“Azerbaijani and Central Asian art have a lot to offer the world in terms of discovery,”
– says Rose Issa, a renowned curator and writer who has helped to introduce Iranian and Middle Eastern art to London. Rose Issa provided opening remarks at a discussion in London on the contemporary art of Central Asia and Azerbaijan, which was organized by Asia House and Caspia Contemporary Gallery in May 2019.
The event featured presentations by artist Asmar Narimanbekova, art historian Dr. Aliya de Tiesenhausen, and gallerist Afsana Tahirova, who discussed how both Azerbaijani and Central Asian artists seek to reconnect to their pre-Soviet roots.
A virtual tour of the exhibition can be found here
Azerbaijani Art: From Soviet Propaganda to Modernity
Asmar Narimanbekova draws in a mixed style – neo-expressionism and futurism. Her paintings are well known in Europe and Asia. This May, she also launched two Asmar Art pavilions in the Art Shopping exhibition in Carousel du Louvre, Paris.
Asmar recounted the difficult path that Azeri artists had to tread to express themselves and present their work in the early Soviet years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, popular images by artists included propaganda posters targeting the Arabic script and applauding the Latin script as the symbol of progress. During the Stalin era, Socialist Realism became the only approved art; all other trends, including cubism and futurism, fell into the category of “disapproved” art. Artists who did not conform to the permitted art style were labeled “enemies of the nation,” “friends of the West,” or “formalists,” she noted.
This inevitably influenced the lives of the artists. Narimanbekova related the sad life story of nonconformist artist Ashraf Murad, an Azerbaijani painter who died alone in the late 1970s. His artwork was dumped after his death, but fortunately some of it was recovered and saved by his friends.
Experimentation was long banned; artists who dared to distance themselves from Socialist Realism and develop their own style had to “pay the price.” Asmar’s late father, Togrul Narimanbekov, was labeled a “formalist” by the officials. His path to creating his own style with national motives was not without difficulties either.
As time went on, artists began to gain freedom, and new themes in art emerged. Artists also started combining different styles. Gayyur Yunus is an example of a contemporary Azerbaijani artist who successfully melded two styles, combining abstractionism with the miniature tradition in some of his works. Eventually, political changes allowed artists to move from depicting officially approved topics to expressing philosophical concepts including “love” and “beauty,” said Narimanbekova.
What unites Azerbaijani and Central Asian contemporary art? Narimanbekova thinks that similarities are found in the art’s appeal to national roots, culture, and traditions. “Of course, there is a difference in terms of feelings and themes. But the most common thing about these two regions is that modern artists want to be themselves and strive to leave their own footprint. There is a common demand to create national schools of contemporary art,” she added.
Read more: Contemporary Art in Central Asia as an Alternative Forum for Discussions
Living in Times of Change
Afsana Tahirova, founder and managing director of Caspia Contemporary, reflected on the changes during the transition from the Soviet era to independent Azerbaijan.
Those alive in the early independence era lived in a time of changing alphabets, education systems, and languages. Children witnessed a switch from Russian being spoken on the TV to hearing more Azerbaijani and Turkish spoken on channels. “We embraced that we were Turks,” the speaker noted. She explained how in schools and at home, students were taught the roots of their cultural identity through art and literature, including the Oghuz Turkic epic “The Book of Dede Korkut” and the ghazals of the Azeri-Turkic poet Fuzuli.
Inevitably, this reconnection with national roots allowed the country’s pre-Soviet cultural identity to thrive in the work of Azerbaijani artists. National motives began to dominate the work of contemporary artists, including the paintings of Vugar Muradov (Garabagh 2014, Oasis 2014), Jalal Aghayev (Gobustan series), Hajimirza Farzaliyev (The Camel 2003), and Emin Gahramanov (The Drummers 2012). The latter two paintings are currently on display in London.
These contemporary artists incorporated deeply rooted cultural symbols and colors of Azerbaijan into their art.
Central Asian Art: Tradition in Action
Aliya de Tiesenhausen’s presentation focused on the various modes of Central Asian artistic expression following independence.
Artists appeal to tradition not only to explore history, but also to express a viewpoint on contemporary matters. For example, Said Atabekov’s video installation Battle for a Square (2009) uses a traditional game, kokpar, to describe competition, a modern and universal concept.
Another example from de Tiesenhausen’s presentation was the nomadic concept of a man on a horse, which has long been represented in art. The image served heroic purposes in the era of Socialist Realism and survived the breakup of the USSR. It has become more official and popular in recent decades, as evidenced by the spread of statues of men on horseback in the 1990s. “Overall, the man on a horse became a symbol of power, military, and masculine history, reflecting the belief in strong leadership believed to be important for the new states,” de Tiesenhausen said. See, for example, Yerbossyn Meldibekov’s collaboration with Boris Golender on a photo collage called Contest (2010-2014). Contest makes a clear reference to the statue of Karl Marx in Tashkent Square being replaced by the one of Tamerlane on a horse.
