Art collective Slavs and Tatars reveal five books that inspired their art practice.
From orientalist theory to advice for princes, London-based Central Asian artists Slavs and Tatars list five books that have inspired their artistic practice.
Slavs and Tatars, founded in 2006, define themselves as “a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China”, otherwise known as Eurasia. The collective’s work spans various media, disciplines and, as they say, “a broad spectrum of cultural registers (high and low) focusing on an oft-forgotten sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.”
They have had solo exhibitions at the MoMA, New York, group exhibitions at Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, as well as the Sharjah Biennale, Gwangju Biennial and Mercosul Biennial. In 2013, their work was part of “Love me Love Me Not“, the Central Asian pavillion at the Venice Biennale.
Literature and text influence Slavs and Tatars, and the collective has published several books, including Kidnapping Mountains (Book Works, 2009), Not Moscow Not Mecca (Revolver/Secession, 2012), Khhhhhhh (Mousse/Moravia Gallery, 2012), Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz (Book Works, 2013) as well as their translation of the legendary Azeri satire Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve (JRP-Ringier, 2011).
Art Radar asked Slavs and Tatars for the five books which have had the greatest impact on their art practice and philosophy.
Wisdom of Royal Glory: A Turko-Islamic Mirror for Princes by Yusuff Khass Hajib, translation by Robert Dankoff
A form of political writing (often called advice literature) shared by Christian and Muslim lands, in particular during the Middle Ages but also with notable examples in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the mirrors for princes attempted to elevate statecraft (dawla) to the same level as faith or religion (din). These guides for future rulers address the delicate balance between seclusion and society, spirit and state, echoes of which we continue to find in the United States, Europe and the Middle East several centuries later.
Found in Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Central Asia (Seljuk, Samanid and Ghazvanid Khorasan), the mirrors for princes resonate with our practice in so far as they bring together in one volume several disciplines (political science, mysticism, astrology, folk tales) otherwise considered incommensurate. The mirrors for princes genre also skewers contemporary society, with its incontinent interest in self-help books, addressing this very need for advice literature, only on a more macro, sustainable if not community-focused scale: through the prism of an entire nation.
Written in Kashgar in the eleventh century, Yusuf Khass Hajib’s Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal) is a work in the medieval mirrors-for-princes genre but written in exquisite verse. The book aimed to put Turkic ideas of statecraft and literature on an equal footing with its counterparts in the Arabic and Persian traditions (interestingly enough, the reverse if similar gesture to Romanisation itself). Its importance is difficult to overstate: Kutadgu Bilig is to Turkish what Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is to Persian, Beowulf to English, or even The Iliad to Greek.
Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis by Norman Brown
Brown famously brought Sigmund Freud to bear on the Gospel, William Blake and Karl Marx before his real coup — reading James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake through the sura of the Qur’an (“Joyce quotes the title of exactly 111 of the 114 suras of the Qu’ran”). Before the early twentieth century and before the arrival of Finnegan’s Wake in particular, Brown claims it was impossible for a Westerner to read the Qur’an. Only through the similar confusion of characters, the similarly unyielding dictums of Joyce’s modernist mountain could one begin to understand the holy book of Mohammed.
Russia’s Own Orient by Vera Tolz
Tolz’s book offers a compelling counterpoint to the often monolithic Saidian discourse on orientalism, by focusing on Russian and Eastern European studies of the East. Essentially ‘eastern’ or Russian or Soviet orientalism differed from Said’s object of investigation (namely French and English) in three fundamental ways:
- Russians did not travel to distant lands like the English or French, but to their neighbours who not too long ago had in fact ruled them (cf. Tatar Mongol hordes or yoke from thirteenth to the fifteenth century). Which partially explains why the Russians did not have the same unflinching delusion of a civilising mission as the English or French.
- Despite the power dynamics and oppression (if not obliteration) of certain ethnic groups, the Soviets had to at least pay lip service to being anti-colonial as per their anti-imperialist ideology.
- The Russians immediately trained local (Tajik, Uzbek, Dagestani, etc) scholars as part of their education programme or ideology to liberate ‘smaller’ nations so this problematises the slippery slope of identity politics.
Much of this was due to the fact that Russian Orientalist scholarship had its origins in German Orientalism, which had always been more removed from politics than its European counterparts (often studying ‘dead’ languages or ancient civilisations) not to mention their comparatively limited imperial outreach.
Anwar Abdel-Malek, who ascribed to the above distinction ‘black’ or ‘white Russian’ and ‘western’ orientalism, anticipated Said by some fifteen years and influenced the latter. In any case, Said’s book came out in 1979, and its coincidence with the Iranian Revolution resulted inadvertently in a sudden and significant loss of resources or funding for any kind of scholarship related to the Middle East and Muslim lands, for fear of being singled out as an Orientalist or simply because the royal patronage of Iran had disappeared.
On Translation by Paul Ricoeur
All of 66 pages, this small booklet packs a punch on the idea of translation as a form of linguistic hospitality. Ricoeur’s look at translation as “a point of commerce–if not always a resolution–between ostensibly irreconcilable viewpoints” resonates immensely with our practice, with what we call the metaphysical splits, the ability to bring together the seemingly mutually exclusive or antithetical, all the more urgent in our increasingly partisan age.
My Past and Thoughts by Alexander Herzen
My Past and Thoughts, an eight-volume autobiography, has become a quiet benchmark of the art of recollection. The differing scale of tragedy – whether his son’s premature death or the failure of the 1848 revolutions – is not approached with pincers or shelved but explored intimately, with a sense of urgency in his very language. Herzen has been almost entirely eclipsed by his contemporary Marx, whose categorical and highly structural thought has been more actionable than Herzen’s preference for subtlety, sophistication and contradiction. If you’ve got an MBA, Marx is your man. Everyone else, turn to Herzen.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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