Usto Mumin, or Aleksandr Vasilievich Nikolaev (August 30, 1897 – June 27, 1957), was an artist who lived and worked in the Uzbek SSR. Nikolaev arrived in Tashkent after demobilization in 1920, and from that moment on his life and artistic creativity were bound up with Central Asia. His pupils called him Usto Mumin, which means “Faithful Master.” One of his best-known paintings, “Pomegranate Zeal,” tells the love story of two young boys. He was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and spent four years in prison between 1938 and 1942. Following his release, Nikolaev returned to Uzbekistan and continued to work as an artist, illustrator and theatre designer. He received an Honorary Award from the Central Executive Committee of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic for his role in establishing the Uighur Theatre in Tashkent. Nikolaev died in Tashkent in 1957.
His life and work are the subject of two recently published books: Eleonora Shafranskaya, Usto Mumin: transformations. Moscow: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2023 (Элеонора Федоровна Шафранская Э.Ф. Усто Мумин: превращения. Москва: Музей современного искусства “Гараж”, 2023), and Boris Chukhovich, ‘Love, Friendship, Eternity’ by Usto Mumin. Prague: Artguide s.r.o., 2023.
– Doctor of Philology, Professor of the Moscow Humanitarian Pedagogical Institute. Born in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, lived in Tashkent until 1997, taught philology at the Tashkent State University and the Republican Pedagogical Institute of Russian Language and Literature. Since 1997 she has been living and working in Moscow. In 2008 she defended her doctoral dissertation on the theme “Mythopoetics of a foreign cultural text in Russian prose of the 20th – 21st centuries” at the Volgograd State Pedagogical University.
– Central Asian art and architecture historian, independent curator, associate researcher at the University of Montreal, President of the Central Asian Cultural Heritage Observatory Alerte Héritage. Until 1998, he worked at the Research Institute of Art Studies in Tashkent, after immigrating to Canada, he collaborated with various universities in Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, was a visiting researcher at the Fondation de la Maison des sciences de l’Homme (Paris, 2014) and Politecnico di Milano (2022-2023). Curated exhibitions of Central Asian contemporary art in Montreal, Ottawa, Venice, Bishkek, Alma-Ata. Author of numerous publications on the art and architecture of Central Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries. Lives and works in Montreal.
In this interview, Eleonora Shafranskaya and Boris Chukhovich talk about their research and their books dedicated to this incredible yet mysterious artist.
How did your scientific interest in the work of Usto Mumin come to be?
Eleonora: I would say that a lot came together here. The personality of Usto Mumin (the nickname of the artist Alexander Nikolaev) became interesting to me after watching the play Pomegranate Zeal, directed by Mark Weil (Ilkhom Theatre, Tashkent), for which Usto Mumin was imprisoned.
I turned to the FSB office (ex-KGB) in Moscow to become acquainted with the artist’s investigation file. He was arrested in 1938 in Moscow, at the exhibition of achievements of the national economy—then the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition—where Usto Mumin was the leading artist of the Uzbek pavilion. A month later, I received copies of the pages from his case, which were forwarded to me from the relevant structure in Uzbekistan. It is really a rare case; I think that I was just lucky to access the FSB archive files.
My attention to Usto Mumin was sparked by a research interest in the fate of creative figures (writers, scientists, artists) who suffered under the Soviet regime. To date, this layer of the history of the twentieth century has not been fully explored. There is still a lot of work for more than one generation.
Boris: In October 2001, the 6th World Congress of the International Association for Visual Semiotics was to be held in Quebec. I had not studied semiotics before, but it suddenly became clear that after the September attacks, many European scholars had decided not to experience the hardship and abandoned the transatlantic flight. Hotels, banquets, and congress halls had been paid for in advance, and the organizers of the congress, trying to somehow compensate for the costs, invited scientists who were already in Quebec to participate in the forum. Thus, I ended up participating in a scientific event with an unusual profile for me. The sensations were surprising. I was particularly struck by the ability of semioticians to extract new information layer by layer from the same image. This fundamentally distinguished their analysis from what I had encountered in Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, historians of art aimed for the widest possible coverage and chronological scale. For instance, Lazar Rempel and Galina Pugachenkova wrote The History of Art of Uzbekistan from Ancient Times to the Middle of the 19th Century, which encouraged their colleagues to enlarge themes and corpus of study as much as possible. Visual semiotics, on the contrary, plumbed the depths of micro-facts and micro-stories. In contrast to panoramic breadth, which is fraught with simplification and schematism, they cultivated deep readings and thorough consideration of each specific problem. In parallel with semiotics, many participants in the congress appealed to the iconological tradition of studying art, represented, in particular, by the texts of Abu Warburg and Erwin Panofsky.
