The Museum of Contemporary Art in Strasbourg, France is currently presenting a selection of work by Kazakh artists.
From the diverse group of artists exhibited, Art Radar handpicks ten exciting Kazakh artists and artist duos you should know.
The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is a land of rich ancestral histories, plural cultures and radical artistic inspirations. The poetically titled exhibition “Life is a Legend” (2014) is a groundbreaking show that reveals a hitherto unknown side of Kazakhstan.
“Life is a Legend”
Kazakhstan’s culture, according to the exhibition press release, 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 […] It is a region where several languages, several religions and several traditions cohabit and where the influence of neighbouring countries […] is clearly visible.
Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Strasbourg, “Life is a Legend” aims to showcase this vitality and diversity of Kazakh culture. Bringing together dynamic works by 17 contemporary Kazakh artists, the exhibition carves out a unique slice of the country’s history by “conjur[ing] up [a] circle of artists working in a crucible that fuses together ancestral history and a radically mutating present”.
Art Radar introduces ten of the 17 artists and artist duos.
Alexander Ugay (b. 1978, Kyzylorda) is currently one of the most active figures in the Kazakh art scene. Educated in St. Petersburg and the University of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Ugay is a photographer, video artist and one of the co-founders of the experimental collective Bronepoez (literally “armoured train”).
The artist comes from a Korean family that was deported to Central Asia in the 1930s; perhaps because of his family history, Ugay is particularly interested in individual and collective memory. To create his works, Ugay uses history-laden recording equipment from the Soviet period. According to the press release, “its attendant unpredictability […] remains fully part of the final work”. Ugay’s works have been exhibited in numerous biennales and international shows.
Saïd Atabekov (b. 1965, Uzbekistan) is a founding member of Kyzyl Traktor (‘Red Tractor’), one of the first avant-garde collectives to be established during the 1980s political reform. A photography and video artist living and working in Kazakhstan, Atabekov creates work which shrewdly subverts traditions and codes, and questions the political legacy of the republics of Central Asia.
In his “Wolves of the Steppes” series, for example, Atabekov subverts the codes of traditional horseback jousting. According to the press release, his works “produce a kind of absurdity reflecting the reality of a society that has lost its bearings”.
3. Smaïl Bayaliev
Also a founding member of Kyzyl Traktor, Smaïl Bayaliev (b. 1952, Iskander, then still Kazakh territory, now in Uzbekistan) is a video artist who trained at the Uzbekistan State Institute of Arts and Culture.
In The Bird Simurg, filmed at the historical Sufi Mosque of Hodja Akhmed Yassawi in Turkestan, Bayaliev dresses in an Asian tunic, carries a Soviet gas mask, and goes through the pages of a huge book made of syrmaks – Kazakh woollen carpets. Overhead, the image of a flock of birds flying is superimposed on top of the artist. The artist’s bio in the press release states that the juxtaposition “suggest[s] loss of the sacred and the merging of tradition”.
4. Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbay
Living and working in Almaty, Kazakhstan, artist duo Galim Madanov (b. 1958) and Zauresh Terekbay (b. 1964) work simultaneously in painting/installation and film, combining their expertise to create internationally acclaimed works.
Transgression, an installation that was presented in the pavilion of Central Asia during the 54th Venice Biennale, consists of over 300 small paintings taken from newspapers, magazines and items from everyday popular culture such as the user manuals of toys. Displayed in shelves like goods in a stall, the paintings represent symbols of our time.
5. Elena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev
Elena Vorobyeva (b. 1959, Nebit-Dag, Turkmenistan) and Viktor Vorobyev (b. 1959, Pavlodar, Kazakhstan) are writers, visual artists and independent exhibition curators who first appeared as an artist duo in the 1990s. Their artworks directly challenge and unsettle the viewer using irony and humour.
The Bazar 2.0 installation, for example, which features over 30 oversized outdated personal photographs displayed on pedestals, evokes the feeling of walking through a market in Kazakhstan. The work alludes to a time when many had to sell personal items as a means of survival – a time when Kazakhstan still belonged to the USSR.
