“Art doesn’t stop,” says Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva. While in many countries the idea of Kazakhstan might have stalled out at yurts or oil or, God help us, Borat, Kazakhstan’s visual artists have never stopped creating images of themselves, their country or their stories, and slowly the world is taking notice.
(Above photo from Almagul Menlibayeva © Courtesy American- Eurasian Art Advisors LLC)
“Life is a Legend,” an exhibit at the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, tells the story of the city of Almaty from the point of view of 17 artists working in Kazakhstan. The exhibit, which will be open from December 2014 – March 2015, is part of the e.cité project, which brings “the most dynamic and unique” aspects of a particular city’s culture to Strasbourg each year.
“I think that the words we have heard the most since the exhibition’s opening are ‘What a discovery!’” Estelle Pietrzyk, curator of the exhibit and director of the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, told EdgeKz in a written interview on Feb. 16. “Most of the artists selected for the show are unknown for our visitors, and they are strongly enthusiastic for this art that doesn’t yet have well-established comment on it. Also, what is most appreciated is how diverse these artistic approaches are (sculpture, painting, photography, 3D disposal, art video) and how powerful they are. This is the kind of exhibition that leaves you with a strong after-image.”
Visitors are responding strongly to the interactive and multidimensional work, Pietrzyk said. “I would say that the entire room devoted to [Alexander] Yugai’s work is a revelation: his cleaver and sensitive way to deal with the memory makes his approach very special.” Yugai often works with found objects and still and moving images.
“Of course, most of the visitors are immediately attracted to [Yelena and Viktor] Vorobyev’s Bazaar, whose work is a physical experience: they spend a lot of time reading the texts and identifying the objects.”
“Kazakh culture is primarily a plural culture,” reads a press release about the exhibit. “It is at once the outcome of a millennial history, marked by nomadism and oral traditions, and of the recent past to which political regimes have brought their share of disasters and frenetic reconstructions in this century and the last. It is a region where several languages, several religions and several traditions cohabit and where the influence of neighboring countries (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) and political regimes (Russia, China) is clearly visible. This motley of Soviet legacy and shamanism, nomadic culture and peaking economic growth has engendered an art of convulsive beauty, where the artistic proposal/critical analysis dichotomy often becomes irrelevant.”
The artists of the exhibit are united in their questioning of Kazakhstan’s history, exhibit organizers explain. “The result is a vision free of complacency and driven by an extraordinary creative vitality. This exhibition … aims to reveal this country’s hitherto largely unknown talents to an international audience.”
Menlibayeva, a painter, photographer and videographer, is taking part in the exhibit. “I was always interested in my not-uniquely defined place in Kazakhstan’s complicated society. It is really complicated because we are the successors of USSR, broken up totalitarian country. Many of us were gained together against our own free will,” she told EdgeKz.
Kazakhstan’s current patchwork of nationalities is partly the result of Soviet deportation programs, which imprisoned individuals in the infamous Gulag prison system, many outposts of which were in Kazakhstan, as well as mass deportations intended to destabilize whole populations that were deemed to be a threat. Soviet agricultural programs and the forced settlement of nomads were occurring at the same time as these other demographic upheavals, leading to widespread famine and death, particularly among ethnic Kazakhs.
“My society is descendants of these people from the past and all these things that happened,” said Menlibayeva. “I think that many of them still live in ‘imaginary Kazakhstan’ and we have to analyze its history together. My intention to become an artist, as a child, appeared in this environment. At first, art was the escape from terrible reality.” Now, she says, she keeps returning to reality.
Working in different media make her interact with the world in different ways, the artist said. “For me, art is a personal dialogue with society. The outside world became really important for me when I picked up a camera. When I was engaged in painting, I had another understanding. It was more exalted. I was like a separate planet among colors and canvases.”
Many of Menlibayeva’s photos use steppe landscapes or mosques and religious buildings as backgrounds for figures, often female, who may represent myths or gods or, posed in front of environmental disasters or urban decay, wear the uniforms of authority figures.