This congress had two consequences for my scientific activities. In a relatively short period in 2003, I wrote voluminous texts about two works of art: the Monument of Independence of Uzbekistan (the so-called “globe” on the main square of Tashkent) and Usto Mumin’s tempera Love, Friendship, Eternity, as it was called at that time. Ultimately, these texts resulted in two long projects. One is an eight-year multimedia project that undertook an extensive exploration of the image of the sphere in representations of power in the history of world culture. Another is a 20-year book project in which I tried to provide a comprehensive analysis of Love, Friendship, Eternity. As can be seen from the combination of a semi-amateur monument erected by direct order of then-President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov and one of the most famous works of art in 20th-century Central Asia, it was not the object of study that was important to me, but the method of analysis itself. At the same time, I can say that Usto Mumin’s works were at the intersection of many areas of my interests. Since my immigration to Canada, I had been interested in cross-cultural hybridities, creative expressions of exile, and gender history, not to mention Central Asian art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Mumin turned out to be the pivotal figure for all these issues.
How would you describe his creative path? Where does such a fine painting come from and how does it combine different worlds—European and Eastern?
Eleonora: Questions of art criticism are not within my sphere of expertise. However, I will answer as I see fit. This synthesis is associated both with the atmosphere of Samarkand, where Nikolaev ended up in the 1920s, and with colleagues who influenced the artist, chief among them Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Daniil Stepanov. Nikolaev, judging by his biography (including his parents’ hobbies) and the recollections of his colleagues, was a knowledgeable man; he knew the history and theory of painting very well.
Boris: This question contains the presumption of a binary structure of the world, which allegedly consists of the East and the West. I don’t have that division in my mind. I prefer to talk not about the amorphous East, supposedly opposed to the West, but about Samarkand, which is unlike other cities in Central Asia, never mind the world as a whole. To describe Samarkand, I don’t need to define it as an eastern city. After all, it is far west of Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, which have never been described as “eastern”. In Samarkand, Nikolaev joined Daniil Stepanov’s circle, the members of which cultivated love for Quattrocento and tried to use his legacy to portray the people of Samarkand. In addition, Usto Mumin’s language combined to varying degrees the influence of Russia’s Silver Age graphics, Persian miniatures, and to a lesser extent Suprematism, as well as Russian icons. I called the search of this group pre-Raphaelite. I showed that Usto Mumin was not the sole inventor of this approach; by the time he appeared in Stepanov’s society, the circle’s aesthetic program was already fully developed. If earlier art historians wrote that Usto Mumin synthesized East and West, I believe that, first of all, he synthesized what such artists as Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Alexei Isupov, and Daniil Stepanov himself had brought to the activities of Stepanov’s circle. Nikolaev was, however, perhaps the only one to add to the program of the Samarkand Pre-Raphaelites the substratum of Persian or Central Asian miniatures. Neither Petrov-Vodkin, Isupov, Stepanov, Nikolai Mamontov, nor Alexander Samokhvalov were ever inspired by this, while Nikolaev experienced a brief surge of interest in it between 1923 and 1927.
Tell us about his stories. In what are they rooted: Persian miniatures, Arabic or local tales, or his own world?
Eleonora: His relocation to Central Asia became a powerful trigger for his artistic nature. Everything you listed; all the influences came together. Certainly, he created his own imaginary world. By the way, my book contains his publication of a legend composed by himself based on the folklore plots of Central Asia. Thus, I state that Usto Mumin was also a literary writer.
Young men in white robes gather in the garden on an autumn night to share slices of ripe pomegranates to music and dance and, having exchanged with others, taste them, drinking water from a large silver bowl. This ritual was supposed to bind the participants in a single circle of friendship.
