hunters by Beshlie McKelvie

Kazakh eagle hunter photos to be exhibited at Spring Fair

25 March 2014

By Naomi Canton

Photos showcasing the culture and lifestyle of Kazakh nomads will be exhibited inside Asia House’s Studio as part of the Spring Fair this weekend.

British designer Beshlie McKelvie, who creates original unique block printed scarves, quilts and clutch bags, together with skilled artisans in Asia and Africa, is exhibiting her unique collection of Kazakh eagle hunters for the second time.

The photos document the lifestyle of the Kazakh eagle hunters of the Altai Mountains, a nomadic tribe that live in the remote mountains of East-Central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.

Shaped by wind, rain and ice, the vast terrain, which encompasses jagged snow-capped mountains, huge lakes, valleys and grassy steppes, presents a hostile deadly landscape.

At the same time it seems like a mystical land and it is here that the Kazakh hunters roam with their herds. A fiercely proud and warm-hearted tribe, the eagle hunters known as the Berkutchi, namely skilled horsemen who dress in fox furs and heavily embroidered coats, have been living a nomadic existence since the 19th century.

The ancient art of eagle hunting is one of many traditions and skills that the Kazakhs have, in recent decades, been able to hold on to.

They are revered for having tamed and trained the golden eagle and being able to live in harmony with them.  Trained correctly, the birds of prey are capable of hunting down wolves,  foxes, deer and wild goats. They typically pin their prey down until their master arrives on horseback and kills it or they dive in and fatally strike the prey on the back of the head or neck. The method of training is a closely guarded secret so the Berkutchi are held in high esteem and thought to possess spiritual powers. The eagle is a loyal hunting partner, treated outside the hunt as a much-loved and treasured member of the family.

What began as a textile research trip by McKelvie soon became a mission to document and preserve the culture of the Kazakh nomads. Mesmerised by the kind, wild and generous  people with their ancient horse skills and shamanic ways, she fell under their spell.

“Being in Mongolia, in this wild vast landscape, so ancient, full of tales, myths and  dreams  was a very special time, a country I had dreamed too visit for many years,” McKelvie said. “Sleeping outside beneath the stars, washing in wild rivers and cooking on fires, we would ride over open mountains at a full gallop with golden eagles and men on horseback. The hunt would begin with man and eagle in harmony together. It was totally extraordinary. I was told by an old shaman that Mongolia is a place where you are spiritually invited to when you are ready. I felt so blessed to be here with this kind, nomadic, humble people,” she added.

Many eagle hunters fled to the remote mountains to escape the communist Soviet regime, Stalin’s Great Purge  and China’s Cultural Revolution, but now their existence is under threat from globalisation and Westernisation.

A rare photographic exhibition showcasing the culture and lifestyle of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters by Beshlie McKelvie

One of the photos exhibiting the culture of the Kazakh eagle hunters by Beshlie McKelvie. Her photos will be on sale at the Asia House Fair

“My work is a fusion of all I am passionate about: beautiful design, traditional, authentic craftsmanship and the empowerment of marginalised women is at the core of my ethos,” she said.

McKelvie, who is the great granddaughter of  the famous wallpaper printer William Shand-Kydd, who established the Shand-Kydd brand and instigated the trend for wallpaper friezes in the late 19th century, divides her time between London, India and South America and works with several women’s co-operatives, including block printers from Rajasthan and the Aymaran weavers from Northern Argentina and Bolivia.

This exhibition first opened at the Muse Gallery on Portobello Road, London in December.

The photos will be on sale at the Fair, as will scarves, exquisite textiles and other pieces of art created by McKelvie.


The Asia House Fair took place for three days from 28 March – 30 March, 2014. For more details click here.