“Contest” color print series by Yerbossyn Meldibekov (in collaboration with Boris Golender)”, 2010-2014
This masculine view of history is given a female perspective by artist Saule Dyussenbina in her painting Industrial Ornament, part of the Kazakh Funny Games series (2016). This work shows a meat cutter processing all the statues of men on horses in the same way history deals with emerging and temporary heroes.
Other notable female contemporary artists were also mentioned in the presentation, including Saule Suleimenova, an artist from Kazakhstan. Her Kelin (Bride) (2016) installation speaks about the institution of marriage, the tradition of women getting married and having children. The use of plastic bags is a reference to the abuse of land, the presenter noted. Another powerful female narrative was expressed in Qyrq Qyz, a live music performance accompanied by a film directed by artist Saodat Ismailova from Uzbekistan.
Read more: Saule Suleimenova: A Journey to Find True Kazakhness
Central Asian artists use strong national images to describe modern and global issues. For example, the use of raw sheep fleece in Gulnur Mukazhanova’s work “Mankurts in the Megapolis” is about the loss of individuality in big cities. Another example is given in Askhat Akhmedyarov’s work showing painted skulls which traditionally symbolize a leader or someone important within the community.
Finally, de Tiesenhausen mentioned Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s visual artwork about a Kyrgyz yurt topped by a banner reading “Shepherd’s Life”—apparently a comedic remark about the standardization of tourism.
We asked Dr. de Tiesenhausen to comment on the revival of pre-Soviet roots and other aspects of contemporary Central Asian art.
We are witnessing Central Asian people discovering their pre-Soviet and even ancient roots. How has this trend evolved in the almost three decades from the early post-Soviet period to the present?
I think the interest in historic roots has been present since the collapse of the Soviet system. There are several reasons for this. First of all, research on ancient history was limited during Soviet times due to state censorship, which suppressed national histories and with them nationalism. In the 1990s, the new governments and academic and artistic communities had an interest in exploring both recent and older histories. For the governments, it allowed for the creation of new national consciousness and the legitimation of new rulers and policies, and served as a cause for national unification. For academia, it was an opportunity for new research and the discovery of previously unseen material. For artists, it was new ground for creativity. Together with new freedom of expression and new media, ancient history—both real and imagined—allowed for unique and unusual forms of art that were new both at home in Central Asia and to outside audiences. From the very beginning, artists used historical references to address contemporary social or political situations. However, if in the 1990s a lot of art used historical metaphors, in the 2010s artists are often more interested in the facts of history—in representing something that has not been fully addressed by official historians or has not yet permeated the wider social consciousness.
How is the state involved in the contemporary art of Central Asia? Can you elaborate on the relationship between artists and the state in Kazakhstan? Do the states view contemporary art as part of their cultural diplomacy?
There are varying degrees of involvement of states in contemporary art. In the 1990s, there was little to no interest from museums and Ministries of Culture. Other spheres of art were and continue to be prioritized, such as music and film. Contemporary art was either displayed by non-profit or private organizations or it was shown abroad. In the 2010s, there has been a limited yet noticeable shift. In Kazakhstan, there is a Center for Contemporary Art at the National Museum in the capital. It was run by Rosa Abenova and not only created space for permanent exhibition of works but was also involved in temporary exhibitions at home and abroad. The culmination was the Focus Kazakhstan project in 2018, supported by the Ministry of Culture and the national Rukhani Zhangyru program. The project included four exhibitions of Soviet and contemporary art, in Berlin, London, Suwon, and New Jersey. This gave grounds for hope for future interactions between contemporary art and state museums. Since then, however, very worrying developments have occurred. In 2019, what would have been Kazakhstan’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale was canceled late. Rosa Abenova has resigned and the future of the Contemporary Art department is uncertain. Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, the first Center for Contemporary Art opened in Tashkent in April 2019 with an exciting program of events.
What is the current level of interest in Central Asian contemporary art in the West? What type of art is generating the most interest?
There are some artists—such as Almagul Menlibayeva, Erbolssyn Meldibekov, and Vyacheslav Akhunov—who are well-known in the West. They are very experienced artists who create highly skilled, but also relevant works that not only address the situations in their home countries (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) but also explore universal issues such as the environment, gender relations, and political freedoms. In general, in both the European and Asian cultural spheres, which are saturated with all kinds of art, there is always an interest in sincere expressions of the artist’s way of thinking when delivered through a well-thought-out medium. These may include highly technical multimedia installations, but could also be about the inventive use of fabric or felt, as in the works of Gulnur Mukazhanova.
There are many interesting female artists from the region. Can you add anything about the female perspective in the contemporary art of the region?
There are many established and young female artists, some working in Central Asia and others abroad. Not surprisingly, the works of female artists display interest in gender issues—not only feminist issues, but also LGBTQ+ issues. There is also a notable amount of work dedicated to the environment, from artists such as Saule Suleimenova. Younger artists such as Bakhyt Bubicanova and Aziza Shadenova explore the limits of what is acceptable in society. Some artists, such as Saule Dyussenbina, use humor as social commentary, while Suinbike Suleimenova makes much more direct works on the subject.