Boris: Having established that Usto Mumin’s first cycle was based on a very definite narrative, I tried for a long time to establish its basis. In my opinion, there were three possibilities. This plot could be: 1) literary, 2) life, or 3) autobiographical. Although the Persian-language classical literature is full of homoerotic motifs, I did not find a structural correspondence between the lovers from these works, e.g., Saadi or Hafiz, and the young men from Pomegranate Zeal, who ask the permission of a religious person for a ritual entry into a love union that legitimizes their relationship. On the contrary, in the stories of Nikolaev himself and the memoirs of his close friend Galina Kozlovskaia, there are at least two plots from real life that are related to the Samarkand cycle. First, this is the story of two old men whom the artist met in a teahouse next to Shah-i Zinda. The story of their life, which readers will learn about from my book, was one of the triggers for the creation of the tempera Love, Friendship, Eternity. Another plot that influenced Nikolaev remained in the archive memoirs of Galina Kozlovskaia, who described the Pomegranate Zeal ritual as she heard it from Usto Mumin. In her description, young men in white robes gather in the garden on an autumn night to share slices of ripe pomegranates to music and dance and, having exchanged with others, taste them, drinking water from a large silver bowl. This ritual was supposed to bind the participants in a single circle of friendship. It is interesting, however, that the Samarkand cycle of Usto Mumin did not literally reproduce one plot or the other. The personages of the tempera Pomegranate Zeal do not accept new adherents into their ranks, but clearly honor the newly formed couple. In turn, the personages of Love, Friendship, Eternity do not reproduce anything from the plot of the story of the old teahouse owner with his friend, but are only partially associated with them. Finally, one of the drawings of the Samarkand cycle – When I saw Samarkand… – contains an expressive allusion to the inner presence of the artist himself in the scenes he depicts. All these factors indicate that Nikolaev, who did not know Farsi and could not read Persian literature, was inspired not by book plots, but by direct life stories that he witnessed in Samarkand.
You cite several quotes in your book, one of which sounds like the artist’s moral code: “be sincere, be content with little, love yourself and boldly pick forbidden fruits.” Was Usto Mumin a Sufi? How is the philosophy of Sufism reflected in his work? Is there an invisible connection between the artist and the world of mystical Islam?
Eleonora: Usto Mumin was not a Sufi. This is one of the myths that accompanies his biography. My book describes in detail, with references to facts (conversations, interrogations, personal confessions), his initiation into Islam, which was of a purely artistic nature. It was not banter; it was a completely sincere game, the life of an artist. He wanted to organically reincarnate into the Other, to look at the world through the eyes of this Other. There was a new phase coming in his life. He just as sincerely and organically reincarnated into another role.
Boris: I have not been able to find any biographical facts testifying to Usto Mumin being a Sufi. This claim became very popular in the 2000s-2010s, not due to the discovery of new information about the artist, but because society broke with Soviet values and was in search of new points of support. Along the same lines, some art historians at that time managed to present Alexander Volkov as a Sufi mystic, but he was always indifferent to religion and never made any attempts to merge with the Muslim population of Turkestan in clothing, language or lifestyle. Uzbek art at the beginning of the 21st century was going through a stage of intense dervishization: the main characters of Uzbek art were qalandars, hermits drying in the deserts, blissful sleepy vagabonds, as well as birds illustrating the poems of Navoi or Attar. Certainly, Alexander Nikolaev converted to Islam, but there is a significant distance between a Muslim and a Sufi, which the art critics who wrote about Mumin forgot too quickly. The texts of Nigora Akhmedova, Tigran Mkrtychev, and to some degree Eleonora Shafranskaya are full of Sufi interpretations of the artist’s work. However, all these associations seem to me excessively free. In assigning certain Sufi meanings to Mumin’s paintings, the art critics have avoided any documentary analysis of the artist’s thoughts or statements on this matter. As a rule, this was pure fantasy on a topic set by the critics themselves, and not a systemic study of the artist’s intentions.
His work is loaded with scandal because of the obvious homoeroticism. How do you describe it in your book?
Eleonora: The answer to this question can be considered a continuation of the previous one. One of the key words in the title of my book is transformation. The biography of Usto Mumin is a chain of transformations, but not always ones conceived by him. Some transformations were dictated by changes to the paradigm within which he was forced to exist (e.g., from his former social status into a Soviet citizen).
The homoeroticism of a number of plots of his Samarkand works (1920s) is also an imaginary world. This world appears most pronounced in the work Pomegranate Zeal, created in the genre of a hagiographic icon as a narrative about the acquaintance of two young men: their love, wedding, and death.
The main character of this icon is located in the center. Apparently, this is Usto Mumin’s dreaming young man holding a paradise fruit in his hand, an incised pomegranate. The whole plot presented in the hallmarks is imaginary. This is one of the transformations of the artist, his artistic nature. It does not matter whether the transformation is real or imaginary.
Boris: Any erotica remains a phenomenon of psychology and culture. Certainly, I had to take into account that, both in the time of Nikolaev and today, homoerotica is perceived as scandalous in many places.
Some colleagues ask: “Does it matter whether Nikolaev was homosexual or not—what’s the difference?” For me, such indifference is inexplicable. After all, the self-perception of a young man in the process of growing up and his whole subsequent life—which would have developed either according to the prevailing normative gender attitude or in contradiction to it—depends on whether he was or was not. Equally unacceptable to me are attempts to silence homoerotic motifs in the artist’s work.
