Karipbek Kuyukov: Artist, Activist and Champion of the Human Spirit

By Martin Sieff

Karipbek Kuyukov is a remarkable artist not only because his works range from the majesty of ancient Kazakh nomads, to the beauty of the country’s landscape, to the horrors inflicted on Kazakhstan by 40 years of Soviet nuclear weapons testing. But because Kuyukov is also a victim of those tests and was born without arms. What he has achieved as an artist he has done so with brushes between his teeth and toes and through the power of a spirit that would not be tamed by physical limitations.

“Every single person has a right to decide the future they want for themselves, their families and their nation,” says the 44 year old who has become one of Kazakhstan’s most unusual and popular artists.

Kuyukov was born roughly 60 miles from the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site where his parents were exposed to some of the 456 nuclear tests the Soviets carried out in eastern Kazakhstan. Those tests accounted for almost one quarter of all nuclear explosions from 1949 to 1989 and affected more than 1.5 million people. Kuyukov has spent his life since not only as an artist, but as a tireless international activist fighting to abolish nuclear weapons.

Few artists have been able to achieve so much in the face of such a physical obstacle. One such figure is legendary Irish writer and artist Christy Brown who painted, wrote and typed with the toes of his left foot. Brown became beloved and world famous. Yet Kuyukov, for all the love and esteem in which he is held in his native country, remains largely unknown outside it.

His Works

Kuyukov’s works fall into three categories –oil landscapes, ink recreations of Kazakh history and traditional life and his paintings of nuclear explosions and their victims.

Kuyukov’s landscapes depict Kazakhstan’s lakes, steppes and mountains as a primeval Garden of Eden: pure, serene and grand. Those who view his works are drawn into the fields of Shangri-La orShambhala, the fabled Buddhist city of eternal life, which was reputed to be in the Altai Mountains of what is today eastern Kazakhstan. His landscapes depict Kazakhstan as the country’s nomadic ancestors must have experienced it as they traversed the uncharted wonders of their native steppes before the abominations of nuclear tests deformed and disfigured the land and her human offspring.

Those tests are the subject of Kuyukov’s second sequence of paintings. These works, also color paintings, aren’t concerned with beauty. They depict tiny or passive human bodies watching as large, symmetrical mushroom clouds rise and blossom expanding circles of light on the horizon. These are the nuclear explosions that for 40 years brought horror and suffering to eastern Kazakhstan. This is how the region’s foremost artist of his generation recreates them in his mind’s eye. Human beings play a dark and tragic role in Kuyukov’s depictions of nuclear weapons explosions and their consequences. In this series of works, small singular people look out, usually from comfortable, brightly decorated nomadic homes or yurts on the steppe, at the symmetrical and stately, but cold and remote eruptions of smoke and fire on the horizon. 

Kuyukov’s third artistic style differs in technique from the colorful depictions of his other works. With complex, meticulous ink brushstrokes, he recreates the grandeur, beauty and–to modern Western eyes–alien nature of the unique culture and life of his ancestors on the ancient steppe. Here, in contrast to his works on the atomic tests, Kuyukov’s individuals are full-sized, active and complex. They are regal and attired in all the finery of status, wealth and office that their lives, tribal status and achievements have given them. Elderly faces are wizened; those of dynamic heroes in the prime of life are rugged, experienced and knowing. These individuals are the products and upholders of a rich and meaningful way of life. Kuyukov does not display the atomic fury as close or overwhelmingly violent and the terror of its victims is shown with subtlety. We see in the passive and cringing postures of the eyewitnesses a glimpse of the suffering those explosions will inflict on them and their children and grandchildren. In these works, Kuyukov is drawn to the elderly, to pregnant women and to innocent babies sleeping, seemingly safe and secure in their cribs, as the victims of this human plague.

In person, Kuyukov is a passionate and eloquent campaigner for an end to all nuclear testing. But when it comes to art, he allows his images to speak for themselves. And those images offer the people of Kazakhstan a unique celebration of the beauty of their landscape and culture, as well as an unflinching testimony to the horrors that nuclear weapons testing has inflicted upon them. 