A graduate of the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, Yerbossyn Meldibekov (b. 1964, Chymkent Kazakhstan) is passionately committed to political art. He often employs violent, shocking and disturbing imagery to depict Kazakhstan’s stormy history and its complex relationship with the Western world.
Yet, his message goes deeper than the violence; the press release states that “[b]eneath the brutality of his pictures or gestures can be read an aspiration to distance, even lightness, a form of flight beyond the mediocrity of reality”.
Also a graduate of the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, Almagul Menlibayeva (b. 1969, Almaty) now lives and works in Berlin and Amsterdam. She established her presence in the international art scene several years ago with her assertive aestheticism and mythical portrayal of the steppe landscapes of Central Asia.
Menlibayeva’s beautiful images evoke ancient myths while also reminding audiences of current environmental disasters. In addition, her works question the representation of women: the press release writes that “My Silk Road oscillates between a traditional Kazakh representation of women and a Western one”.
Oksana Shatalova (b. 1972) is a writer and independent curator who has been developing a career as a photographer and video artist. Shatalova’s works question the Soviet legacy “through the prism of the individual”, zooming in with a feminist angle as well as a critique of capitalism.
East Woman (Woman-Loop) is a powerful conceptual piece showing a head of hair which turns into a hangman’s knot, evoking the uneasy mingling of sensuality and menace. As the exhibition press release puts it, Shatalova “addresses Kazakh society, its history, its representations, its excesses and deadlocks, confronting it with universal questions”.
9. Georgy Tryakhin-Bukharov
Russian born Georgy Tryakhin-Bukharov (b. 1943, Nizhneudinsk, Russia) is the oldest artist to participate in the exhibition. The press release describes him as a “flagship artist of the protest generation that shook the Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1980s”.
Currently living and working in Amalty, Tryakhin-Bukharov uses everyday objects and scrap material to create sculptures and installations with a political angle. Visible in his oeuvre are the legacies of pop art, conceptual art and readymades. His works are often witty, humorous and richly layered with historical, political and mythological references.
Behind ZITABL are two artists: Zitta Sultanbaeva (b. 1964), who is also an art critic and journalist; and Ablikim Akmullaev (b. 1965, Almaty), who is also a musician. Both artists work with photography, video and performance, and the duo has participated in numerous group exhibitions in Kazakhstan and abroad, including the 52nd Venice Biennale.
In the series “Eggheads”, which the artwork Les Propagandistes is a part of, Sultanbaeva and Akmullaev used photographs from their family archives and masked faces with eggs. According to the press release, eggs are “the symbol of life in their mythological archetype but also an allusion to the ‘Soviet incubator’ [that] eras[ed] all individuality for almost a century”.
- Think global, ‘art’ local: Curators discuss contemporary curatorial practice – conference – May 2014 – Eminent international curators discuss the role of art and curating in Asia in the radio show “Urgency and Relevance: A Curatorial Perspective” aired on Clocktower Productions
- Central Asia in focus at Art Dubai: Marker 2014 – in pictures – March 2014 – The Marker section of Art Dubai 2014 featured art from Central Asia and the Caucasus region, curated by the art collective Slavs and Tatars
- 5 books that inspired our art practice – Slavs and Tatars, Central Asia – November 2013 – London-based Central Asian artists Slavs and Tatars talk to Art Radar about five books that have influenced their art practice, including Tolz’s ‘Russia’s Own Orient’ and Ricoeur’s ‘On Translation’
- Curator Rosa Maria Falvo on emerging Central Asian art scene – interview – December 2009 – Art Radar catches up with Rosa Maria Falvo, an independent Italian-Australian based curator whose project “East of Nowhere” showcased artworks from Central Asia
- East of Nowhere, important exhibition of rare post Soviet Central Asian art in Italy – August 2009 – The exhibition “East of Nowhere: Contemporary Art from post-Soviet Central Asia” features over 100 works of 32 artists and groups from a region that has been a hotbed of cultural and political upheaval
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