By the way, the Sufi interpretations appeared in the 2000s and 2010s as a form of camouflage for these motifs. Therefore, I took seriously all the evidence I had collected about the artist’s biography and, based on this factual information, built my own interpretation of both the key facts of Nikolaev’s life and his main artistic cycle. Since I am not religious, I perceive homosexuality as one of the natural attractions and behaviors of a man. I write about this side of the artist’s life calmly, as well as about any other property of his personality. Needless to say, this matter is not scandalous, shameful or embarrassing to me.
In what sense is Usto Mumin an innovator: only in terms of plots or also with regard to technique?
Eleonora: In terms of plots, sure. Usto Mumin portrays young boys. As far back as the 19th century, Russian artists (e.g., Vasily Vereshchagin and Nikolai Karazin) painted Bachas with something of an ethnographic tinge, evoking condemnatory emotions in the viewer. Usto Mumin captures the aesthetic and, apparently, the philosophical facet of this phenomenon, possibly inspired by medieval Sufi poets.
As for technique, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with Boris Chukhovich’s book Friendship, Love, Eternity by Usto Mumin, which was published simultaneously with mine. By the way, an unprecedented fact in history: two books about Usto Mumin were published simultaneously, and the presentation of both took place at the same time in Tashkent.
Boris: Your question fits into a linear system of ideas about progress in art. According to this system, an artist’s work only gains meaning if he succeeds in being an innovator, either in terms of language or in promoting some new artistic content. However, this approach does not reflect the specifics of human sciences, which deals with unique phenomena and often cannot be integrated into some “objective” line of progress without aberrations.
As for Mumin’s technique, it has long roots. He learned it from Daniil Stepanov, who studied the secrets of Renaissance painting for the restoration of old canvases. Nikolaev himself emphasized more than once that this technique coincided with that used by the Samarkand nakkoshi, who painted the walls of houses with traditional patterns. To call this technique innovative would be a clear misunderstanding. As for the subjects, I also trace the genealogy of the depiction of gender-indeterminate couples in the paintings of different countries, from Europe to Iran. Perhaps only the enigmatic plot of Pomegranate Zeal, with the culmination of its 11th scene, the tempera Love, Friendship, Eternity, was truly unique for the Islamic context in which these images appeared.
Overall, what is the artist’s legacy? Did someone imitate him or were his aesthetics banned?
Eleonora: Usto Mumin forbade himself to write on a homoerotic topic. He was aware of the corresponding articles that were introduced into the Criminal Code. Here is a quote from my book:
“The campaign that began in 1933 in the USSR to introduce an article on sodomy into the Criminal Code equated the suspects of homosexuality with spies, counter-revolutionaries. First, they are arrested for homosexuality, after a few years, for counter-revolutionary activity. Most often, the arrests ended in execution.
Whether Nikolaev got into this meat grinder because of his non-traditional orientation, or he was such is unknown, but his interest in the handsome young men who became the heroes on his canvases was probably enough to start the persecution. So, that rumors began to spread, eventually leading to the birth of a myth.”
Nowadays, Usto Mumin is imitated by many artists. Usto Mumin is now in vogue. These days, the Nukus Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition by the artist Djengis Lepesov. These works are seemingly a clear homage to Usto Mumin. Moreover, the museum shop sells crude copies of Usto Mumin’s works made by modern painters.
Boris: Indisputably, Nikolaev came to be criticized with increasing frequency by his contemporaries for the horrifying eroticism of his works, and after his arrest, his art was banned for several years. Since the 1960s, however, it has been gradually rehabilitated and then glorified.
The last chapter of my book shows the influence exerted by Usto Mumin on subsequent generations of artists in Uzbekistan. This influence is paradoxical. On the one hand, many of the leading artists, starting with Chingiz Akhmarov, and then Bakhodir Jalalov and Javlon Umarbekov, consciously or unconsciously created images inspired by the aesthetics of Usto Mumin’s early works. On the other hand, the general muminization of the official art of Uzbekistan during the decades of Islam Karimov’s rule emasculated the inner content of the homosexual love drama narrated by Nikolaev in a coherent sequence of scenes. Only its formal signs remained: slumbering young men with a rose over their ears, birds in cages, and juicy pomegranates.
What does your book reveal for a reader who is not familiar with the spirit of that time?
Eleonora: It is precisely the spirit of the times that is one of the main components of the book. The period broke people; twisted their destinies, mentally and physically; instilled in people a fear that has not been eliminated to this day. Well, and one more thing: my book contains previously unknown facts of the biography of Usto Mumin.
Boris: I would prefer that readers themselves speak on this score. I hope everyone will find something of their own.
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