Around the world, “art and artistic activism is a dynamic practice that combines the creative power of art, which moves us emotionally, with the strategic planning of the activities necessary for social change.”
On the contrary, in Uzbekistan, art and culture are kept isolated from world trends by the rhetoric of Soviet and governmental discourse, in which no art form is to be associated with political and social dimensions or change. Meanwhile, the mainstream academic research on Central Asia, and Uzbekistan in particular, is overly focused on the state/regime discourses and on arguments about whether a civil society exists in the region. The academic discourse thereby misses the changes happening at the local, grassroots level. Here, I discuss how the 139 Documentary Center (139DC), a small documentary art community, has been raising awareness of the issues of locals and promoting artistic activism in Uzbekistan.
Albina Yun is an independent researcher. She holds an MA in Critical Gender Studies from the Central European University and an MA in Politics and Security from the OSCE Academy. Her areas of interest include migratory processes, ethnocentrism, grassroots activism, postcolonialism, post-Soviet theory, biopolitics, and gender studies.
“In Uzbekistan art is regarded as something decorative, something incomprehensible and ‘cool,’ there is no place for research and dialogue, we want to bring social changes through art and documenting,” says Timur Karpov, a documentary photographer, human rights activist, and the director of the 139 Documentary Center.
139 Documentary Center is a young Tashkent cultural platform and public space for artists, activists, and researchers. It opened in Tashkent around two years ago. Unlike the state-run galleries in Tashkent’s city center, 139DC is located in Dustabad mahalla and rents its space from an old industrial factory, NPO Texhnolog. The surroundings of 139DC are very diverse, including apartment buildings, single-family homes, an old industrial factory, a construction market, and so on. The center’s mission focuses on cultural heritage, urban memory, spatial justice, and the value of documentation and archiving in tackling social injustice. And unlike Uzbek governmental rhetoric, the Center aims to show that, today, art can no longer stand apart from political, economic, social, and environmental issues.
139 Documentary Center works with, documents, and raises awareness of our actuality, not governmental rhetoric and facades.
We Need to Look at Symbols
The most recent exhibition at the 139DC was devoted to Mustakillik (Independence Day). Today, “Mustakillik” is more strongly associated with the aesthetics of a holiday observance, fountains, and wide squares, rather than real political and social changes. For the 30th anniversary of independence, the main news in the country was the opening of the New Uzbekistan Park and the Independence Complex, which are expected to become the main venue for the celebrations. The exhibition at 139DC, on the other hand, sheds light on another symbolic truth. Photographer Alexander Shepelin and the director Timur Karpov point out how Mustakillik is a square, Mustakillik is a fountain, Mustakillik is a holiday of independence, but they ask: independence from what? No one seems to know …
The exhibition was particularly thought-provoking, as the photos were taken during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the people of Uzbekistan did not really know what they were celebrating. The 139 Documentary Center is one of the very few places where such historical documentary archives are still valued, and probably is the only place in the country where one can witness such valuable affective history for free. It is important to know that in the main Museum of History in Tashkent, where I went together with Timur in September 2021, there is not a single word about the USSR or the period of the early 1990s.
By living under the governmental rhetoric, we are cut off from any context and actuality. The Center’s work counter this. The director of 139DC notes that Shepelin’s photography is deeply symbolic. One of the most striking revelations one can find in the photos of the exhibition concerns the actuality of changes—the pedestal where the globe stands now in the center of Tashkent is the very same pedestal that Lenin was standing on. And one begins to realize that nothing has really changed: the base is the same, it is just that one symbol has been swapped for another, but the whole system remains as it was.
Documenting Untold Stories
Another important activity of the center is working with mahallas. Through art and documentary activities, members of the 139 Documentary Center want to show the importance, beauty, and legacy of mahallas. To achieve that, 139DC developed a long-lasting project—a series of photography exhibitions—dedicated to the documentation of their Dustabad mahalla’s livelihood, legacy, memory, and struggles. The organization’s objective is to develop and strengthen community outreach and ties with its neighborhood. The first exhibition of the series has already taken place on March 8, 2021, and it was devoted to retired women of the Dustabad mahalla. On International Women’s Day, the Center opened the exhibition and invited everyone to celebrate women and see them outside the context of social stigmatization.
The exhibition was based on photographs and interviews of retired women taken in February–March 2021, revealing what womanhood means for them and how they perceive the ideas of home, motherhood, and their mahalla. Many elderly women struggle because of low pensions, and their neighborhood communities, including 139DC, become sources of support and care.
In addition, the project, entitled Women of our Mahalla, unfolded gradually, expanding industrial and neoliberal determinations of the Uzbek government. In 2018, the controversy around Tashkent city and complete demolition of Olmazor and O’qchi mahallas was an omen for the beginning of extreme gentrification processes leaving behind local residents’ concerns and struggles. Some of the Dustabad mahalla’s houses are very old and were built after the infamous Tashkent earthquake in 1966. Those houses do not have proper heating and water facilities. Most staggering is that most of these old houses are occupied by residents who are single senior women. Instead of improving facilities, the city administration is just waiting for potential real estate buyers to purchase the land and demolish all those houses.
Of course, when there are no prospects of any improvements of the facilities, the residents just wish to move out; a flat is usually promised as compensation for relocation, but this promise is very seldom actually realized. Industrialization and gentrification really destroy mahallas. Not only does the demolition of houses take place, but also, human communities crumble—even those residents who do receive flats in compensation never receive them in the same district. Thus, the members of mahalla who used to live together are thrown into different parts of the city. Fortunately, while there is a discussion in the city administration to remove such urban landscapes, since 139DC moved in Dustabad mahalla, other youth-run enterprises consider establishing themselves in the neighborhood. The independent media journal HookReport decided to rent a second floor in the same building, a new event planning agency appeared in the neighborhood, and a new photo studio is now renting the nearby units of the building where the Center is located.
Uzbekistan has been going through rapid neoliberal and industrial changes since Mirziyoyev came to power. Mainstream academic research is excessively focused on state and regime discourse, neglecting local people and the complex dynamics at play. The government has displayed no interest in taking care of the neighborhoods and their residents. Very slowly, activists such as Timur Karpov and communities such as the 139 Documentary Center are emerging in Uzbekistan, and the dynamic they foster engenders dialogue and reflection. Unfortunately, such spaces are fragile, as there is no proper funding available and, moreover, there is a constant threat of simply being closed down.
 The Center for Artistic Activism, “Why Artistic Activism?” The Center for Artistic Activism, April 9, 2018, https://c4aa.org/2018/04/why-artistic-activism.