Inspiration and Destiny

For Karipbek Kuyukov, his birthplace was his destiny.

“I was born in the village of Yegyndybulak, which is located 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from the Semipalatinsk, the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons test site,” he told EdgeKz. “This land is sacred to me not only because it is my motherland, but also because my forefathers were born here and lived there. For me, it is the most beautiful land in Kazakhstan.”

The beauty of the land of his native region are Kuyukov’s clear inspiration in his landscapes. But he also recognizes the frightful radiation legacy of the 40 years of Soviet nuclear tests that caused him to be born without arms and that loom large in his series of paintings on that theme. “Years ago during the testing, my parents bore witness to those bright and vast mushroom clouds as they filled the sky,” he says. “When I was born, I was born without arms, and it was a shock to my mother. Later, when I was old enough to understand, my father would tell me how he would drive along the steppe roads and would be stopped by military soldiers for trespassing on the forbidden territory – even though this was the shortest way from one place to another.”

No one was warned about the danger of the monster explosions that shook the earth and filled the sky, Kuyukov recalls. “My parents would climb on the hill to better see the nuclear mushrooms, although they were instructed to lie down on the ground and cover themselves,” he said. “I remember the armoires shaking and the rattling of dishes. I remember announcements on the radio which would inform us about additional ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’.”

It is impossible to think of a more unlikely field for someone born with Kuyukov’s physical challenges to pursue than the field of art. But he has always felt the need to create. “In addition to my school studies, I took up art. I have loved to draw since my early childhood,” he says. “I do not know why, but my soul was striving toward creating something beautiful. I did this without arms, but with my feet, legs and mouth.” The scale of Kuyukov’s achievement is remarkable, but he considers it simply his spiritual destiny and one that will always triumph over the barriers thrown in his way. “I have become an artist, because an artist’s soul cannot be diminished by a physical limitation.”
“We Have a Choice”
For Karipbek Kuyukov, it wasn’t enough to triumph over the physical challenges that nuclear explosions inflicted on his body. He sought other causes to serve his family, his people and his country. And he found them. For decades, the physically diminutive Kuyukov has stood as a powerful figure in the cause of educating the human race about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and their testing–and the urgent need to abolish both. He has travelled the world as an activist championing the cause of abolishing nuclear weapons. He has worked tirelessly helping other activists draw attention to their communities’ efforts, as well as seeking nuclear abolition on an international scale. He is currently the honorary ambassador of The Atom Project, an international initiative launched by President Nursultan  Nazarbayevof Kazakhstan to seek a permanent end to nuclear weapons testing and the elimination of all nuclear arsenals.
“We have a choice,” Kuyukov insists. “We can be passive and let the heads of states solve the issue or we can unite and defend our citizenship and human rights.”Kuyukov says his sense of urgency and commitment to this cause are rooted not only in his own experience, but also in the suffering he has seen in others. “I have been to many countries where people have suffered from living under the shadow of nuclear tests or nuclear explosions,” he says. “I’ve seen the tears falling from the eyes of mothers from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ve even participated in meetings and protests at the Nevada test site in the United States. I have worked with many friends in publicizing and helping with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. I’ve seen sick mothers and children who were hidden by their mothers (because of their physical deformities). I have seen the effects of the great calamities that have damaged our planet.” And he is convinced that one person, no matter how small or physically frail, can transform the world.Karipbek-Kuyukov--and-Roman-Vasilenko-introduce-the-ATOM-Project-to-Martin-Sheen“I do not want a repeat of these events at any place or time, anywhere on the planet. I am happy to live at a time when the voice of one person can be heard and supported by millions living in the most distant places on Earth. Our voices can become one powerful voice. And all as one, we can call for the permanent end to nuclear weapons testing.” And Kuyukov, through his art and his actions, has chosen to spend his life doing just that.IMG_1137

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The Atom Project