Women are playing a key role in Kazakhstan’s contemporary art world, the photographer said. “We have young girls from the new generation who are seriously and consciously engaged in popularizing and supporting modern art: Dina Baitassova, Meruyert Kaliyeva, Jama Nurkaliyeva, Indira Dyussebayeva. … [contemporary arts specialist] Meruyert Kaliyeva opened Aspan Gallery [in Almaty] and has already organized exhibition projects in the Kasteev State Museum. … Ainur Sadenova did important work as the director of the Cultural Administration of Taraz region. She is an example of a person who worked in a state body and had a penetrative understanding of how to promote the necessity of modern art as the part of life of modern Kazakh society,” Menlibayeva said.
The Aspan Gallery/Kasteev Museum project will be a year-long program of mid-career retrospectives of Kazakhstan’s most important contemporary artists. Dyussebayeva and Baitassova are two of the founders of the International Art Development Association (IADA), a nongovernmental and nonprofit organization that supports and promotes contemporary art from Kazakhstan and Central Asia. “As one of the primary actors in its integration into the global art world, IADA aims to encourage cultural exchanges and organizes artistic events around the world, with the focus on Europe. IADA’s philosophy is rooted in an awareness of the pivotal role of culture in development strategy, and of art in the positioning of a new regional identity,” reads the organization’s website. They are currently supporting the Life is a Legend exhibition as well as another Strasbourg exhibition of Yerbolsyn Meldibekov, who plays with image and identity in photography and ceramic works.
The understanding of contemporary art in Kazakhstan is by no means complete, Menlibayeva said. “Modernity is demanding, isn’t it? In Kazakhstan, many professional artists don’t understand what modern art is,” she said. “They aren’t guilty. Its understanding and popularization are the signs of a free society. Art doesn’t stop. It looks for originality, reviving itself every minute.”
Originality, however, can sometimes be lacking when the state apparatus is the main consumer and supporter of art. This is a common criticism of art in Kazakhstan: the support of the state for traditional and applied arts over fine art.
“I see one main and official trend of national art and our state is its head customer,” said Menlibayeva. “Here, we can see the Soviet reflex to ideology. But this isn’t a criticism of this ideology. It does its stuff, because it isn’t a personal machine. This is a criticism of creative individuals who don’t offer something new, except for outdated education,” the artist said.
“The society collectively or socially doesn’t realize what to do with modern art, foreign modern art, because it doesn’t affect its world, its reality and its criticism,” she said. “Modern art is dialogue with society.”
Menlibayeva cites Abdrashid Sydykhanov, a painter; Rustem Khalfin, creator of eerie photos and oil paintings; and Said Atabekov, who creates installations, as some of her favorite artists, as well the husband and wife team of Viktor and Yelena Vorobyev, who are also part of the Strasbourg exhibit. Several of these artists are part of the avant-garde Kyzyl Traktor (“Red Tractor”) group founded in southern Kazakhstan after Perestroika, who are credited by the Ahmady arts center, which supports Asian and Central Asian artists, with challenging Soviet collectivist identities with highly individual works and exhibitions.
Kazakhstan’s oldest gallery, Tengri Umai, recently held a semi-retrospective of the Kyzyl Traktor group. Tengri Umai has only narrowly managed to hold on to its space and support; Menlibayeva says it has “heroically struggled for existence” all its life.
There are good conditions for the development of art in Kazakhstan, she says, but a lingering “formal Soviet attitude toward art” is slowing down the development of new forms and ideas, new ways of appreciating art in the culture and by the government.
“As of today, our society isn’t ready for the creation of art funds and art programs, which could support modern art development. As for me, I rarely get financial support in my society for contemporary projects. But as I said before, we have young women who are actively popularizing modern art,” she said.
What she hopes to see, she said, is the creation of modern art institutions in Kazakhstan, with the input of international artists and critics as well as local ones, and galleries and museums that are accessible to children as well as adults, where young people can study art “in freedom,” she said.
“It is difficult to be a modern artist,” Menlibayeva said. “Contemporary artists are outcasts because we are the part of world that isn’t accepted by the majority of society, but our presence is very important.”
Says Pietrzyk, “What it likely is that this country, which is developing at a great rate, will soon develop its own way to promote its artists.”
Courtesy American- Eurasian Art Advisors LLC